Unfussy. Caloric. Satisfying.
Pittsburgh unabashedly stands behind its sammies. From spicy sausage and crispy fish to French fries, anything goes inside a bun in this town
With a thriving art scene, popular summer music festivals and a wealth of historic architecture, more and more travellers are heading to Pittsburgh. It's also one of the best places in America to eat a sandwich.
There's not much question of what one should order at Nied's. This fact is owing to the pink neon sign proclaiming NIED'S FAMOUS FISH SANDWICH
running the length of the façade above a row of small American flags. That the owners of Nied's, who set up shop here in 1941, think enough of their sandwich to devote the entire front of the building to it says a lot about its reputation. It also says a lot about the city of Pittsburgh. This is a sandwich town.
Like so many Rust Belt cities, Pittsburgh boomed in the early 20th century, churning out steel for the railways, ships and skyscrapers from which the American empire grew. Immigrants arrived en masse to man coke ovens and load rail cars, from Poland and Ukraine, from Italy and Germany. They brought with them their religion, their traditions and, of course, their food. It's from these working-class roots that Pittsburgh's culinary scene emerged, not a culture of tablecloths or sidewalk cafés, but of street carts and hidden kitchens, of food designed to be eaten from a lunch pail or behind the wheel, unfussy, caloric, satisfying.
Pittsburgh is booming again these days, with rising real estate prices and a burgeoning art scene. Google recently set up shop here, and a wave of new restaurants offers everything from Thai street noodles to Basque pintxos. Despite this 21st-century culinary infusion, the city's Old World sandwich culture remains a note of civic pride.
While any cab driver or bartender will point you to their favourite – the steak on focaccia at Gaucho's, the massive meatball hoagie at Angelo's – every Pittsburgh sandwich journey must begin at the source, a brick storefront on a side street in the Strip District.
Though now boasting locations from Florida to Indiana, Primanti Bros. sold their first sandwich here back in 1933. According to local lore, a truck driver was looking to unload a shipment of potatoes and was also in need of a satisfying meal before heading back home. An opportunistic Primanti bought the spuds, fried them up and sandwiched them between two slices of Italian bread along with coleslaw and hot sliced meat. The rest, as they say, is sandwich history.
"The capicollo and cheese is fantastic," says Mike Mitchum, operations director at the sandwich chain, over a bottle of Iron City beer in the restaurant's bustling dining room. The spiciness of the thin-sliced pork offers a perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of the coleslaw. But, Mitchum adds, "If you're gonna do it right, you have to add a fried egg to it."
The Primantis' influence has spread far and wide and spawned many imitators. Flip open the lunch menu at the new Ace Hotel in trendy East Liberty neighbourhood and you'll find a Primanti-style sandwich dressed up with house-cured pastrami and aged provolone. Order a "Pittsburgh salad" at Fat Head's Saloon and you'll get an order of fries mixed in with your greens.
Along Penn Avenue, past Jimmy Sunseri hawking Jimmy & Nino's famous pizza rolls ("They're dough-licious!"), you'll arrive at Peppi's Old Tyme Sandwich Shoppe, another house of worship for the holy trinity of bread-meat-bread. Peppis, "Home of the #7 Roethlisburger," as its window proclaims, is not the kind of place where you'd want to be seen in a Baltimore Ravens jersey. To say that football is a big deal in Pittsburgh is kind of like saying Parisians enjoy a glass of wine on occasion, or London is sometimes overcast. Peppi's famous hoagie is named after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and to outwardly support any other team within its walls would be considered a major faux pas.
"It's the best sandwich in the universe," says one customer. "Get it with bacon!" says his son, a wiry kid who is no doubt blissfully unaware of concepts such as cholesterol and metabolism. The #7 is a mix of fried spicy sausage and hamburger anointed with American cheese and eggs, cooked on Peppi's flattop before coming to rest beneath a pile of iceberg lettuce and sliced tomatoes on a pillowy submarine bun. The spice of the sausage bites pleasantly through the grease, while the lettuce and tomatoes provide just enough vegetal crunch. Bacon is by no means necessary but the impetus to add it is understandable.
On the northern edge of Lawrenceville, a fast-gentrifying neighbourhood that's now home to a hipster antiques store, a craft beer bar/indie movie theatre and a rock 'n' roll bowling alley, Nied's is filling up with regulars for the evening. The menu is classic Pittsburgh: kolbassi with kraut, wing dings, liverwurst on rye, but there's really only one thing a visitor should order here.
"One swimmer!" calls out Cathy, the bartender, an indefatigably cheerful woman with grey hair and a tuxedo T-shirt, to her cohort at the deep-frier. A breaded filet of haddock fried perfectly crisp, a couple slices of American cheese draped languidly over top. Italian roll, pickles, lettuce, onions, tomatoes. Tartar sauce if you want it (and yes, of course you do). There's no magic to Nied's fish sandwich, just simple good things combined with other good things, assembled with care and served without pretense. "Well? What do you think?" Cathy asks. It's delicious, of course, but she already knows this.
If you go
From Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, Air Canada (aircanada.com) offers daily flights via Toronto. From Toronto, Porter Airlines (flyporter.com) offers two daily direct flights to Pittsburgh from Billy Bishop Airport. in the city centre.
WHERE TO STAY
The Ace Hotel's Pittsburgh outpost offers a hip, comfortable home base for exploring the city. A permanent exhibition by legendary Pittsburgh photographer Charles (Teenie) Harris offers a glimpse into the city's past. 120 S Whitfield St., rooms from $169 (U.S.). acehotel.com/pittsburgh
The Fairmont Pittsburgh
Centrally located at Pittsburgh's Market Square, this 65-room hotel is notable for its 6,000-square-foot wellness centre and Edie, the resident dog. 510 Market St., rooms from $239.fairmont.com/pittsburgh
WHAT TO SEE
Pittsburgh Jazz Festival
Pittsburgh's remarkable revitalization is in a large part thanks to annual music festivals such as this one, which brings top performers to the city's downtown for a weekend of live jazz at more than a dozen venues. From June 24 to 26; pittsburghjazzlive.com
Three Rivers Arts Festival
In June, Pittsburgh's Point State Park becomes home to one of the world's largest free arts festivals, featuring art installations, live music, dance performances and an arts market. From June 3 to 12,3riversartsfest.org
The largest single-artist museum in the United States is dedicated to Pittsburgh's own Andy Warhol. This summer, an exhibition explores the relationship between Ai Wei Wei's and Warhol's creations. From June 4 until Aug. 28; warhol.org
The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Pittsburgh.