Pittsburgh is one of those towns where there's no shortage of good food to be had, but you're not necessarily going to find it in any of the city's "sophisticated" "Continental" restaurants. It's the kind of place you might go to on a quest to find some Slovak church where pirohy are handmade by the thousands, like I did (unsuccessfully, I might add), but, if you're not careful, the locals might very well try to impress you with the ancien regime opulence of a Versailles-like "French" restaurant with a view. Calvin Trillin writes at length on this topic--on how it is not uncommon "for an American city to be vaguely embarrassed" about its local delicacies--in his brilliant, gloriously carnivalesque American Fried. And although things have changed enormously since the early 1970s when his book was first published (I mean, the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival, which has done much to promote awareness of American regional cuisines and the world cultures that have profoundly shaped American food culture, came right out and dedicated itself to "the great variety of American foodways" this past summer), you still encounter a resistance to celebrating local specialties when you travel across America from time to time. Personally, I'm much less interested in experiencing "the pinnacle of fine dining" coupled with an "unsurpassed view" of Pittsburgh (or any other city) when I travel, than I am with experiencing something honest and freshly prepared, a dish or a meal that tells you something about the place you’re visiting, in a place that has its loyal denizens. And as Trillin puts it, “What is saddest about a visitor’s sitting in the Continental cuisine palace chewing on what an honest menu would have identified as Frozen Duck à l’Orange Soda Pop is that he is likely to have passed a spectacular restaurant on the way over. Despite the efforts of forward-looking bankers and mad-dog franchisers, there is still great food all over the country, but the struggle to wring information from the locals about where it is served can sometimes leave a traveler too exhausted to eat.” American Fried is testament to the fact that Trillin didn’t let such hurdles keep him from the “true delights” of the American culinary landscape, and Trillin’s subsequent articles and books on food have continued to display this restless passion for locating a region’s true gastronomic vernacular, in America as well as elsewhere (see his wonderful and downright hilarious piece on his pilgrimage to Ecuador for Holy Week in pursuit of fanesca in The New Yorker’s recent food issue [Sept. 5, 2005]) for a taste of Trillin’s food writing at its finest). In much the same spirit, we might not have had a lot of time, and the little that we did have was largely accounted for prior to our arrival, but we’d gotten a couple of Pittsburgh food tips before going, and we definitely weren’t going to leave town without carrying out a couple of investigations.
There’s no question that the most satisfying meal that we had in Pittsburgh, and this is in no way an insult to Pittsburgh’s food scene, was at Essie’s Original Hot Dog, in the heart of the district that surrounds the University of Pittsburgh. I’m sure we could have easily found more elaborate or more daring meals, but all of our wedding-related meals were suitably fancy, with plenty of frills, so we were in the mood for things of a more pedestrian variety.
1960 was a pivotal year for Pittsburgh in some regards. It was the year the Pirates beat the New York Yankees in the World Series in seven games, a victory clinched by a Bill Mazeroski home run in the bottom of the 9th at Forbes Field. It was the year James Blandi opened Le Mont on the top of Mt. Washington, overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, the $1.5 million restaurant with the Louis XIV décor that brought “fine dining” to the Iron City. And it was also the year Sid and Essie Simon opened The Original Hot Dog Shop just a block away from Forbes Field. Originally The Original Hot Dog Shop had a sign that advertised hot dogs and hamburgers (hamburgers, after all, had been on the ascendant ever since the McDonald brothers began to streamline the production process at their San Bernardino carhop), but Sid had spent some 15 years working at The Original Famous Sandwich Shop, the store that had invented the foot-long hot dog back in 1928, and hot dogs and twice-fried French fries became his bread-and-butter.
Things have changed at The Original Hot Dog since 1960—among other things, they now offer pizza, chicken strips, and a selection of beers that numbers in the dozens—but “O” dogs and fries remain the principal attraction. We’d heard that the French fries came in monstrous portions, but we still weren’t prepared for the veritable mountain of fries that made up our “small” order. We couldn’t finish them all—mainly because we had a wedding to go to and we were worried about fitting into our outfits—but The Original Hot Dog’s fries were pretty much ideal, fresh and piping-hot, crisp yet tender. And their dogs? Well, their hot dogs lived up to our high expectations. We tried both an Original and a beautifully charred Super Deluxe Kosher Style Pure Beef Dog, and they were a couple of high-quality numbers, with taut skins that literally burst with flavor when you broke through them. I had my Kosher dog ballpark-style in honor of Mazeroski and the 1960 Pirates, with hot mustard, onions, and a bit of relish. This was a no-nonsense meal in surroundings that were anything but sumptuous, and all the better for it.
The next day we headed down to The Strip, the old industrial neighborhood to the northeast of downtown Pittsburgh that was also the center of the city’s wholesale produce trade for most of the 20th century. Today the district is undergoing redevelopment and it’s home to a number of ethnic restaurants, groceries, and cafes, as well as other shops and retail spaces. We were looking for a good, honest breakfast and we found one at DeLuca’s, a classic greasy-spoon that advertised that it was “the home of the best breakfast in Pittsburgh” on a sign out front. Again, this was no-nonsense dining, but their home fries were fantastic, made with care and attention (just the way her mother makes them, according to Michelle), and I was overjoyed to see that they had a whole range of egg and sausage combinations on offer, including versions with sweet Italian sausage, hot Italian sausage, and kielbasa, not that Bob Evans-style dreck they serve in most breakfast joints in that part of the world. We had the eggs with kielbasa and the sausage came just the way we were hoping it would: split in half lengthwise, and griddle-fried. I sampled the sweet Italian and the hot Italian sausages, too, thanks to the generosity of my friends J and K, and they were also delicious. Our friends took off to make their way to the airport to catch their respective flights home, but we stuck around for another hour or so, getting a better feel for the neighborhood and stopping in for an espresso before we hit the road. With a few places to choose from—this is an area with a strong Italian presence, after all—we picked the La Prima Espresso Company. It seemed to be the preferred café of the local goodfellas and it had the right ambiance. We sat outside, savored our fine, authentically Continental cappuccinos, and got ourselves ready for the long drive home.
the scene at La Prima Espresso Co., Pittsburgh, PA
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.
Any regrets? Well, there was that woman selling homemade Southeast Asian sandwiches with freshly grilled meats on Penn, just around the corner from La Prima. We passed her twice--once on the way to DeLuca's, when we were completely fixated on having breakfast, and once on the way back, when we were quite full--and both times she flashed us a smile and a glimpse of her freshly-prepared brochettes. You see, we're a little short on street food here in Montreal (there is none, by law [!]), and the smell of the grilled meat wafting down the street was more than a little tantalizing, and this stand did look like the genuine article... Oh, well, next time.
Essie’s Original Hot Dog Shop, 3901 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA, (412) 621-1185
DeLuca’s, 2015 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA, (412) 566-2195
La Prima Espresso Company, 205 21st St., Pittsburgh, PA, (412) 281-1922
The Sandwich Woman, Penn Ave. just east of 21st, Pittsburgh, PA
Calvin Trillin's American Fried (1974) is included in its entirety in The Tummy Trilogy (1994), along with Alice, Let's Eat (1978), and Third Helpings (1983).