By Carol Fryday, Bloomfield Development Corporation
It’s a Friday night and the line at Tessaro’s is out the door. Inside expectant diners stand three deep at the bar waiting for a table while waitresses in black aprons skillfully navigate the crowd, serving those already seated at one of the booths along the wall.
Despite the usual weekend crush, Tessaro’s has always been well worth the wait, but an expansion into the building next door should help alleviate the overflow.
The new space, which is the culmination of five years of meticulous planning, will include a brick-walled party room and a courtyard charmingly tucked inside an enclave of row houses.
When Kelly Harrington bought Tessaro’s in 1985, he kept the bar’s name, but changed the menu. Harrington was on a quest to perfect the hamburger, and he succeeded admirably, developing a recipe that calls for a proprietary blend of Choice-grade chuck, shoulder, brisket, short ribs, spencer steak, New York Strip and filet, all of which are freshly ground together each morning by in-house butcher, Dominic Piccola.
This meat is then cooked over an open flame burning cured hardwoods, including oak, maple, and hickory, that produce temperatures ranging anywhere between 400 and 600 degrees. On any given weekend night, Courtney MacFarland, who has headed the cooking staff for over 28 years, grills up to 550 burgers to order.
For those who enjoy dinner theater, Courtney and crew also serve up a nightly performance that can be seen through a large window in the main dining room. Customers can watch as wood is fed into hearth, the meat is hand formed into half-pound patties and then seared on the grill, and the cooks control the resulting flames the only way they can, by beating them back with water.
Given that the restaurant has been serving burgers that food critics put on the short list of best in the U.S., it’s not surprising that on weekends it’s standing room only.
This is the second addition to the restaurant, which was originally housed at 4601 Liberty Avenue, a narrow brick storefront on the corner of Liberty and Taylor. To accommodate a growing clientele, Harrington bought the building next door, knocked out walls, and incorporated that space into the restaurant in 1995. He later purchased a third, adjacent building, as well as two buildings in the back, but tragically passed away in 2009 before realizing his plans to expand yet again.
Today, 30 years after Kelly first opened Tesssaro’s, his sisters, Moira and Mike, are carrying out their brother’s vision. With the blessing of their mother, Tee, who now owns the restaurant, the sisters began working on the addition in 2010.
This required jumping through a number of bureaucratic hoops, including applying for an extension of the liquor license; requesting an exception to use the space behind the building for commercial, rather than residential, purposes; and an exemption from the zoning board to incorporate the new building and the four backyards into the business.
Additionally, before they could apply for a building permit, they had to procure a sidewalk café permit, an encroachment permit, a permit to consolidate the lots, and a plumbing permit. They also spoke with several neighborhood organizations, including the Bloomfield Development Corporation, to determine if there were any objections to their plans.
The Harringtons also applied for, and were awarded, two Streetface Grants from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh. This program pays up to 30% of the cost of improving and extending a commercial building’s façade.
The first grant will be used to allay the cost of exterior improvements along Liberty Avenue, including new windows, lighting, and signage. A second will be used to install a new window, door, and awning along the side of the building that faces Taylor Street.
After the contractor broke ground on the project last summer, the back yards were excavated and a French drain was installed to allow for drainage before pavers were laid for the patio. In addition, an exterior wall was demolished, and then rebuilt with large plate glass windows overlooking the courtyard.
It’s been a long time coming, but by summer diners will be able to enjoy their meals at Tessaro’s al fresco.
In addition to burgers, the restaurant offers a full menu that includes steak, ribs, chicken, and fish all of which are fresh and grilled to order. To find out more about the restaurant and read the menu, go to www.tessaros.com.