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Tessaro's hearth is home to famed burger's fans

Thursday, April 06, 2000

By Virginia Phillips

My friend Barry Samuels and his wife, Charelle, of Shadyside have taken their kids to Tessaro's for years.

The Harrington clan keeps Tessaro's on it toes: from left, father Dennis, and his children, city magistrate Moira Harrington, and Kelly and Ena Harrington. Kelly and Ena are part-owners of Tessaro's with their mother, Tee (for Tresa). (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

"What do you like to eat there, Barry," I ask.

He grimaces apologetically. "I can't get past the burger," he says. "What is it about that burger?"

The burger is feisty. It has swept the city's best burger awards regularly since Kelly Harrington, his sister Ena Harrington and their mother "Tee" (for Tresa) Harrington, took over the Bloomfield hard-wood bar and grill from Richie Tessaro in 1984.

Part of the mystique derives from a daily visit by a fireman with a handlebar mustache. At dawn or at dusk, Dominic Piccola, slips through the back door and spends an hour or two in the restaurant basement.

Why he makes these stops and how they affect the near cult interest in the Tessaro burger relates to a crisis a few years back that had Kelly in a "nail-gripping fight with himself."

The butcher shop across the street, long-time supplier of the restaurant's custom-ground beef, abruptly closed. Its butcher was Dominic Piccola. Kelly despaired. He tested some 15 purveyors. "Nothing tasted the same."

He determined to grind the meat daily in-house. He lined up several suppliers -- never to be dependent on only one again -- to deliver chuck and steaks in bulk to the door.

And, he says, "as fate and God would have it," he found Piccola, by now employed as a city fireman, to moonlight as butcher.

The famed half-pound burger was back on track.

Some 400 are grilled on a busy day, patted into shape one by one, never pre-formed or frozen.

"The mix is 15 to 20 percent fat," Kelly says, "with steak and filet trimmings mixed in. It's consistent, because the same guy is doing it all the time."

The grill is a factor, too. Designed by John Walter of Eden Works, a wrought-iron design studio on Liberty Avenue not far from the restaurant, the grill's hearth takes such punishment it is replaced several times a year. The hardwood comes from an employee's brother's trees.

Also key is the grill team. With a dozen years or so of practice each, they need just a glance to tell when the burger is within a half-degree of what the customer has ordered. Their hands know when they've grabbed enough extra ground meat -- about an ounce -- so that a well-done patty finishes at eight ounces, the same as the rare, which cooks faster and hotter, losing less moisture and fat.

Qualms about eating burgers red? Share them with Tessaro patron Dr. Bruce Dixon, director of the Allegheny County Board of Health. "He's here a couple of times a week," Kelly says. "And eats 'em rare."

More than the burger

If you go ...

Tessaro's, 4601 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield, (412) 682-6809

Hours: 11 a.m to midnight. No reservations. Closed on Sundays.


The burger is the media hog but not the whole story.

You see 'em on the way in, you see 'em on the way out.

The holy trinity, that is. There is Kelly, black-bearded and bear-muscled, with an amiable side-of-the-mouth growl and booming laugh, looking the Villanova defenseman that he was. Unflappable mom, a "noir" portrait in black pantsuit and pageboy, emeralds and Irish wit sparkling. Sister Ena, shaggy-cropped ex-lawyer, tomboy shirttails flying, covering details from personnel to produce and grabbing a conversation when she can.

You are guaranteed at least one Harrington at the door to greet you and seat you when things are three deep at the bar.

The tsunami rolls over between 7 and 9 when everybody wants to eat and drink at the same time.

Reservations are not taken, but a horde of hungry people with no immediate place to put them doesn't bother Tee. She raised nine kids. She calls it a taffy-pull. Seating is high art for Kelly, too. It takes concentration, says Tee, especially in bad weather: "If you don't get to them before they shed hats and coats, they look all different and you can't remember who they are."

Behind the bar, Jimmy Teitz calls out, "Something to drink while you wait?" Grabbing the 1.5 liter chardonnay by its base, he thrusts the neck deep into an 8-ounce wine glass, glug, glug glass full, yanks it out, and plunges it into the next.

"Got to get the cyclone going," he says happily. Imperturbable waitresses shimmy through the crush.

If you are starving, watch for a place to eat at the bar. From your catbird seat, you'll see comings and goings and the fast-paced choreography behind the counter. The hard-wood grill has perfumed the neighborhood for a block around. Taste buds are primed.

No tuna tartare on square plates here. It's the legendary half-pound burger with more accessories than a Land Rover, meltingly simple Chilean sea bass, seared tuna salad with Dijon vinaigrette pork chops. Ribs on Thursday, Mexican stuff on Monday. A blackboard lists soups and grilled meat and fish specials.

Don't look for swordfish; Ena, the finicky fish buyer, is also an environmentalist. It's been banned from the menu. The Chilean sea bass, also in dwindling supply, may soon be, too. She tells Benkovitz, their seafood supplier, "Don't call me unless the fish are over 20 pounds."

Tessaro's is low-key Bloomfield on the outside -- a black-awninged corner bar and grill. Indoors, there's the happy din, pink neon on the old oak bar bathing everything and everyone in a flattering glow. Native son R. W. Apple, in a New York Times article last year on Pittsburgh's attractions, called Tessaro's "a joint with no attitude, Sam Adams on draft, decadently juicy half-pound burgers cooked on a hard-wood grill and plenty of good cheer."

Tables, denim-clad, nudge each other, close enough for conversation if you want. This is bistro theater, with seating for 80.

Toss Pittsburgh in a can and shake it out: all ages, outlooks and complexions unite over a burger. Tattooed kids in backwards baseball hats, East Enders in faded madras, professors, brokers and guys from the car wash, lean and hungry ballet dancers, suburban venturers, firefighters and families.

A group of doctors stage an impromptu Dixie jam session one night in the front window. Visiting film crews hang out at the bar.

Check out the walls in the new section, added when the building next door was annexed, where murals by Tee depict the Harrington brood and the restaurant family. In the middle is "smiling Dennis," the Harrington patriarch, now mostly retired from a busy Ross Street law office. It's fun to match up the real and painted people. Harrington offspring, besides Kelly and Ena, include Myles, the "baby," busy launching an on-line municipal bond-bidding company; Moira, a Pittsburgh traffic court judge; Shawn, in Jakarta, exporting Indonesian luxury furniture and fabrics; Lisa, a May Company executive in Houston; and "Mike," the globe-trotting daughter, organizer of exotic safaris.

God is in the details

A waitress struggles to hear over the happy din at Tessaro's bar. The half-pound burgers are the main reasons patrons flock to the Bloomfield bar and grill. The best custom-ground with a mix of 15 to 20 percent fat. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

The Harrington flair for celebrating individuality -- their own and yours -- shows up in the service, as well as in the food.

Waitresses translate scrawled notes into a computer equipped by Ena to address each customer's whim: fried onions on half a hamburger, blue cheese and bacon on the other. Want to share a burger? Order one half cold inside for Cannibal Bob, your half will stay on the grill longer. Split a side order: half coleslaw, half home fries. Ask for home fries extra dark, if that's your thing. Only half a glass of wine, no problem.

Kelly, who says he "played bartender when his sisters were playing with dolls," tries to put "something good in a glass." Tessaro's bar wines include Rabbit Ridge, at $4.50 a glass, a label the restaurant "probably sells more of than anyone in the city." It's Tessaro priority to keep imported beer prices low, like St. Pauli Girl at $3. A big seller is Iron City Light on draft at $2.

Sporadic gongs in the background signal an order ready for pickup. Only three or four plates squeeze into the staging area, so food is served fast and hot.

Paper napkins, heavy as drop cloths, stand up to the messiest ribs.

Soups -- cream of chicken, double bean, or pepper and sausage -- are hot and hearty, except for a sparkling gazpacho. Soups change daily. Devotees can receive Tee's schedule to be sure of showing up for their favorites.

Any of the owners can be spotted clearing tables. It's their fetish so that you won't contemplate (or smell) the wreckage of a finished plate.

There's no dessert on the menu, but for a rite of passage in your party, you might see Kelly amble next door to the El Dolce Cafe to retrieve a piece of whipped cream cake. Failing that, a toothpick skewer of marshmallows may be grilled to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Come August, regulars may receive a gift: a plate of sliced homegrown Rutgers tomatoes from Tee's North Hills garden, topped with Gorgonzola and balsamic vinegar.

Things don't change

The menu, inspired by the Tee's memories of her mom, "a grand cook" who used no recipes, is tweaked but never overhauled. Prices don't change much either. A Tessaro burger with all the trimmings, and a side is $6.50. Fish, steaks and chops, with salad and a side dish, are $14 to $18. Soup, $3.50 a bowl.

If you're a long-time customer, and you think employee faces almost never change, you are right.

"It's the same ones all the time," Tee says. "We treat 'em special. We say, 'You make our life better.' We are completely dependent on them."

Virginia Phillips is a free-lance writer and translator who lives in Mount Lebanon.

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