The National Restaurant Association has made its predictions for popular food trends in 2007. And number two on the 'hot' list is locally grown produce. From Maggie's Mercantile in the Laurel Highlands, to the Big Burrito group in Pittsburgh, a growing number of regional restaurants are offering all kinds of local foods. The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan visited a fine dining restaurant just outside Pittsburgh that's focusing on fresh, local and organic fare.
RESTAURANT AMBIENT FADE UP
WAITRESS: And for you, Mr. Botos?
STEPHEN BOTOS: I will have the Kobe beef, the turtle bean...
JORDAN: Stephen and Carole Botos are dining out at their usual Saturday night spot: Bona Terra. They've had a standing reservation at this restaurant outside Pittsburgh for two years. How did Bona Terra gain such customer loyalty?
CAROLE BOTOS: There's a lot of things we like about it. First of all the food. It's exceptionally good.
STEPHEN BOTOS: And the fact that he's using fresh ingredients.
JORDAN: Chef and owner Douglass Dick goes out of his way to find fresh greens, local meats, as well as organic items. He typically shops farm markets himself and writes menus at the last minute based on the day's finds. The restaurant's name -- Bona Terra -- Latin for good earth, reflects this commitment.
Dick's one of a growing number of restaurateurs focused on local and pesticide-free foods because more customers are asking for these types of ingredients. Many argue that fresher, less treated and processed foods taste better, too. Dick discovered this when worked at an organic food purveyor.
DICK: Local farmers used to bring their products in, and it really surprised me, number one, how much is grown in western PA and the difference in taste, quality, how long it holds. It makes all the difference in the world to have something picked that day. It'll last a lot longer than something that was shipped all the way across the country and by the time it gets to you it's either past its prime, or it's not ripe at all.
JORDAN: Even now, when winter's arrived in the Northeast, Dick says it's not as hard as one might think to find regional ingredients. Back in the kitchen, he whips up dishes with regional foods.
DICK: This is the time of year when you need to change your cooking styles. There is a lot of root vegetables still out there that traditionally people have eaten for this time of year.
DICK: This is probably a four pound pork roast been on for an hour, hour 10 mins. Keep it moist add a little bit of extra flavor. To me one of the great flavor combinations is pork and apples.
JORDAN: The pork is from Penns Corner Farm Alliance based in Indiana County. The apple cider he's using to glaze it came from Paul's Orchard in Gibsonia. Collard greens simmering with bacon and onions on a back burner were grown at Mildred's Daughters farm in Pittsburgh.
Root vegetables like baby carrots and collard greens might not sound mouth-watering, but in Dick's hands, they're rich and delicious. Even to a meat and potatoes man, a former steelworker like my dad who's visiting the restaurant with me.
PETE JORDAN: Now what are these greens here I'm eating?
DICK: Those are the collard greens.
JENNIFER JORDAN: Have you ever had 'em? No. MMM You like them? Hahaha.
PETE JORDAN: I can't believe I'm eating anything like this and liking it.
JORDAN: As well as he can cook a collard, Dick can't afford to be a purist.
Customers expect items like the well-marbled and tender Kobe beef. The chef says that at this point local beef of this quality is impossible to get in Pennsylvania year-round. So he orders that from Colorado.
And while he tries to educate, and even convince diners to try local foods, sometimes they just aren't interested. Like the time he prepared a locally grown green heirloom tomato appetizer and a waitress returned it to the kitchen.
DICK: She said she refuses to eat it. She knows that tomatoes are red.
JORDAN: Still, Carole and Steve Botos, and many others, keep coming back.
DICK: They could probably get the same food somewhere else but it's not going to have the same freshness, the same local ties. It keeps the money here. It supports the small farmer.
JORDAN: And it's keeping Dick and his staff of 10 busy.
MARK: 'Welcome to Bona Terra...Unfortunately I'm fully booked for both seatings.' And I do that hundreds and hundreds of times a day.
JORDAN: For The Allegheny Front, I'm Jennifer Szweda Jordan.