Pittsburgh Rare: A Culinary History of the Steel City

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Back in 2002, just a few months after I'd moved to New York City, I was walking through Wall Street on my lunch break, young and broke and unspeakably homesick. So when I suddenly spotted a family of tourists wearing "Pittsburghese" T-shirts, splashed with local dialect words like gumban (that's "rubber band" to you), my eyes lit up. I greeted them right on Broadway with a wave and a shout: "I'm from Pittsburgh, too!" The next thing I knew, we were out for lunch at a nearby deli, where I introduced them to the wonders of onion bialys and talked about how much I missed eating salads with fries on them. "You can't get that here?" they asked sympathetically. They picked up the check and hugged me like a long-lost family member. That's what it means to be from Pittsburgh.

Put simply, Pittsburgh is the best place in the world to call home. In the decades after the steel industry collapsed, hundreds of thousands of us have found ourselves scattered across the country and around the world. Some went in search of work in the '70s and '80s; others, like myself and many of my friends, departed for greener pastures during the post-9/11 recession. But those of us who left haven't stopped thinking of ourselves as Pittsburghers. It's an identity that's ingrained in our way of life, from our "Pittsburghese" speech to our beloved Steelers to our unique fusion of culinary traditions. In fact, when linguist Barbara Johnstone asked people from around southwestern Pennsylvania to identify themselves, "most included 'Pittsburgher' (and many said 'American'), but no one listed 'Pennsylvanian.'"

Pay a visit to the city itself and you'll quickly see why that identity remains so strong. Enter through "Pittsburgh's front door"—the unassuming Fort Pitt Tunnel—and you'll encounter a breathtaking view of the skyline and our three rivers with their bridges. You'll see the old Pittsburgh: the mansions of Millionaires' Row and the onion-dome churches high on the hilltops. You'll eat pierogi and pasta and soul food, fries on sandwiches and fries on salads and fries underneath a roller coaster at Kennywood Park. This is what a lot of people call "authentic Pittsburgh," the 'Burgh of the steel industry's postwar heyday and the peak of immigration, full of Italian cheesemongers and Greek church ladies and Syrian butchers.

These are the people who brought their foodways and their languages with them and learned from one another, which is probably why so many retired steelworkers can swear in Polish, Italian, and Slovak. Their ways mixed with those of African Americans coming in from the south and the region's Pennsylvania Dutch influences to the east. To my grandmother, who moved here from rural North Carolina after marrying Grandpa at the end of World War II, the city was a kaleidoscope of foreign foods and strange languages—as dazzling then as New York City would be to her Pittsburgh-raised granddaughter 50 years later. Grammy adjusted her Southern cooking to accommodate my grandpa, the grandson of German immigrants, and his love for garlic and hot peppers, though he had to can his own sauerkraut. She wouldn't touch the stuff, but she honored German tastes enough to serve it with every New Year's pork roast (right next to the black-eyed peas).

Grammy wasn't the only one incorporating new foods into the old ways. The upheaval of the war, coupled with an influx of workers from all over the globe, drastically transformed the city's culinary landscape. And the steel industry was the cultural anchor that brought it all together—sometimes right there in the mill.

Pittsburgh Rare

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Steel ingots receive their first rolling [Photograph: Library of Congress]

Take, for instance, the legend of the "Pittsburgh rare" steak, which can still be spotted on menus around the country. As my grandfather told it, steelworkers would bring raw steaks to work in their lunch boxes, then slap them onto the side of the superheated blast furnace to get a quick char on the outside, leaving the interior virtually raw. I'd always assumed the story was apocryphal—surely this wasn't a practical method of cooking. But Ron Baraff, of Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area—a historical society dedicated to preserving the city's steel-industry heritage—sets me straight.

"Some of our guys definitely used to do this," he says. It's unlikely they were using the blast furnace, though: "Probably it was the blow pipes. Those are the big pipes that bring the hot air into the furnace, and they can get as hot as 1,800°F. The guys used to bring their food wrapped in foil and put it on the pipes to heat up—probably not for more than a minute." Who needs a microwave in the break room when your entire workplace is a maze of heat? It wasn't always steak they cooked, either, Baraff is quick to add. "You had immigrants from all over; you had African Americans coming up from the South, so people were making all kinds of food: chitlins, kielbasa, you name it."

Workers in the rolling mill had another option, too: plate steel. "They'd take the steel ingots—pillars of steel—and heat them up to about 1,800 or 2,000°F. Enough so that the steel was soft and almost melting, but not quite. Then the rolling mill would roll it into plate. You'd have it lying there flat, just like a griddle, as it was cooling on the cooling bed. You'd put a steak on that, and it would be pretty much a touch-and-go to char it." (To achieve Pittsburgh rare steak at home, you'd need a thick steak—an inch and a half would be good—and a very, very, very hot cast iron pan.)

Tradition and Transformation

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The Strip District. [Photograph: Adam Milliron]

Even outside the mills, Pittsburgh's food has always vividly expressed its working-class identity. Many of the city's classic standout dishes are cheap and simple: the char-grilled burgers at the dimly lit, wood smoke–scented Tessaro's, or the ubiquitous fry-topped steak salad (more on that in a minute). Until around 2000, when local chefs began to branch out, the restaurant scene was conservative, usually involving iceberg salads or menu staples a decade out of date (sun-dried tomatoes, anyone?). The best bet was to find a solid red-sauce Italian-American standby. When I was growing up, my family's preferred special-occasion spot was Veltri's in Plum Township. We loved dipping the shatteringly crisp fried zucchini in sweet marinara, but the real attraction was the view—the restaurant was perched high on the hilltop across the Allegheny River from our hometown, a suburb called Springdale, and its picture windows framed the massive smokestack of the town's power plant. Veltri's closed in 2002, and though many places like it are still around, they're increasingly overshadowed by the "new" Pittsburgh—the one Zagat named its top food city of 2015.

The local dining scene has undergone a rapid makeover no less impressive than the city's much-touted economic rebirth. Great food is a key part of Pittsburgh's bid for national and global recognition of its renaissance, right alongside robotics, biotech, and a new Google campus. The old Pittsburgh and the new do more than coexist side by side on streets and in memories: They're merging and melding in unexpected ways. Chefs are experimenting with new concepts—like Justin Severino's charcuterie wonderland, Cure, and Kevin Sousa's highly anticipated Superior Motors—and making the most of Pennsylvania's local harvest. Many of these innovators are homegrown, while others come for Pittsburgh's low cost of living and stay for the friendly people and beautiful terrain.

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Pepperoni bread [Photograph: Adam Milliron]

What's exciting, though, is that chefs here aren't simply copying what's happening elsewhere: They're reinventing and honoring Pittsburgh's rich traditions of "ordinary," simple food. You'll find upscale renditions of pierogi, pretzels, and stuffed cabbage on the city's menus. Downtown, chef Richard DeShantz offers an updated take on the meat-and-potatoes reputation of Pittsburgh's food with the aptly named Meat & Potatoes, where the 34-ounce ribeye comes topped with a pile of herbed mushrooms and is served along with bones full of rich marrow finished with buttery bread crumbs. Butcher and the Rye (also by DeShantz) and Braddock's American Brasserie also reach into local history with draft whiskey cocktails and bourbon flights that celebrate western Pennsylvania's famous 1794 Whiskey Rebellion.

Perhaps most emblematic of this crossover is Pittsburgh's iconic market neighborhood, the Strip District. Once the hub of a booming rail system, it's where produce entered the city for much of the 19th and 20th centuries—fruit and vegetable wholesalers lined the streets, often at their most active in the middle of the night. Today, the district remains a destination for chefs and home cooks, and many of its establishments still keep railroaders' hours, with diners like Kelly O's, which maintains a decidedly industrial vibe, and the always-busy, butter-soaked Pamela's (President Obama's local favorite) serving huge breakfasts well before the crack of dawn. The Strip's historic shops—like Wholey Fish Market, Mancini's Bakery, and the century-old Italian-American mainstay Pennsylvania Macaroni Company—still open early and offer the freshest food around.

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[Photograph: Adam Milliron]

Next to these stalwarts, though, shoppers can stop for a nitrogenated cold brew or a pourover at Allegheny Coffee & Tea Exchange or expertly brewed kombucha at Red Star Kombucha. The Strip District has become a culinary attraction in its own right, catering to both tourists and those for whom a visit to Pittsburgh is a pilgrimage home. "They treat Pittsburgh in the same way their Italian ancestors treated Italy," writes Wright Thompson of ESPN magazine, "a complex thing becoming simple...trying to keep a culture from diluting into nothing."

On the surrounding streets, you'll find vendors selling black-and-gold T-shirts geared to just about everyone—so long as they appreciate Pittsburgh. "I'm a Japanese Steeler Fan" and "I'm a Brazilian Steeler Fan" are among dozens of choices you can wear back to New York or Florida or San Francisco or Delhi. You get the sense that, here, there's something to the myth of the "ethnic melting pot." Pittsburgh is hard to pin down—not quite Midwestern or East Coast or Appalachian, not quite one thing or another. Its food traditions are quirky, too, with people widely adopting foodways that once belonged to specific ethnic groups and making them, simply, "Pittsburghese."

The Cookie Table

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Cookies. [Photograph: Adam Milliron]

Nowhere is this culinary fusion more visible than at the cookie table. For generations, family members have brought batches of homemade cookies to wedding receptions in this region. Even at the most polished, high-end weddings, the custom persists. When a New York Times reporter investigated its origins, he found they'd been lost to the mists of time—though locals with Italian, Greek, and Eastern European roots were all happy to take credit. Marc Serrao, owner of the Oakmont Bakery, helps brides and grooms supplement their families' offerings with cookies baked from his grandmother's recipes. "In most of the country," he says, "you estimate one or two cookies per wedding guest. Here, it's six to 12!" He grins. "You know some of those ladies bring their own baggies to take some home."

Serrao started his bakery in 1988, which makes him practically a newcomer by Pittsburgh standards. But he's built a wildly successful business by producing the foods locals love, from pepperoni bread to pączki, a doughnut-like Polish pastry originally eaten in the weeks before Lent.

Fries, Fries, and More Fries

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A Primanti Brothers sandwich. [Photograph: Adam Milliron]

Branding yourself as a Pittsburgh tradition in this manner might just be the quickest route to success in the city's food industry. Primanti Brothers, once a humble lunch counter that served railroad workers in the Strip, created what many non-Pittsburghers think of when they envision our local cuisine: thick sandwiches stuffed with fries and coleslaw. That it has come to be known as simply "the Pittsburgh sandwich" is a masterful act of marketing that's paid off handsomely for Primanti's, which now has 30 locations, with six more slated to open in 2016. Its role in local culture is so significant that in 2007, the James Beard Foundation declared Primanti's an "American classic."

Chains like family restaurant Eat'n Park and Bruster's Ice Cream have done the same. Even local businesses that haven't become chains benefit from the pervasive, nostalgic love for Pittsburgh: Glen's Custard—where high school kids have held summer scooping jobs since the 1930s—ships frozen custard and its signature Glenwiches to homesick hometowners like me, who miss gathering on its back deck under the smokestack for tin roof sundaes and gossip. And The Potato Patch, the fry stand at the beloved local amusement park, Kennywood, has become such a symbol of local tastes that the park has had to expand operations just to accommodate the rush. (According to a Kennywood spokesperson, Potato Patch workers cut and cook 8,000 pounds of Idaho potatoes every day, selling half a million orders each summer.)

In case it isn't yet clear, fries are a big deal in Pittsburgh: We put them on everything. It wasn't until I graduated from college and moved to New York that I realized most Americans don't put hot French fries on their salads. The "Pittsburgh salad" was and remains a local staple, as likely to be found at chains like Eat'n Park as at independent cafés, yet it's virtually unknown outside western Pennsylvania.

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Pittsburgh salad from Pamela's. [Photograph: Adam Milliron]

If salads are meant to be light, healthy alternatives to a meat-and-potatoes meal, the Pittsburgh salad turns this on its head. A true Pittsburgh salad is a bowlful of deeply satisfying contrasts: crisp iceberg lettuce; cucumbers, tomatoes, maybe some onions; and hot steak or grilled chicken, a generous handful of crispy fries, a mound of shredded cheddar cheese. Oh, and don't forget the dressing (Italian, preferably) and croutons. It's best eaten quickly, while these contrasts are at their height, though Pittsburgh restaurants' famously massive portions can make this difficult.

Just outside the city, where the Beaver River flows into the Ohio, Jerry's Curb Service claims credit for inventing the Pittsburgh salad. "It was on a fateful night in the early 1960s that the now famous Steak Salad was born," the website recounts. "A customer placed a rather unusual order—a steak sandwich, hold the bun, add fries and salad dressing. Not one to disappoint a customer, Donna Reed [wife of owner Jerry Reed] placed the order. She noticed the man cut up the steak, mixed in the fries and poured the salad dressing on top. Curious about this rather odd concoction, Donna decided to try it for herself, but with one small change. Donna placed her sliced steak, fries and salad dressing atop a fresh bed of lettuce." But did Donna's mysterious customer really invent the Pittsburgh salad? Hilltop Grill, across the Beaver River in Rochester, may disagree—they, too, claim to be the salad's originators.

"It's a good story, though, isn't it?" replies Jerry's corporate manager, Dave Guido. And, as Pittsburgh Post-Gazette food editor Bob Batz observes, "I don't know how many locals know or would believe the story, but hey, who can dispute it?"

For Rick Sebak—the genial documentary filmmaker known and loved throughout Steeler Nation for his coverage of Pittsburgh history and food—these kinds of debates, and the ambiguity that surrounds them, are central to Pittsburgh's narrative. "I don't remember who told me this," Sebak says, "but so much of food history is written on Jell-O."

What he means is that it's often wobbly and impermanent. We consume the evidence, after all, even if artifacts like bones and menus live on. Sebak's work celebrates the ordinary, finding cultural meaning in the foods most people think of as forgettable. He talks to sandwich makers and and amusement park French fry vendors about the customs they uphold and the legends they tell among themselves. Together, they paint a picture of the Pittsburgh I'm proudest of: a city enamored of its memories; a city that, forced to stop exporting steel, began exporting stories.

The Land of Plenty

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Allegheny County farmland [Photograph: Shutterstock]

If Pittsburgh cuisine's past is inscribed on the steel plate of the rolling mills and the stained glass windows of Orthodox cathedrals, its future is growing in the rich farmlands just outside the city.

"Pittsburgh's future? I think you're sitting in it," says chef Justin Severino, spreading his arms to indicate the simple, warm interior of his new Lawrenceville tapas restaurant, Morcilla (recently nominated for a James Beard Award). The hams hanging from the ceiling betray Severino's background in butchery—he made his name locally by serving handmade salumi and whipped lard at Cure, and here at Morcilla, he's curing heirloom-quality Spanish-style delicacies like jamón Ibérico and a translucent, almost candy-like lomo. While he's a little skeptical about Zagat's choice of Pittsburgh as its top food city—"There's no way we've surpassed San Francisco or New York"—he sees the designation as evidence of the city's culinary potential. With low start-up costs, access to excellent produce, and a restaurant industry with a friendly, collaborative vibe, he says, Pittsburgh's restaurant scene is attracting talent like never before. Perhaps even more promising, so are the area's farms.

"There are a lot of new, young farmers, believe it or not," Severino says, and many of them offer specialty crops, organic produce, and sustainably raised meats to consumers and restaurants. "Just about every neighborhood has a farmers market now."

This is the paradox of food in Pittsburgh: There's a rich culinary heritage and an abundance of locally produced ingredients, but when I visit my mother in Springdale, I have a hard time finding enough ingredients to bake cookies. Local supermarket chain Giant Eagle has been pulling back, closing its stores and replacing them with GetGo gas station markets. The only grocery option left nearby is a Walmart, which means that the area—like as much as 47% of the city—is now a food desert, with access only to fast food and convenience stores.

At the same time, though, farmers markets have been expanding, with 60 now operating in Allegheny County alone. In some ways, it's a throwback to the old Pittsburgh: Where produce stands were once replaced by supermarkets, today's supermarkets are being replaced by produce stands. You can eat well if you have the time and mobility and cash to pursue what's out there, but farmers markets will have to really proliferate—and probably lower their prices—to serve communities like Springdale.

As I write this, Pittsburgh's map is being redrawn. Chefs and restaurateurs here deserve credit: They've been digging deep into the city's roots and sharing an updated, innovative cuisine that tells its story. Several new waves of immigrants—from Vietnam, India, Mexico, Zambia—now stand ready to add their own flavors to Pittsburgh's melting-pot food culture, and the people who have always shaped the food here—mothers and granddads and church ladies, sandwich makers and bakers and fry cooks—are still cooking away, up and down the river valleys. If this new geography can bring the bounty of western Pennsylvania's farms into the hands of ordinary Pittsburghers, the city's future will be delicious indeed.