Dispatch from Pittsburgh: A Sadwich to Fry For

Land sakes alive, I am never home! Sorry about that. I DO realize the focus of BHS is supposed to be on upstate New York. However, last week, we were lucky to be invited to the wedding of our dear friend Kelly, who has lived in Pittsburgh for many years, and along with the wedding trip came some good chances to sample regional fare.

When our group of friends – mostly Watertown natives, with some wives, girlfriends and boyfriends thrown in for good measure – ventured out on Saturday for lunch and revelry, I insisted on Pittsburgh’s landmark sandwich joint, Primanti Brothers. Much heralded on Travel Channel and Food Network Shows, Primanti’s is the quintessential taste of Pittsburgh.

Iconic Strip District bar

If I have my story straight, Primanti Brothers began in Pittsburgh’s Strip District in the early 1900s, when hungry truck drivers didn’t want to stop their food deliveries for a leisurely lunch. They wanted a sandwich plus sides in one, portable, delicious, package. Enter Primanti, who jammed a sandwich with quality meats and cheese, plus the French fries and cole slaw right between two thick slices of locally-made Italian bread. Genius. And not only did this gigantic sandwich satisfy those truck drivers, but Primati’s was smart enough to stay open 24 hours a day, so all those drunks pouring out of Strip District bars in the wee hours could benefit from this greasy, filling, carb-loaded treat as well.

I want this t-shirt

I must underscore here that our friend Lance, who lived for a time in Pitt, was against our Primanti pilgrimage, insisting that some place called O’s was far superior. But I wanted to bring you the scoop on the real thing, and while there are now Primanti franchises all over Greater Pittsburgh, our hotel was so close to the original location, I couldn’t miss it. He also barked a lot of other feedback at me during the meal that he insisted I note here for you, but my head was too busy eating prodigious amounts of French fries to listen to him, so I’ll let him comment below, if he so chooses.


I believe waiting in the line was one of his objections (it wasn’t even very long)

A good assortment of the available sandwich choices was selected by our group. Melinda and I went for the capicola, while Shawn chose the turkey, Amy went for the cheese steak (which was really more of a cheeseburger), and Darrel had the angus steak. Because Lance spewed approximately 4,397 words at me in the duration of lunch, I don’t remember what he ordered. I remember he didn’t like it. I also remember I DID like mine. But before we get to that, please behold the fries by themselves:

Cut in-house, double-fried. Could use more salt, though

I loved the hustle and bustle of the place, the wall-mounted menu, and the service, which was quick, just a little gruff, but still friendly. At one point, before our orders were even in , a tiny, ancient lady tottered by with a tray of individually-cut baklava triangles for $1! How cute! The mound of fries plus Italian-dressing-based cole slaw come on every sandwich, plus a couple slices of tomato, but unlike some institutions, you CAN order your sandwich sans one of these critical elements. Amy doesn’t care for cole slaw, and while I expected our waiter to give her some mouth about how it’s not a Primanti sandwich without the slaw, he willingly brought her sandwich to order. And when he brought that stack of stuffed, oozing sandwiches, this is what it looked like:

It’s a little blurry, because he was moving fast – but check out the stack of sammies!

Each sandwich was served simply on butcher paper, absolutely overflowing with those fresh French fries and the crisp slaw, cheese dripping out the sides. The capicola, which is spicy ham, on my sandwich was probably the best I’ve ever had. I assumed I would barely be able to taste the meat through all the fries and slaw, and so didn’t put much thought into which of the numerous meat choices I selected. But that ham was spicy and robust, singing to me about piggies and love, shining through the thick slices of moist Italian bread, the vast starch of the potatoes and the crunchy coolness of the cabbage. The quality of both the meat and the cheese was good enough to stand up to everything else going on – which is really saying something for a $6 sandwich.

Capicola galore

Now, let me be clear, I wasn’t completely blown away by the sandwich. It was good, trust, but a little bit longer fry on the potatoes and some more salt would have helped, and even a little more dressing on the slaw – more liquid to sop into the bread would have suited me just fine. I’m not sure my experience lived up to the hype I’ve seen on TV and heard about from co-workers who formerly resided in Steel City.

Still, a pretty great sandwich

For the value, the experience, the originality, and the quality of ingredients, I would give Primanti Brothers a six on the BHS scale. I don’t know if I would go back with the same amount of intent as I planned this visit, as Pittsburgh has so many great restaurants, but if I was in the Strip District again, and hungry, I would certainly hit it up. Uh, especially if there was booze involved.
Incidentally, if you do make your own pilgrimage to the Strip District, don’t miss Penzey’s Spices, which is my favorite purveyor of high quality spices and spices blends at low prices, and The Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, a labrynthian Italian import food store at which you can choose among a bunch of different sizes and bottle your own olive oil, even choosing between oil imported from Italy or Spain. I bottled my own EVOO there before, in 2006, I believe, and that bottle is still the one I decant all my oil into today. Oh, and I almost forgot…a wine bottle full is only $4! Yeah. I know. You wanna go. As you should!
Another great spot, if you are staying in downtown Pittsburgh on a future jaunt, is the newly-opened Taste of Dahntahn on Liberty Avenue. The bride and groom of the wedding we were in town for took us there for breakfast on Sunday morning before we dusted out of town, and even though I had wanted to eat at Pamela’s Diner, which was recommended highly by several friends, I’m glad we got to sample this new place. The space is gorgeous and really well designed, first of all. We were seated in the back dining room adorned with tufted white leather panels and dark wood tables, but I would have loved to be sitting at the front bar, which was red granite-topped and art deco cool.
I had something which apparently is a Pittsburgh specialty: pancrepes, along with eggs, two plump, crispy sausage links, and really fantastic, crunchy, seasoned homefries. These pancrepes, which also are featured on the Pamela’s menu, are really something. Thinner than pancakes but sturdier than crepes, the texture was creamy as they hit the mouth, which was extraordinarily pleasant. They were neither pancakes nor crepes, but also, both. And a lot less filling than their fluffier compadres! Wherever you land for breakfast in Pittsburgh, try these yummy treats.
All in all, we had a super fun weekend in a city that doesn’t get a lot of cred. Pittsburgh isn’t the most beautiful city if you stick to the interstate and simply breeze through. But it has its own beauty amidst the industrialized scape, and the view of the Allegheny River from our hotel room (at the Westin Convention Center) was lovely. So pay the Steel City a visit, have an Iron City Light beer, and get your pancrepe on! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!

Shawn and I block your view of a pretty Pittsburgh sunset

Notes: If you’re not following @BigHungryShelby on Twitter, you’re missing out! I post meal ideas, on-the-fly restaurant comments, commentary from the food world and more. You should also join our open Big Hungry Shelby group on Facebook, where each week I share more pictures that couldn’t make it in to the blog, and you can share your favorites as well!

Primanti Brothers (Strip District) on Urbanspoon

Taste of Dahntahn on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. Primanti's is a must-stop for us every time. Aaron used to have one of those shirts but he wore it out!