Update, March 26: Morcilla will now reopen on Wednesday.
Update March 8: Chef Justin Severino initially said Morcilla would reopen April 4. To begin, the restaurant will be open five days a week (Wednesday-Sunday) and will add a sixth day by early May. Reservations are now open.
Justin Severino opened the door of Morcilla, his Spanish-style restaurant in Lawrenceville, on Jan. 4 to a rainstorm inside.
Ignoring the water pouring through the ceiling of the dining room he designed and built by hand, he bolted to check on his basement charcuterie room. Miraculously, despite water in the rest of the basement, the curing room was spared from the flood, his prized charcuterie collection tightly sealed and safely intact.
Despite the rain, the acclaimed chef is taking a downright sunny approach to the flood caused by a burst pipe in the Butler Street building, which he estimates caused $500,000 in damages and lost revenue. He’s making big changes and dramatically increasing his charcuterie capacity — tasks that he said would have been impossible to do if the restaurant hadn’t been forced to temporarily close.
Severino, a four-time James Beard Award best chef nominee, opened Morcilla two years ago, inspired by his travels in Spain with his wife and restaurant co-owner, Hilary Prescott Severino.
The restaurant has been closed since the flood, and there’s no date set yet for reopening.
Water flowed in so quickly, he said, that it “rained in our dining room” and basement for 12 hours, destroying the dining room, electrical wiring, ductwork, all of the restaurant’s food and some wine. The kitchen and bar were spared.
“There was so much water coming through our ceiling that it was setting off the motion detector,” he said.
This week, a construction crew worked inside to repair the dining room. Plastic tarps encase the front bar, usually packed with patrons sipping ciders from its iconic golden arm-shaped tap. Ladders, lumber and power tools sit in the dining room instead of guests. Wires dangle along the walls over hand-painted lauburus (the symbol of San Sebastian).
Severino and his friend Brandon Masi, of MitreBox, built the restaurant in just six months. Now, it’s been closed for nearly two months, four of those weeks spent just waiting for insurance to give the go-ahead to start work.
Severino is getting antsy.
So he’s putting that eager energy to use.
He’s already redesigned the restaurant’s basement prep and storage area, replacing stairs with a ramp to make deliveries easier. Meticulous about details and good design, he’s reimagining how to arrange the kitchen and bar for better flow.
In addition to all of that behind the scenes work, diners will notice changes, too — namely, more meat.
A new cooler will increase charcuterie production significantly — a necessary addition with Severino’s casual eatery set to debut this spring at East End Brewing Company.
“I think I’ll be able to increase my charcuterie production by 250 or 300 percent,” he said.
The extra space will offer a chance to make different kinds of meat for East End, such as bologna and new takes on salami.
“How do I honor this charcuterie program?” he’d said he’d been thinking. “And without this natural disaster, I wasn’t even able to design a scenario how I could do this.”
Expect changes on the Morcilla menu, as well, as he works with chef de cuisine Nate Hobart to offer a smaller but more oft-changing list of selections. The menu is known for its charcuterie, of course, and pintxos (the Basque version of tapas).
Since the beginning, diners’ lodged two main complaints: It’s too hot in here, and it’s too loud in here.
The restaurant is now equipped with a new HVAC system to help regulate temperatures.
But there was only one way to solve the noise problem, Severino said: “The only solution was to tear the ceiling down and put it back up, so here we are — we’re doing that.”
This time around, he hired an acoustical engineer who suggested sound dampening techniques, such as adding special insulation, padding the banquettes and affixing a layer of oak on top of the metal tables.
Making those necessary changes would have required closing the restaurant anyway. These improvements simply wouldn’t have happened during Morcilla’s bustling day-to-day schedule, he said. This opportunity to pause allows Severino and his team to step back and reimagine — “all these things we’ve never had time to do.”
He’s also thinking about how to change up the design aesthetic, brainstorming ways to make the space warmer and cozier.
A background in construction learned from his dad’s construction company has served Severino well, as he designed and built both Morcilla and Cure, his original restaurant in Lawrenceville — and the restaurant that put Pittsburgh’s food scene on the map. He’s using those skills a lot these days as he repurposes the basement prep areas to better serve the restaurant.
In fact, his advice for aspiring restaurateurs has nothing to do with food:
“No. 1: Buy a pick-up truck.
No. 2: Fill it with power tools.”
Because though it may not be the sexiest part of the restaurant, he said, “The basement is what makes this place work.”