Pittsburgh, the city that birthed America’s most famous condiment — Heinz ketchup — is perhaps best known culinarily for enhancing dishes with french fries. Fries on sandwiches. Fries on salads.
Until recently, the city’s food scene had a similarly unsophisticated reputation. Those guilty pleasures are still abundant on Pittsburgh menus, but in recent years, they’ve been surpassed by such refined fare as squid-ink gnudi, duck-confit tacos, and aviation cocktails made with local gin.
Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene has grown up, and food tourists are beginning to notice.
“When I moved to Pittsburgh, half of the things I enjoyed on a regular basis” — Negronis, Fernet-Branca liqueur, brut rosé — “no one even knew what they were,” said Justin Severino, a 2015 James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic.
Even worse, back in 2007 his fine-dining training in California didn’t help him get a job at what he recalls as a fusty lineup of unimaginative American restaurants. “I really felt like I’d made the worst decision of my life,” he said. “My résumé meant nothing to a chef in Pittsburgh.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a chef who wouldn’t want to work with Severino now. But he works for himself instead, as the chef-owner of Cure, an upscale, whole-animal, Mediterranean-inspired restaurant in a newly trendy neighborhood. Cure is a mecca for carnivores; the shareable salumi plate alone comes with no fewer than 17 types of cold meats, including lamb culatello, coppa di testa and duck rillettes.
Severino is a good example of the major shift that has happened in Pittsburgh: Given the bargain rent and low cost of living, chefs around the city have struck out on their own — and they’ve given the dining scene a whole new flavor.
I grew up in Pittsburgh’s hilly suburbs, happily eating special-occasion dinners at white-tablecloth restaurants that, in retrospect, seem to have been preserved in amber. But in recent years, I began to hear rumblings about upscale farm-to-table eateries and trendy fusion places. Twelve-dollar cocktails were being mixed on the same streets where ancient dive bars sold Iron City for $1.75. Bon Appetit’s Foodist column named it the next big food town in 2014. My home town became cool when I wasn’t watching.
So on a recent trip to visit my family, I reacquainted myself with Pittsburgh, where the most famous restaurant is probably still Primanti Brothers, purveyor of the aforementioned belly-busting french-fry-filled sandwich. Best enjoyed at the chain’s flagship, in the Strip District — nothing unseemly here; the neighborhood is named for the stretch of land it sits on along the Allegheny River — the sandwich, invented for truck drivers, is a lowbrow and delicious reminder of the city’s blue-collar roots.
So, too, is the pierogi, a stalwart of the city’s Polish community. But now those humble dumplings have become a symbol of Pittsburgh’s past and future. You’ll find them in such places as downtown deli Szmidt’s, where the pierogi are done “Old World” (potato and cheddar) and “New World” (buffalo bleu cheese, among others); or at Ohio City Pasta in the Pittsburgh Public Market, where a heaping plate of breakfast potato-cheddar pierogi comes topped with a runny egg, bacon, avocado, sauteed leeks, tomato and herb butter sauce.
“I think the best chefs are trying to retain a little bit of that hometown flavor and elevate it,” said Melanie Cox McCluskey, the managing editor of Pop City, a local news and culture blog.
The Strip is a longtime venue for food wholesalers, where sidewalk vendors advertise fried fish and two-pound pepperoni rolls. Older establishments skew Italian, like the charming Enrico Biscotti and La Prima Espresso. But the newer spots introduce duck-fat-fried hash browns and egg-topped Belgian waffles (Second Breakfast, in the Pittsburgh Public Market), and craft cocktails customized according to guests’ whims (Bar Marco, where tipping has been abolished — a growing trend).
Pittsburgh is proudly a meat-and-potatoes town — and it’s a beer and whiskey city, too, and you’ll find both being produced in abundance. Wigle, a distillery named after a man convicted of treason in western Pennsylvania’s Whiskey Rebellion, offers tastings and tours in its Strip District home. And breweries — from the longtime Church Brew Works, in a deconsecrated Catholic church, to relative newcomers like Roundabout, in a former metal treatment plant — are proliferating.
Roundabout brewers Steve and Dyana Sloan settled in Pittsburgh after stints in New Zealand, Missouri and Colorado, and have watched tastes change over the last decade.
“I think that people are a little bit more willing to try different beers now,” said Steve, whether it’s their Earl Grey pale ale or the ginger-hinted Ginga Wheat, with a touch of locally produced honey. (Although, he added, “we still have — I don’t want to call them training-wheel beers. Those sell quite well.”)
The Sloans and Severino have both set up shop in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, where that gritty industrial-chic look that designers elsewhere pay small fortunes to re-create is inherent in the bones of most buildings. Not far away are the locally foraged market Wild Purveyors, the divey hipster bar Spirit and Allegheny Wine Mixer. Go south on Butler Street for an even more concentrated cluster of bars and casual restaurants.
We stopped by craft cocktail bar Tender where mixologists, who climb a wheeled library ladder to reach their top-shelf libations, are credited by name for their rotating contributions to the menu, like Elliott Sussman’s potent cocktail of gin, zirbenz, vermouth, grapefruit bitters and strawberry-balsamic that I sampled.
Another new foodie neighborhood is downtown, where the fusion taco restaurant Tako features octopus murals, plenty of tequila and a steampunk aesthetic. In a new twist on the open kitchen, cooks make tortillas and stack Cuban sandwiches in a kitchen that opens up on both sides — in front to the sidewalk seating, and to the bar in the rear.
The Hotel Monaco’s new rooftop beer garden is another spot with an interesting view, this one of the surrounding skyscrapers. But if it’s closed because of rain, as it was for our visit, you’ll fare well at the downstairs restaurant Commoner, where the decor pays tribute to the city’s steel industry and steak tartare is presented in a jar filled with a fragrant puff of smoke.
Pittsburgh is a place where a restaurant can “afford to take risks,” Robert Sayre said. And Conflict Kitchen, the takeout restaurant near the University of Pittsburgh’s campus where Sayre is culinary director, is Exhibit A of that kind of bravura. Conceived as an art project by Carnegie Mellon University professor Jon Rubin and artist Dawn Weleski, Conflict Kitchen serves food from countries the United States has tense relations with. Accompanied by literature and educational material about these other cultures, the menu is a way of using food to foster understanding. Past menus have featured Iranian, North Korean and Afghan food; on my visit, the stand was about to wrap up its Palestinian menu — a particularly controversial choice that resulted in death threats in November. It is now serving Cuban food.
“I think, if anything, we’ve helped people realize not to underestimate the audience,” Sayre said. “It may not be the most diverse city, but people are perfectly willing to try things.”
In fact, it’s that chronic underestimation that has ushered in this new wave of restaurants. People’s expectations of Pittsburgh remain low, which is liberating for the food entrepreneurs there: Without the high stakes of New York, the scrutiny of San Francisco and the cliqueishness of Charleston, chefs and restaurateurs here can do whatever they want. But with all of the press the city has been getting lately, that could change.
“I would hear people come in and say, ‘Oh, this is really good, and I’m from New York,’ “ Sayre said. “We don’t need the approval of someone from New York. It’s exciting to get broader notice, but it’s also I think within the scene, there’s a feeling of ‘thanks for noticing, but we got here on our own.’”