By Michael Madison
Food culture offers an emblem and embodiment of postindustrial transformation. Pittsburgh’s tastes have never been fixed, but the pace of change has picked up in its modern rendering. This isn’t “your father’s Pittsburgh” any longer, let alone your grandpa’s, where neighborhood identities and family-run restaurants were imported from Pittsburghers’ European homelands and remained largely constant over generations. The winds — and aromas — of change are blowing with greater velocity.
Pittsburgh still has more than its share of beloved old-time food traditions and venues. Pierogies. City chicken. Cookie tables. Some traditions have anchored themselves in bigger neighborhood and community rituals, such as Lenten fish frys and Greek food festivals. Others are strongly linked to specific places, such as Primanti’s sandwiches, Prantl’s burnt almond torte, and macaroons at the Duquesne Club.
Many Pittsburghers still fondly remember now-closed food shops and restaurants: Isaly’s; George Aiken’s Shoppes; Del’s; the Original Hot Dog Shop; Gullifty’s; Top of the Triangle; the Crawford Grill; Poli’s; the Sir Loin Inn. Remaining classic locales represent an ever-shrinking share of Pittsburgh’s present palate. For now, it’s possible (still) to eat at Ritter’s Diner, The Dor-Stop, Tessaro’s, Big Jim’s “in the Run,” Nadine’s, the Starlite Lounge, Alla Famiglia, La Tavola, and Le Mont, and to pick up seafood at Wholey’s Fish Market.
Today, with the steel industry all but gone, neighborhood food still matters, but in a different register. Via choices of schools, shopping, and working, residents — increasingly, Pittsburgh newcomers — produce (and reproduce) neighborhoods that once automatically defined the identities of the people who lived there. That new dynamic adds tasty layers to Pittsburgh, connecting it more explicitly to national and international sources and effects and less directly to neighborhood histories and interests.
Here’s a brief accounting of those developments:
Neighborhood hangouts. Despite the pandemic, these may be thriving as never before, from the local chain known as Pamela’s to Pittsburgh’s burgeoning upscale coffee scene. Coffee connoisseurs can opt for classics that include Prestogeorge and La Prima in the Strip District and dozens of upscale coffee purveyors and bean suppliers.
Anchors for renewal. Restaurants aren’t merely ways to socialize or satisfy one’s hunger. They’re often expected to be anchors for community development. In both respects, their track record is mixed. The promise of renewal is sometimes oversold, as with Kevin Sousa’s efforts to build whole economies out of new restaurants. But the wins seem to exceed the losses. Among the more promising stories so far are Nancy’s Revival in Wilkinsburg (don’t miss its list of local food suppliers) and Grandma B’s Café in the Hill District; and restaurants on Lincoln Avenue in Bellevue, Potomac Avenue in Dormont, Butler Street in Lawrenceville, Penn Avenue in Garfield and Lawrenceville, Main Street in Carnegie, and the intersection of Highland and Centre Avenues in East Liberty.
Risk, markets, and community prosperity. I once caused a minor media stir as the purveyor of what I called the “Cupcake Class” in Pittsburgh. The idea was that upscale cupcake shops appeared in Pittsburgh as local incomes were growing to the point that some people could afford to splurge on overpriced pastries. More money is usually a good thing for the region, but there is a downside: prosperity — what risk-takers are after — often comes with turnover. Cupcakes come, and cupcakes go.
The local craft brewing and craft spirits sectors have had more stability and success, because barriers to entry are significantly higher. The original Galley Group opened Smallman Galley by trading on a spirit of entrepreneurship and risk-taking, and Pittsburgh’s food truck scene is thriving after regulatory barriers were cleared, offering abundant opportunities for new entrants and varied cuisines. But risk brings not only occasional reward and frequent failure but also the possibility that investors, employees, and communities may be exploited and left holding the (doggie) bag.
Globalization. Pittsburgh’s older cosmopolitan food culture had (and still has) a specific geographic affect, rooted in European communities. Pittsburgh has never been a food island, but until recently Pittsburghers haven’t looked broadly for their food inspirations.
Today, however, we see food from all over. Thanks to PennMac, APTEKA, and even the contestants in the Pirates’ Great Pierogy Race, both new and traditional versions of older Pittsburgh cuisine are still on offer. But don’t miss Salim’s in the Strip District or Panaderia Jazmin in Mt. Lebanon, whose success is evidence of the growing diversity of Pittsburgh’s people.
Simply excellent modern restaurants. Sometimes, an excellent plate of food is just an excellent plate of food, evidence of a chef’s imagination and a restaurant’s execution. Food for food’s sake is the heart of foodie culture, and Pittsburgh now has its own culinary cutting edge, thanks to local supply chains, a talent pool to support both the front of the house and the kitchen (stretched thin during the pandemic), and a restaurant cost structure that compares favorably to higher-profile locations in bigger cities.
My favorite of these, by a mile, was Legume, while it lasted. Today, Morcilla is magnificent. I hear complaints, largely from Pittsburgh old-timers, that the new restaurants are noisy and “edgy” in ways that fail to offer a comfortable meal. To which I say: Choose to eat somewhere else. Diversity can be a great thing.
Food production and distribution. Heinz and its pickle production may have left Pittsburgh for good, despite Pittsburgh’s Picklesburgh nostalgia-fest. But legacy family farms carry on (Trax, Soergels, Janoskis, Simmons), along with urban farming (Garfield Community Farm, Shiloh Farm, Oasis Farm and Fishery, Braddock Farms) and farm-to-table operations (Churchview Farm). Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farmers markets, and the East End Food Co-op have grown and thrived by blending community-based food idealism with both food snobbery and quality.
At the industrial end, the Giant Eagle empire grows and grows, anchored in its North Hills family origin story and numerous small-town markets, alongside the reinvented Eat ’n Park Hospitality Group. Pittsburgh outsiders, such as Whole Foods, Walmart, and Target, have found their places in Pittsburgh’s food ecology over the last two decades.
Pittsburgh’s shared interests, identities, tastes, and goals were once recognizably descended from Pittsburgh of the 20th century but have become slowly, visibly, and broadly postindustrial. Food tells a significant part of that story. In some ways, it’s the story of urban sameness. Like Americans almost anywhere, Pittsburghers can enjoy the pleasures of Applebee’s, Olive Garden, and Panera Bread. Those clean, affordable, standardized restaurants fill an important social need. The more interesting development is the region’s postindustrial embrace of the world at large, blended with some Pittsburgh flair.
Pittsburgh’s food culture today isn’t simply a Western Pennsylvania version of San Francisco, New York, or London — cities with incredible food that sometimes seem to have little connection to communities on the ground.
Is everyone coming out ahead? Clearly not. Pittsburgh’s next food challenge is supporting and including people and communities who aren’t represented here. Food insecurity is a big problem. Thanks go out to all who are working to solve it, most of all the amazing teams at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and at additional Pittsburgh postindustrial innovations that include Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, 412 Food Rescue, and Food21 of Pittsburgh.