Pittsburgh is a delight on many levels. There are great museums; it is a Mecca for sports fans; and it is a smorgasbord for culinary addicts, especially people who like comfort foods.
Most people don’t know that the Big Mac was invented near Pittsburgh by Jim Delligatti, one of McDonald’s earliest franchise owners. The sandwich was made club-style with an extra slice of bread in the middle and was designed to keep the ingredients from sliding around thus preventing spillage. It was so popular that it was added to all the U.S. McDonald’s.
Hamburgers may not be haute cuisine, but, along with burgers you must have Ketchup. As the saying goes, “If it isn’t Heinz it isn’t Ketchup.” The Heinz Corporation calls Pittsburgh home.
And, then there is the Pittsburgh Sandwich. During the 1930s, the Strip District was a place of warehouses with truckers delivering fish, fruit, and vegetables at all hours of the day and night. A local restaurant, Primati’s, created a sandwich perfect for the truck drivers – it could be eaten with one hand while they were driving with the other hand. Basically, it’s any sandwich that has French fries stuffed inside. And, it can be even more of a one-handed meal when cole slaw is added. Primati’s started in the Strip District and today, even though most of the warehouses are gone, the District is still a place for great food prepared in the ‘mom-and-pop’ tradition.
Take a Culinary Tour
The best way to explore the Strip District is on “Burgh Bits and Bites,” a culinary walking tour. I agreed to meet Sylvia McCoy, the foodie guide, at Old St. Patrick’s Church. I arrived a bit early and had time to enjoy the well-tended garden and visit the church, one of those amazing little gems you run across when you least expect it. The church has a Holy Stairs whereby one should kneel and say a special prayer on each of the 28 steps, the number of steps between Christ and Pontius Pilate, the judge at Jesus’ trial. The original steps are in the Church of the Holy Stairs in Rome and St. Patrick’s is one of three replicas.
With Sylvia in the lead, we headed out on a multi-ethnic tasting tour. First stop was Parma Sausage, a small family business that makes a wide variety of Italian pork products. Casey Romig is very proud of the choice ingredients they use in making their products and the results are worth it. The delicious salami and prosciutto were proof that it’s all about great ingredients.
One of my favorite foods was at Mancini’s Bread Bakery where the aroma alone was enough to make my mouth water, but it was Erin’s pepperoni roll that really sold me. It was absolutely delicious.
At Labad’s Grocery, they specialize in Middle Eastern foods. They have a little restaurant in the back where I tried several flavors of their homemade hummus scooped up with pita bread while chatting with Mr. Labad who emigrated years ago from Syria. His son, Lawrence, now runs the business with him. Like all the places we visited on our culinary tour, Labad’s was small and personal – and busy.
We enjoyed award-wining biscotti at Enrico’s where they have a unique café in the back. Wholey’s specializes in wild-caught and farm-raised fish along with meat and poultry. Locals especially love their fish sandwiches. At Colangelo’s Bakery we tried mele, a pastry brought from Northern Italy by the store’s original owner. It was decadent.
Our last stop was S&D Polish Deli to sample their cheese and mushroom pierogies. If I had been smart I would have purchased some of the great things I tried because people on the tour get 10% off. I didn’t think of that until it was too late.
UpScale Dining at Fairmont’s Habitat
Pittsburg isn’t just about comfort or ethnic foods. For a special dining experience, make a reservation at the Habitat, the Fairmont Hotel’s fine dining restaurant. The Fairmont is one of the newest and sleekest hotels in Pittsburgh. The Habitat Restaurant sources fresh, seasonal products from a variety of local farmers. They have a spectacular communal table next to a dynamic show kitchen where diners can watch their food being prepared.
They list on the menu the local sources of their main items. The menu, which changes throughout the year, offers an wide variety of unique items making it difficult to decide. My meal started with an appetizer of compressed watermelon with Gran Riserva 24 month prosciutto, aged goat cheese, upland cress along. With it came fresh tandoor baked naan bread accompanied by three homemade spreads. I followed that up with Scottish salmon topped with fennel, salsify, orange, and radish. Totally delectable.
For afternoon tea in Pittsburgh’s most elegant surroundings, my choice is the Omni William Penn, a stunning Historic Hotel of America. Walking into the lobby graced with three immense sparkling chandeliers is like stepping into a more elegant and refined era. Pittsburgh offers smorgasbord dining options that run the gamut from finger-lickin’ to white tablecloth gourmet dining.
For more information:
Visiting Pittsburgh www.visitpittsburgh.com
Food tour www.burghfoodtour.com
— Story and photos by Sandra Scott, RFT Contributor