Chef Gaetano Ascione

    Chef Gaetano Ascione

    Jean Louis, a Parisian bistro, is a most welcome upscale addition to the “restaurant row” that extends through Mt. Lebanon and Dormont along Route 19.

    The cuisine at Jean Louis presents the best in bistro food. That is not an easy-to-define term. However, broadly speaking, Parisian bistros feature classic French home-style cooking. Comfort food, in a sense: pâtés, soups, stews, snails, pan seared fish, creative salads from readily available ingredients. The winter menu at Jean Louis—there will be a spring/summer one—includes such favorites as Coq au Vin (chicken in red wine sauce) and Tuite Amandine (trout with almonds).

    The establishment is the creation of Italian-born international Chef Gaetano Ascione and the Indian-born owners of Needle & Pin where Jean Louis is now located. Introduced by a mutual friend, the group quickly bonded and just as quickly agreed on the need for an authentic French food establishment in the South Hills. The very French name is in honor of Chef Jean-Louis Palladin, the late, revered food maestro whom Chef Ascione refers to as “a genius.”

    Ascione, whose résumé is as long as a baguette, is exquisitely qualified to shepherd the creation of a new restaurant. Some highlights of his professional life are serving presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan; being executive chef in establishments in his native Italy, South Korea, and South Africa—where he managed the Inaugural Banquet for President Nelson Mandela—plus consulting for the prestigious Taj Mahal Group of Hotels in India. Multiple recognitions include Michelin- and Zagat-rated restaurants, plus the Italian government designation of Italian Cuisine Master Chef.

    Ascione talked with The Strip! magazine in an ebullient manner with total frankness about a range of topics. The most obvious question is why he brought his prodigious talents to Pittsburgh. “Why not?” was his reply. He says that there are so many different cuisines in Pittsburgh, and have been for years, but that the French culinary tradition is just now ramping up. He finds it exciting to be part of the escalation.

    Ascione notes that “except for cheeses and some of the very dried aged beef” you can find almost everything here. He is especially taken by the easy availability of unusual mushrooms and Jamison lamb. According to Ascione, it was Palladin who “discovered” Jamison, bringing it to the attention of the wider culinary world.

    Jean Louis Parisian Bistro

    Obviously not everything can be sourced locally: “I wanted to use ingredients that I think make a difference. I had to scramble to find pork belly for my signature dish.” He gets a Berkshire type black pig from Idaho.

    Another problem was, amazingly, potatoes. “It was a challenge to find potatoes,” recalls Ascione. “Everybody here uses yellow or Idaho because they weren’t exposed to different things as I was; most chefs here haven’t lived outside of Western Pennsylvania. I wanted Kennebec potatoes out of Maine, which I knew about because I worked with a company in New York that supplied them.” (They fry crisper while clarifying the oil.)

    Ascione is not one to jump into food fads. For instance, not everything is made in house because the results cannot meet his exacting standards. Pasta, as an example, requires a drying room to reach perfection. Homemade puff pastry, as another example, can result in an uneven distribution of butter and flour. Chef Ascione does make his own sauces and demi-glacés, but he doesn’t try to duplicate the ancienne cuisine, the grand classical tradition. “There’s nothing that we can use from them now,” he states. “Consommé requires a side of beef. Nobody does that.”

    There is no fusion food either, although Ascione admits to sometimes using Shichimi Togarashi, a Japanese seven-spice powder. “I like many different cuisines,” he notes. “I respect them. But I don’t cross boundaries.”  His varied dishes reflect terroir, which loosely translates as “regional.” For example, cassoulet, that wonderful bean-based dish, may have goose and lamb sausage in Gascony but pork and duck in Toulouse.

    Ascione has three big projects for the future. One is to develop a lunch menu. A second is to make three luxury foodstuffs—truffles, caviar, and ethically raised foie gras, affordable at a bistro-to-go. He says that there are ways to do it. “In Florence, they do truffle panini. I got the recipe. It’s 90 percent potatoes with some truffles and truffle oil.”  The beauty of the dish is that it tastes just like truffles without the traditional, and very expensive, thin slices of whole truffles. A third project includes very exciting, very welcome plans to develop a much-needed cooking school to be offered at the restaurant.

    Philosophically, Ascione aligns with the advice from French chefs he has worked with to keep the flavor as close as possible to how the Creator made the food. That is done by keeping it simple; by being rustic (fancy is not necessary); and presenting “brutal”—what you see is what you get.

    The result is authentic French flavor pleasure.

    Welcome to the South Hills, Chef Ascione. We are delighted to have you here.

    Jean Louis Parisian Bistro

    Jean Louis Parisian Bistro
    3271 W. Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15216

    412-207-9724 / jeanlouispgh.com

    Cynthia F. Weisfield is a freelance writer whose articles about art and food appear regularly in multiple publications. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and has recently completed a biography about noted abstract expressionist artist Sonia Gechtoff. She lives in Mt. Lebanon.
    Photography by Greger Erickson