Cooked for rich and famous at Park Schenley
Growing up during World War II in the tiny southern Italian village of Bellosguardo, Luigi Croce learned to cook simple peasant foods from what his family grew, raised, hunted or made – chickens, rabbits, fruits and vegetables, olive oil and wine.
From those modest beginnings, he’d hone his skills to become one of the top Pittsburgh chefs of his generation and even cook at a presidential inauguration.
Mr. Croce, known as “Chef Gino” to most, died last Saturday in his Scott home surrounded by his family after a long battle with cancer. He was 84.
He began his culinary career in earnest as a teenager, from the bottom rung.
“From a young age, food was a very integral part of his life,” Mr. Croce’s son Roberto said. “In Europe the way it works is, you start as a grunt and do everything – peel potatoes, do the dishes. You master at each part of the kitchen before you become a chef. It took him the better of 20 years.”
He would study cooking in Lucerne, Switzerland, and worked at some of the finest restaurants in that country, including the Hotel Three Kings, Grand Hotel Victoria and Barbatti.
Mr. Croce followed family to Pittsburgh in 1966 and was lucky to get here at all – the ocean liner he came over on, the SS Michelangelo, was struck by a hurricane at sea. Three people were killed and another 50 injured.
But when he did arrive, he made a mark on the Pittsburgh restaurant scene for decades, most notably at the famed Park Schenley in Oakland. It was there that he rose to local celebrity status.
He cooked for the titans of industry and the pillars of the university community, as well as the Pirates and Steelers, who still played in Oakland then.
“He could do anything –– from veal to game birds, from classically trained French to amazing Italian food, super simple to super refined. You name it,” Mr. Croce said.
Roberto Croce said as a young boy his favorite foods were escargot and frog legs – not exactly kids’ fare – because his father would bring them home from the restaurant.
“He worked almost seven days a week,” he said. “But when he’d get home from work at night, he’d wake us up and we’d share leftovers from Park Schenley as a snack – quail, duck, terrine.”
He was the lead chef for 16 of the Pittsburgh Press’ Old Newsboys Dinners, a major annual charity gala that benefited Children’s Hospital.
Writing on the 1969 event in the Press, Connie Kienzle said of Mr. Croce, “Gino is everywhere – throwing (literally) salt into a huge flat pan containing a thin brown sauce, tenderly feeling the potatoes (mounds stuffed with pureed peas) to see if they are done, sliding big trays of celery under the broiler, testing hearts of beef filet.”
In 1981 he was invited to cook at President Ronald Regan’s inaugural celebration.
He was a member of The American Culinary Federation, Chefs and Cooks Association of Pittsburgh, The American Academy of Chefs, and the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs.
After the Park Schenley, he would work at or open Franco in Fox Chapel, Lucca in Oakland, Gino's in Scott, and the St. Clair Country Club. In 2002 he opened Bocconcino in Sharpsburg with his son Benedetto, who followed in his father’s footsteps and is now a chef in Switzerland.
Writing in a 2002 review of Bocconcino, Post-Gazette critic Sarah Billingsley noted, “customers linger ... perhaps to speak a word with Gino Croce, as he comes from the kitchen, clad in an impeccable white chef's coat, to move among the tables and ask about your meal, a gracious act.”
Mr. Croce is survived by his wife, Dorothea, sons Michelangelo, of Miami, Benedetto, of Zurich, Switzerland, and Roberto, of Mt. Lebanon, a brother, Serafino, of Canonsburg, and five grandchildren.
The funeral was Wednesday, followed by a private entombment Thursday.
The family asks that donations be made in the name of “Chef Gino Croce” to the Pittsburgh Food Bank, Grow Pittsburgh, or the American Diabetes Association.