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Pittsburgh has lots of high-class restaurants and yummy eateries and was consequently awarded the title “2019 Food City of the Year” by San Francisco’s restaurant and hospitality consulting firm af&co.
“There’s no shortage of innovation in Pittsburgh. With a booming tech scene, restaurants are also getting in on the action by pushing the boundaries while keeping food approachable. With the city’s proximity to farms, it’s no surprise the local food scene is flourishing.”
While this award pays homage to mostly new food innovations, Pittsburgh is long known for some of its staple foods. And it all makes sense: Not only does Pittsburgh have its own language and its sports teams with the most loyal fan base, it also has its own food.
This is what the first part of this article is all about – the 10 staple foods and restaurants in Pittsburgh that you absolutely have to try.
In the second part, I will tell you about Pittsburgh’s food streets and some of the notable restaurants and food stores that you can find there.
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Founded in 1933, Primanti Brothers’ first restaurant (map) in Pittsburgh’s Strip District is still a busy place. The claim to fame for “Primanti Bros.” are their signature sandwiches which have grilled meat, melted cheese, tomato slices, oil & vinegar based coleslaw and French fries (!!!) between two thick slices of Italian bread.
Primanti invented their loaded signature sandwiches, because their restaurant was located in Pittsburgh’s busy and industrial Strip District and one of their main clientele were truck drivers. Truck drivers were often short on time and wanted to eat their sandwiches while driving. So, Primanti loaded up their sandwiches with the grilled meat, and all sides including the fries, wrapped them in a sheet of newspaper and handed them to their customers who then consumed the sandwiches while hauling their loads.
If these giant sandwiches are not for your palate, you can get other typical sports bar food like pizzas and chicken wings too.
The Primanti Bros. restaurant in the Strip District is probably the most authentic of them all, with the visible large grill and chalk board. But it can be real busy and noisy here. If you are looking for a less busy location and don’t want to go out of your way during your trip to Pittsburgh, try the location outside the airport in Moon Township (map) or the restaurant in Market Square in downtown (map). If you realize that you forgot to visit Primanti Bros. during your Pittsburgh stay, don’t worry, I have got you covered. There is a Primanti Bros. located in the Center Core between Concourses B & C (map). This is, however, the least authentic restaurant.
Church Brew Works, or Church Brewery, is a brewery and restaurant located in a restored former St. John the Baptist Church, a Roman Catholic church. The church was built in 1902 and was in use as a church until 1993. Church Brewery opened in the former church in 1996 and it has become a classic ever since.
When you visit, be advised that parking may be difficult to find in this area, but there is a parking lot that belongs to Church Brewery directly behind the church.
When you go there, make sure to walk around in the church and take a look at the shiny brewing equipment. If you like, you can buy the beer glass with the Church Brew Works emblem and other memorabilia there.
Most importantly: They brew some fantastic beers here, so make sure to ask for their specials.
Most people know pierogies as dumplings. In the US and Canada, pierogies have been particularly popular in areas with large immigrant populations from the Baltics, Hungary, Poland, Russia, or Ukraine. Pittsburgh in particular, with its large immigrant groups from those four regions, has become the epicenter of pierogi culture in the US.
Not only have many restaurants at least one pierogi dish, Pittsburgh’s professional baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, have “The Great Pittsburgh Pierogi Race N'at” (Great Pierogi Race) between innings during a home game.
Besides restaurants, you can find pierogies at street vendors and at local festivals and frozen in grocery stores.
While Pittsburgh pierogies can have different fillings, the most popular filling consists of mashed potatoes, cheese and onions and I can tell you: they taste great!
If you have ever been to a wedding in Pittsburgh, then chances are high that you have seen a cookie table. Imagine a row of tables at the wedding reception, where every guest brings their very best batch of homemade cookies. Now imagine that the happy couple has invited 100 people and you should get the idea.
The tables will be laden with tray after tray of this homemade perfection and the row of tables may spread the length of an entire hotel ballroom and hold thousands of cookies. Guests are free to sample all of the cookies and take-home containers are provided so nobody has to leave empty-handed.
Cookie tables have a long tradition at weddings in Pittsburgh, but their origin is unclear. Historically, cookie tables were found predominantly at Catholic and Eastern European family weddings. The general consensus is that low income immigrants started this tradition, because elaborate wedding cakes were too expensive. Cookies were cheap and easy to make and since cookies are different among different cultural groups, they were a way for immigrants to honor their heritage in the new home, the US.
In August 2019, the record for the largest cookie table was set and there were 88,425 cookies at the cookie table! The previous record was 18,000 cookies.
Many people eat salad as a side dish, and something heartier as their main dish. Here in hard working Pittsburgh, we eat Primanti Bros. sandwiches, as they have everything in one dish and that allows us to get back to work quickly. So, why not do this with a salad too?
Welcome to the Pittsburgh Salad! Yes, you guessed it right, we put French fries on the salad, add some shredded cheese and meat. You get your whole meal in one mouthwatering dish. What more could you ask for?
Often available only as an appetizer, fried zucchini can be a main dish too and they are rightfully one of Pittsburgh's most iconic foods, but often overlooked. Fried zucchini are available from casual eateries all the way to upscale restaurants in Pittsburgh. They are typically either served as fried zucchini sticks or breaded zucchini slices.
You may have seen this in my section of Pittsburghese (link xxx) and wondered what that is.
Isaly's Deli popularized chipped chopped ham as a lunch meat. It is made from chopped ham which is a mixture of ham chunks, trimmings and seasonings, ground together and packaged into loaves. It is then sliced “Pittsburgh Style”, meaning into very thin slices which have a different texture and flavor than thicker sliced ham. Sometimes the sliced ham is mixed and heated with barbecue sauce before it is put on a sandwich.
Polish immigrants brought their Kielbasa to the new world. While they called any type of sausage Kielbasa, in today’s US, a Kielbasa is a coarse, smoked and U-shaped sausage of any type of meat. In Pittsburgh, Kielbasa sausages have made it from a Polish sausage to a popular meal for all Pittsburghers. Primanti Bros. have a Kielbasa & Cheese sandwich but often, Pittsburgh Kielbasa is prepared in a crock pot with sauerkraut, beer and brown sugar and then directly eaten.
As for me, I have never had a bad Kielbasa meal. I love it uncooked, barbequed, boiled, fried, on a sandwich, prepared in a crock pot, with and without (Heinz) ketchup or (Dijon) mustard, you name it.
Eat'n Park is a Pittsburgh based restaurant chain. Launched in 1949, the chain was first known as "Pittsburgh's First Modern Eat-in-your-Car Food Service". When Eat'n Park launched the Smiley Cookie in 1986, it became so popular that the company became known as “Eat 'N Park's the place for smiles”. The smiley cookie was the inspiration for rival Kings Family Restaurants "Frownie" brownie.
Today, kids get a free smiley cookie after their meal, while the restaurants will happily sell adults boxes of smiley cookies and smiley cookie merchandise.
Sarris Candies was founded in 1960 in Canonsburg, South of Pittsburgh. You can buy Sarris chocolate in stores, but we recommend a visit to the chocolate heaven which is Sarris Candies factory and Ice Cream Parlor. Here you can see and buy lots of different types of chocolate candy and you can also indulge in ice cream sundaes, shakes, or old fashioned ice cream cones in the old fashioned ice cream parlor, which is like going back in time. The choice may be overwhelming, so my recommendation is to just try something. I have never had any bad chocolate or chocolate ice cream in my life.