The first question I wanted to ask Cioppino co-owners Chuck Hammel and Tom Trimm was an obvious one: Where did the name come from and what exactly is “cioppino”? “The guy I opened up the restaurant with initially—his name was Angelo. He just liked the name,” explains Hammel when referring to Angelo Lamatrice, who helped him launch the Strip’s Railroad Street restaurant and cigar bar a decade and a half ago. “It was just a name for an Italian seafood stew.”

    The even-more-obvious question for Hammel—who is the president of transportation and logistics-services giant PITT OHIO—was, Why did someone in the trucking and logistics industry decide to open a restaurant? “I had bought the Armstrong Cork Factory before that and found some partners to develop what would become The Cork Factory,” Hammel says of the building he developed into a chic loft apartment community. “At the time, there was ‘nothing,’ and I said if people are going to live here, they need someplace to get a bite to eat.”

    Besides a love for dining out with his wife and enjoying good food, Hammel admits he was venturing into uncharted waters when it came to the restaurant business. He turned to friend and attorney Tom Trimm to help navigate the venture and the two are still co-owners 15 years later. “The first thing we realized was that neither one of us knew a thing about restaurants,” laughs Trimm. He stresses that the inspiration was always the Strip District, which has a special place in Hammel’s heart. “My grandfather started a company called Hammel’s Express and that’s the company I worked for, my dad worked for, for many years, and they were located over on the North Side,” he remembers. That business and others were relocated to the Strip to make room for Three Rivers Stadium. “We’ve been here ever since. From the time I was pretty much a kid, I’ve been coming to the Strip and I also came to work with my dad. The Strip was so different back then; it was very industrial but had been pretty much abandoned.”

    PITT OHIO Express celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1999 by opening a new corporate headquarters in the Strip District. “I remember at one point, Chuck and I were standing at the corner of Railroad and 23rd just looking around us and thinking we were on the frontier,” Trimm says. Fifteen years later, the area around Cioppino has undergone many changes but the restaurant has thrived, has made slight tweaks here and there, and has always offered an inventive, inviting menu. “It’s a marvelous place to be right now,” says Trimm.

    General Manager Dana Zinsser.

    General Manager Dana Zinsser.

    Part of what makes Cioppino so successful and a continuous neighborhood favorite is the right combination of people—call it the perfect recipe for success. One of those main ingredients is General Manager Dana Zinsser, a born and bred Pittsburgher who moved back home for this position three and a half years ago. “I’ve never met someone who loves the Strip as much as Chuck does,” says Zinsser. “This is one of those industries for which you have to have a lot of passion. You’ve got to love it or you won’t last. Chuck and Tom have a passion for it, and they have a passion for the people too. They run a really good business.” The restaurant business is notoriously tough, but Zinsser credits the co-owners with making employees feel like family and with really taking care of employees with perks such as daily staff meals and insurance benefits after one year of employment. “I believe in supporting the employees especially when the chips are down,” Hammel says. “What are you doing when things aren’t going so well? That really shows the character of the company.”

    Another key ingredient in the staffing recipe comes in the kitchen where Executive Chef Robert Carter is at the helm; he has been a mainstay on the Cioppino staff for a dozen years. Carter is originally from Detroit, where his mom owned a soul-food restaurant. Known affectionately as “RC,” Carter is one of only a few African-American executive chefs in the area—and the formula seems even more special since he’s teamed with a female general manager. “We are a unique blend,” says Zinsser. “To be honest with you, I have never worked so well with a chef in my life. He is probably one of the best chefs I’ve worked with.”

    Executive Chef Robert Carter.

    Executive Chef Robert Carter.

    How do you describe Cioppino? “I think fine dining can be a little bit intimidating, and we don’t have that feel,” Zinsser says. “We just have an elevated feel, but it is really a local restaurant. A lot of Pittsburghers and just a lot of people who live in the Strip come here daily or weekly, so we kind of have a neighborhood feel”—and of course there are the incredible food, creative cocktails, and a wildly popular Saturday brunch (yes, Saturday!). “We try to remember your name and we do sort of everything local, which I always try to promote as well,” she adds, emphasizing that around 90 percent of the products they bring in house come either from the Strip District or the local area.

    Back to that cioppino recipe, which Zinsser insists is one of her menu favorites (along with RC’s amazingly tender short ribs). The cioppino is not stewed in a traditional way. “Our chefs decided to take that to the next elevated level, where they literally cook every piece of it individually,” Zinsser adds. The perfect broth is then poured tableside for you, so the seafood doesn’t get mushy.

    Trimm notes the one thing that has probably changed the makeup of Cioppino’s customer base more than anything else was adding live music. “We have live music two to three days a week and the lounge area is jammed,” he says. “It’s still quite heavily populated by the neighborhood, but it’s also people coming to hear the jazz and blues so it’s a kind of extra flavor in the place.”

    They renovated the outdoor patio area two years ago and it’s hugely popular now. To top things off, sneak down to the attached Cigar Bar after dinner and treat yourself to a nightcap. You may not have even noticed it’s there, with its somewhat hidden speakeasy vibe. Again, slightly elevated but with a welcoming, neighborhood feel. “We’ve always tried to operate as an affordable neighborhood restaurant,” says Trimm, “even though we’re shooting for the high-end quality.” That aim has served Cioppino well over the years, and it’s clear the neighborhood, surrounding Strip community, and Pittsburgh-area diners have embraced it.

    October marks Cioppino’s 15th year in business. Stop in to help celebrate and enjoy some delicious seafood, steaks, and seasonal dishes paired with a lively brunch and live music scene. You’ll find Cioppino at 2350 Railroad Street in the Strip.

    Kristin Emery is CBS Pittsburgh/KDKA-TV’s First Alert meteorologist and a contributing writer/columnist for the Observer-Reporter.