Everything under the Moon

By Welzel, Karin | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 6, 2008 | Go to article overview

Everything under the Moon


Welzel, Karin, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Chef Josephine La Russa-Impola says she really doesn't like the term "eclectic" in describing her cuisine at River Moon Cafe in Lawrenceville, but she hasn't been able to put a finger on a term that would fit.

So, it's "eclectic, with Asian, Italian and Mediterranean influences" for now, one way to explain the combination of her background and influences:

La Russa-Impola has Italian kitchen roots. She has classical training as an apprentice to former Heinz executive chef Byron Bardy. She worked as a caterer. She was co-owner of a Chinese- Italian restaurant -- the Orient Express, which was in Shadyside. And she has had years of teaching the disadvantaged to cook so they could find employment.

River Moon Cafe is a dream come true for La Russa-Impola, executive chef, and her husband, co-owner William Impola.

"There were no culinary schools to speak of in my day, and there was no such thing as a female chef," says La Russa-Impola, who has been in the restaurant business for more than four decades. "Being short, I didn't have a commanding presence (in the kitchen), and people told me, 'You'll always be a cook.'"

She has proved them wrong.

She and her husband opened River Moon Cafe, a white-tablecloth establishment along 43th Street, in 2004. Three years later, they have a loyal clientele who return for fresh, from-scratch dishes that are made to order. Favorites include Tex-Mex Rolls -- chipotle chicken, black beans, corn, peppers, tomato, onion, avocado and cheddar-Jack cheese in a Chinese egg-roll wrapper served with a raspberry chipotle dipping sauce.

"I'd never take that off the menu," says the chef, a native of Compo Firito in Sicily. Nor would she tamper with her filet mignon topped with cranberry port wine sauce and crumbled gorgonzola cheese or her best-seller, angel hair pasta tossed with fresh spinach, sun- dried tomatoes, roasted peppers and kalamata olives, topped with feta cheese and a grilled fresh salmon fillet.

Her husband is a contractor by trade. She taught him to cook one- on-one, and he is by her side as the orders come in and go out of their postage-stamp kitchen.

"He's a wonderful cook," she says, as Impola blushes. "He does more than 50 percent of the work. We've been together for 30 years."

They live upstairs, over the restaurant.

"He built this restaurant by himself for me," says La Russa- Impola.

The chef does not like the term "fusion" to describe her cuisine, although it does mix regional and ethnic foods and ingredients.

"I don't think fusion is a good concept," she says. "It doesn't always work. You can't mix ingredients without knowing what you are doing. It can be a problem."

While acknowledging that she blends ingredients and ideas from a variety of cultures, she merges them using classical techniques -- "sound elements of cooking."

There is River Moon Penne, chicken strips sauteed with sweet red, yellow and orange peppers tossed in a spicy tequila cream sauce; pork tenderloin medallions sauteed in a bourbon glaze and topped with a tropical mango salsa and teriyaki drizzle; and Bill's Awesome Pork Chop, a pan-roasted loin chop with her hubby's chunky raspberry chipotle barbecue sauce, served with wasabi mashed potatoes.

La Russa-Impola says she hopes she can continue her role as a culinary educator through her restaurant, including offering workshops on international teas and tea-and-food pairings.

"You're likely to find me in the dining room," she says. "I live upstairs. This is my dining room, and you are here for dinner."

Chicken Josephine

Josephine La Russa-Impola features this signature dish on the menu at River Moon Cafe in Lawrenceville.

For the sauce:

4 tablespoons butter, divided

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sliced mushrooms

1/4 cup brandy

3/4 cup milk

3/4 cup chicken broth

Pinch of ground nutmeg

Pinch of ground white pepper

1 teaspoon premium chicken base or bouillon

For the chicken:

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

4 chicken breast halves (6 ounces each), thick end of breast pounded with flat side of meat mallet or hammer until even

2 tablespoons pure olive oil (not extra-virgin)

For the spinach topping

16 ounces fresh spinach

Salted boiling water

Cold tap water

2 teaspoons olive oil

2 or 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped, to taste

1/4 cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese, more for browning

2 slices (1 ounce each) mozzarella cheese

Minced fresh parsley, for garnish

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

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