Pittsburgh isn’t usually considered a culinary center. But a Saturday morning at the Strip District is a serious eater’s paradise, when everything from mung bean pancakes to fresh-baked biscotti can be snagged without leaving the sidewalk. (Not to mention the ubiquitous Steelers garb.) Just up the Allegheny from the city’s downtown, the Strip was once a major center of industry. While the Steel City’s mills and factories now lie dormant, the markets are as lively as ever. A walk down Penn Avenue shows off Pittsburgh’s Polish, Greek, Irish, and Italian roots, as well as relative newcomers from Korea and Vietnam—passionate eaters of every extraction.
The Strip is at its best—if also its most crowded—on Saturday mornings. So show up early and head first to La Prima Espresso. The Neapolitan-style espresso bar has Italian scrawled on the blackboard and elderly gentlemen lingering at the sidewalk tables with the morning paper—a sure indicator of a reliable cup of coffee if I’ve ever seen one. Roasting their coffee in the cavernous former market warehouse, only a few blocks away, La Prima follows the beans from their single-source farm in Los Olivos, Columbia, straight to your expertly made cappuccino.
Once properly caffeine-buzzed, turn back to Penn Avenue and commence your walk of eats. As soon as you turn the corner, you’ll be hit with the meaty, smoky smells of Lucy Nguyen’s sidewalk grill. It may seem a bit early for a skewer of meat, but Lucy’s been there since 7 AM.
In front of Vietnamese-Taiwanese restaurant My Ngoc, she grills the pork and chicken to stuff her chewy, spicy banh mi: crusty sandwiches with a French shell, Vietnamese stuffing, and serious sidewalk flavor. Order a $5 number and Lucy will slice a fresh baguette, slide the meat of your choice inside, and layer with ginger-pickled carrots, crisp onions and cukes, and impressive handful of cilantro—before the chile, jalapeno, and brown sauce that bind the sandwich into a sweet, spicy, chewy experience. Best enjoyed standing up, warmed by the fumes of grilled pork.
Continuing down Penn Avenue, you’ll hit micro-Italy: the Enrico Biscotti Company, with a winged moon-shaped cookie sign out front and ample, tooth-gentle biscotti inside.
The Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, with an absurd selection of imported Italian meats, cheeses, and sundries, plus homemade ricotta and mozzarella.
And Sunseri’s, another decades-old market with sloppy meatball sandwiches at the lunch counter, smells of sausages seeping through the store, and Jimmy and Nino’s Famous Mystery Cheese sold by the pound.
Starting with Enrico’s, many of Penn Avenue’s businesses have names that reflect a wholesale tradition: the Biscotti Company, the Macaroni Company. While some of these monikers are more recently adopted (the Pittsburgh Popcorn Co. and the Fudgie Wudgie Chocolate Factory come to mind) the Carnegie-era warehouses and family-named corporations hearken back to a time when food was a serious business on the Strip.
Moving beyond the old-school Italian, cross the street (and the culinary globe) for a fresh-griddled mung bean cake in front of Korean grocery Sam Bok.
If you snagged some fresh cheese or a few slices of prosciutto a few blocks ago—or you just can’t resist the siren song of fresh focaccia—drop in Mancini’s Bakery. Ernie Mancini started baking bread in Pittsburgh over eighty years ago, but his grandson only recently opened this storefront on the Strip. Up near the window, flour-covered men pound and stretch the dough that’ll become Mancini’s cinnamon buns and sandwich rolls. Step inside for free samples and, even better, free smells.
Walking past peanut roasters and specialty tea shops, you’ll eventually arrive at Wholey’s Fish Market. It’s named for the Wholey family, but gives some indication of the scene inside: whole fish, wholesale.
It's hard to go hungry in Pittsburgh.