“Wait, why Pittsburgh?”
It was a valid question for a number of reasons; we are not diehard football fans, we are only mildly intrigued by industrial history, and the city is not well-known for any kind of food scene. But a late change to our itinerary – the opportunity to eat and speak with the wonderful folks at Frontiers International Travel – had us swapping out the food-centric Philadelphia for the less desirous Pittsburgh.
To our surprise, our reservations about the steel city were completely unfounded. A world leader in the green building movement, a plethora of renowned museums and theatres, and the most bars per capita in the USA, all led us to fall in love with the city. We found Pittsburghers to be immensely proud of their city and through them, we came to appreciate the incredible progress the city has made in transforming itself from the mechanized, smokey leader of the American industrial revolution to one of the most livable cities in the country (according to the Economist, Forbes, and Places Rated Almanac).
We spent most of our Pittsburgh tour in the Strip District, an area originally home to mills, factories, and wholesale warehouses. It has been reimagined as a market area; abandoned warehouses now hold a diverse array of restaurants, coffee roasters, butchers, bakers, produce stands, and ethnic grocers. It is gritty and authentic, and we could have spent all day traipsing through the half a square mile of amazingness bordering downtown Pittsburgh. Below are some of our favourite spots:
Allegheny Coffee and Tea Exchange
Allegheny (previously Fortune’s Coffee) sells their gourmet, small batch roasted beans out of self-serve barrels, and a variety of specialty blended Ceylon teas. You can purchase coffee in small bags or in bulk, depending on how caffeinated you plan to be. They also have a full service espresso bar in the front of the store, and we enjoyed a particularly delicious lavender latte during our visit.
Joe Primanti began by selling sandwiches from a cart to industry workers and truckers with odd schedules in the Strip District. He opened a brick and mortar restaurant in 1933 with his brothers and nephew, and since then Primanti Bros has become a Pittsburgh institution. The sandwichs were meant to offer a filling meal on the go, and are still fashioned as such; grilled meat, sharp and tangy coleslaw, tomatoes, and french fries surrounded by soft Italian bread.
Prestogeorge Coffee and Tea
John Prestogeorge opened this roastery in the 1950’s, and made his name creating custom bean blends. It seems magical that this tiny storefront is able to contain all the specialty coffee and tea blends that it does. With the enticing aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans in the air, you can order a cup as you survey the apothecary styled interior. Try taking the J.P. Hearty Blend home (an original blend, created by John Prestogeorge himself) or creating your own! The specialty tea blends are stored in glass jars, and range from the classic black, green, rooibus and herbal offerings, to specialty pu-erh and other hard to find teas. The store also offers handmade gourmet pastas and contains a small deli case.
Mon Aimee Chocolat
This small, artisinal chocolate shop offers chocolates and gourmet sweets from over 26 countries. Though the staff are known to be a touch standoffish, the sweetness of the store more than makes up for it. You can stock up on high quality baking chocolate, order some hot chocolate, peruse confectionaries like malt balls and chocolate covered espresso beans, or just go crazy trying to decided between all the chocolate bar offerings. We ended up with a salted bacon and smokey caramel bar, a hibiscus bar, and a lavender infused bar that kept us happy for days afterwards.
Wholey’s Market was in the Strip District long before it was trendy, holding its own amidst factories and wholesale neighbours. Robert C. Wholey started the market in 1948 in downtown Pittsburgh, inspired by his father’s success with a similar market in the suburbs. He eventually moved to the current location in The Strip District, and sold fresh poultry, fish, and seafood. Today, Wholey’s offers a variety of poultry, meats, crab, lobster, fish, shellfish, and shrimp. At this foodie’s haven, you can even track down specialty items like squid, alligator, frog, turtle, and caviar. The entrance and decor are charming and no nonsense – our favourite sign proclaimed ‘Pig Parts!’ in large red lettering. Seating upstairs will give you an opportunity to enjoy some of their in-house offerings such as lobster mac and cheese, lobster bisque, and sandwiches.
Double strength vanilla extract? Saffron? Korintje Indonesia Cinnamon? Penzeys is a store dedicated entirely to the mystical world of spice. Each display includes a test jar, so that you can sniff before you purchase. The store is spacious and lovely, and despite having multiple locations, Penzeys has the feel of a neighbourhood haunt. There are some beautiful wooden spice gift boxes, and a pretty amazing online store that we will certainly be making use of when we return home.
Parma Sausage is currently owned by Rina Edwards, whose grandfather founded the company in 1954 after immigrating from Corsica during World War II. Harnessing the traditions and passions of his homeland, Parma cures their own proscuitto, creates sausage in custom built aging rooms, and stocks some truly remarkable pancetta and coppa secca. Fresh sausages are made daily, and are a must-try.
Pennsylvania Macaroni Company
Three Sunseri brothers from Sicily brought their work ethic and culinary knowledge to Pittsburgh in 1902, and founded Penn Mac (as it is locally called) in order to make and sell gourmet pasta. Now the third generation of Sunseris run the business, and it now manufactures pasta, olive oil, and a variety of specialty Sicilian products. Red painted wooden doors welcome customers, who frequently find themselves wandering through aisles stocked with every oil, cheese, nut, and pasta product you could dream of.