Pittsburgh is a Food Lovers Dream

Mention Pittsburgh and food, and chances are someone will bring up Primani Brother's sandwiches or Iron City Beer (oh, and maybe you're familiar with Heinz' products).  And while those are Pittsburgh icons in their own right, there's more culinary action going on in The Steel City than just giant sandwiches, bottles of IC, and ketchup.  One of the best spots in town to get a true sampling of Pittsburgh food culture is along the northern side of the city on the Allegheny River, in a warehouse filled district known as The Strip.

Conveniently located on the Allegheny River, The Strip became an industrial hotbed in the 1800s, as iron, steel, glass, and aluminum mills sprang up on the shoreline. By the turn of the century, produce wholesalers began moving into the area, with auction houses and warehouses flooding the area.  Fast forward past an actual flood, the decline of railways, and the proliferation of grocery stores, and the produce merchants in the area dwindled in number. Thankfully, today the vendors--vegetable, fish, meat, bread, and more--are back, some offering products that have been family recipes for generations. A recent food-focused tour of The Strip with 'Burg Bits & Bites took us to some of the crown jewels of The Strip, where delectable food and drink samples abounded.

Before our official tour, we had a mid day cocktail at Wigle Whiskey Distillery, Pittsburgh's first distillery since Prohibition.  They produce a white winter wheat whiskey and a rye whiskey from grain that they mill on-site, cooking it on site in giant mash tuns, then filtering and distilling it in a stunning copper pot still.  On a tour of the grounds, they shared the history of whiskey in Southwestern Pittsburgh, chock full of drama, intrigue, treason, and armed settlers.  The Meyer family named their product after Phillip Wigle, a Pittsburgh resident (and home distiller) who was convicted of treason and condemned to hang for his role in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. (Don't panic, he was pardoned.)    The good folks at Wigle are currently barrel aging their products, and those should be available in November 2013.  Mark your calendars!

Adequately lubricated, we met up with our 'Burgh Bits & Bites tour guide, Corinne, for several hours of snacking our way through the Strip.  We passed through Wholey's Fish Market, an extravaganza of all things seafood.

Aside from live lobster and fish tanks, and a virtual Noah's ark of fresh and frozen sea creatures, Wholey's offers a sushi bar and a prepared foods counter where you can get lobster rolls, and a variety of fried fish sandwiches, crab cakes, and soups.  If you're a fan of our delicious aquatic friends, you can't miss it.

Our first taste of a true Pittsburgh food tradition was at Mancini's Bread Company, where we sampled hot from the oven pepperoni rolls and assorted in-house baked breads.  Started by James Mancini in 1926, Mancini's Bread Company now has multiple stores around Pittsburgh, and produces ten thousand loaves a day, staying true to the original techniques and recipes of their founder.  They make everything from classic Italian loaves to their popular cinnamon raisin, to elaborate all-bread window displays. They even ship their loaves cross country, if you can't make it to a store in person.

Having carbo-loaded, we crossed the street to Parma Sausage Products to get a little protein in our systems.  Behind a rather unassuming store front (they're in the process of moving to a larger, more visible space next door) is a treasure trove of delicious porky goodness: prosciutto, soprasetta, salami, and more. Parma was started by Alessio Spinabelli, a Corsican immigrant who arrived in Pittsburgh in 1949, bringing with him the recipes for dry-cured meats he had been making in Italy since the 30s.  

Parma Sausage is still family owned and operated, and all of their products are crafted using original recipes, with an eye to developing the best flavor possible.  We tried the hot soprasetta and a newer product, Lonzetta cotta. The Lonzetta was unbelievably delicious...slow cooked pork loin seasoned with rosemary and thinly sliced.  It was so good I went back at the end of my visit and picked up a pound to bring back home.

Nothing goes better with meat than cheese, and so the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company (PennMac to locals) was the next logical stop.  PennMac is more than just pasta (and olives, and sauces, and oils)--they also have one of the most impressive cheese counters that I've ever encountered.  The Sunseri family has been importing the best of the Italy to Pittsburgh since the early 20th century, but their cheese counter is a veritable UN of dairy products.  Behind the counter is the fiery, knowledgable Carol Pascuzzi, a fixture of PennMac since 1984.

Carol led us through several cheese samples, including the very seasonal Beemster Graskaas from Holland and a flavorful espresso and lavender rubbed Beehive Barely Buzzed cheese. They were both exceptional, and it was deeply gratifying to meet yet another person who was so deeply passionate about their product.  At this point in the tour, it was becoming very clear that Pittsburghers do not mess around when it comes to food.

After our cheese course, it was time for a wine and dessert break at the Enrico Biscotti Company. Here we were faced with a wall of biscotti in dozens of flavors, from classic anise and almond to black pepper walnut and coconut chocolate chip.  Armed with a biscotti each, we moved to a small patio on the side of Enrico's where we also sipped on a variety of house made wines and noshed on some of the best almond macaroons I've ever had. Ever. This was another place that I revisited before I headed out of town....a bag of macroons came back to Columbus along with Parma's cotta.

At this point, pants were reaching the stretching point, but as they say, there is no rest for the wicked, and we pressed on to Colangelo's Bakery for meles:  puff pastry turnovers filled with assorted seasonal fruits.  The mele went into my bag for later, as I knew that I had to save some room for pirogies from The S&D Polish Deli.  S&D is a mecca for those of Polish decent. Aside from the pirogies, there is a wide selection of sausages, hams, bacons, and pastries as well as imported Polish dry goods, soccer jerseys, and Polish pride t-shirts.  If you're in the market for authentic Polish smoked sausage, S&D is the place to go.

Our last stop on the tour was Bar Marco, a bar/restaurant/art gallery created by a group of young Pittsburgh natives.  Set in a reclaimed fire station, the proprietors of Bar Marco offer a well crafted cocktail menu, and creative small bites and dishes downstairs (I highly recommend the arancini) and a gallery space upstairs.  These guys take their food seriously (the had a small forest of fresh herbs on the bar and they make a variety of syrups and infusions for their cocktails), but it's clear too that these friends are having a lot of fun doing what they do.  Bar Marco should be a mandatory stop on any visit to the Strip, it's great food and drink in a great space.

At this point, we couldn't eat or drink another bite, yet my partner in crime and I (Shawnie Kelley of the blog Manges! Mangi!) somehow managed to eat and drink our way through the rest of the weekend, including a fabulously decadent dinner at Savoy on our last night in town. Executive Chef Kevin Watson crafts a modern-American menu with Italian and Southern inspirations, and makes it a point to source as much of his menu as possible from the Pittsburgh region. I'll leave you with a picture of one of our desserts from that night...a trio of chocolate truffles, a dark chocolate-mascarpone turnover and a milk chocolate and coconut creme brûlée.

I can't say enough good things about what I saw and ate in the Iron City and I'm looking forward to going back for another visit.  Thankfully, it's only three hours away from Columbus, so those almond macaroons shouldn't be too hard to get....

Finally, many, many thanks to Kristin Mitchell and Visit Pittsburgh for a wonderful introduction to your city...the food and the sights were great! (Note: Lodging and expenses were paid by Visit Pittsburgh, all opinions are my own.)


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