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Best Hamburger: Tessaro's

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"Kelly has been an avid hamburger eater all his life," says Tee Harrington. She is speaking of her son, Kelly Harrington, who studied to be a teacher while his heart hungered for something more. So what did he do? He bought the neighborhood motorcycle bar and turned it into a bona-fide restaurant specializing in hefty, half-pound burgers.

Eighteen years of loyal Bloomfield patronage and a reputation for the city's best burgers have proven Kelly's gut instinct to be spot-on. At dusk, Tessaro's emanates an aroma that blankets Liberty Avenue and the Bloomfield Bridge in a warm, flame-grilled perfume.

The restaurant's name is a holdover from its previous owner, the entrepreneurial whiz Richard Tessaro, who ran the place as a wood-paneled biker bar complete with mohair couch. "It originally started out rock 'n' roll, and where the kitchen is, there was a dance floor," says Kelly Harrington.

Both clientele and mood have since mellowed in the old crimson-red brick building, where you can listen to Ol' Blue Eyes under tin ceilings and rub shoulders with poetry professors trading junk-mail tales, housewives discussing James Spader, and old men talking sports. An in-house butcher tailors all the meats so that customers can chew the fat with each other, not off their steak sandwich. Kelly maintains that the selection of soups, salads, burgers and (yes) kabobs has remained relatively unchanged over the last 18 years. The only thing at Tessaro's that's been more stable than the menus might be its staff.

After all, who would leave a place that has immortalized them on an employee mural done in Cheers-saloon portrait fashion? The place fosters a family dynamic that earns Tee Harrington the nickname of "Mama Tessaro" and her son, Kelly, the right to call the employees his "kids." The man behind the burgers, Courtney McFarlane, has been with Tessaro's for the long haul -- working his way up from washing dishes to preserving tradition with each flip of the spatula.

"It's a half-pound burger, and that's exactly what you're going to get," says McFarlane. Whopping patties are served with high-rise buns and a side of homefries that should quiet any doubts about an Italian-named restaurant serving American food in Pittsburgh's Little Italy.

With an atmosphere befitting its time-honored cooking techniques and lifelong employees, it is easy to become a regular at Tessaro's. "They talk about the ambience in here. I keep looking for this 'ambience,' but I can't find it," says Tee Harrington. One place to look might be behind the bar. Ancient boxing photos and neon-lined columns add shades of character while hamburger hands leave signs of satisfaction on denim tablecloths across the room. Streethawks recline and regulars make the rounds before drinking them at their favorite barstools. Red lounge lighting reflects the text of a sign advertising "genuine Tessaro's waitress aprons for $25."

Loyals are aging with the restaurant and have become just as much fixtures as the wooden booths they inhabit. "We've had people date at this booth, get engaged at this booth, tell their significant other that they're pregnant at this booth. Then they come back with kids and sit at a bigger table. Now, they come back to this booth because they're empty nesters," says Kelly Harrington.

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