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Pittsburgh welcomes world leaders with open-faced sandwiches

And pirogi and spaetzle. Yes, President Obama says P-town has transformed itself into a city of high-tech innovation, but don't forget the grub.

September 20, 2009|Andrew Bender

PITTSBURGH — Nonstop canapes on gold-rimmed porcelain cocktail plates at diplomatic soirees. After a while, they get to be just a bit of a yawn, don't you find?

So I cheered at the announcement that the G-20 summit would take place this week in Pittsburgh. Anyone puzzled about why it was selected hasn't been here recently. President Obama noted that Pittsburgh has "transformed itself from the city of steel to a center for high-tech innovation -- including green technology, education and training, and research and development."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 23, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Pittsburgh eateries: An article in Sunday's Travel section about dining in Pittsburgh was accompanied by a photograph showing a river and the city's skyline. The photo caption identified the river as the Allegheny. It was the Monongahela River.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 27, 2009 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Pittsburgh eateries: An article last week about dining in Pittsburgh was accompanied by a photo showing a river and the city's skyline. The caption identified the river as the Allegheny. It was the Monongahela River.

For me, though, it's all about the food. Sure, summiteers will find restaurants similar to those, say, within 10 blocks of the United Nations, but why bother when many eating places that fueled the industrial machine are still going strong? Short of attending a Steelers game (alas, they're away next weekend), there's no better way to see the real 'Burgh than to visit one of these generations-old, family-run German, Polish, red sauce Italian and sandwich spots.

I'd steer visitors first to Primanti Brothers for the city's best-known sandwiches. It's in an old warehouse district, known as the Strip, by the Allegheny River. Here's the formula: a slice -- nay, a slab -- of Italian bread, your choice of a couple of dozen meats (pastrami, Italian sausage, etc.), topped with sweet and sour coleslaw, sliced tomato and, wait for it, chunky French fries, before the top slab of bread. Legend has it that Primanti's (founded in 1933) started making sandwiches this way so workers could operate machinery with one hand and eat with the other. It's open 24 hours in the unlikely event that, say, the Saudi and South Korean delegations go on a rager and need some good grease to sop it up.

Happy hour on a plate

These sandwiches' influence is such that "Pittsburgh style" is the local vernacular for fries in unexpected places. They stand in for croutons on the Pittsburgh salad at the brick-and-beam Union Grill, near Carnegie Mellon University. My neighbor at the counter had hers with a buffalo chicken breast, like happy hour on a plate.

Union Grill's other signature is the Devonshire sandwich, thickly sliced white meat turkey on toasted Italian bread, topped with tomato and bacon, doused with Parmesan cheese sauce, finished under a broiler and served piping hot in a ceramic skillet. I could barely eat half. "It's a lot of food," said my server after I cried uncle. When a Pittsburgher says that, you know it's for real.

Across town, the Bloomfield neighborhood is Pittsburgh's Little Italy, with some notable exceptions. Bloomfield Bridge Tavern is the self-proclaimed "Polish Party House."

"Are the BBT's pirogi the best?" asks local attorney Andy Szefi. "Is the pope Polish?" Umm, no, but no matter. These dumplings have a near-religious following, particularly the potato and cheese variety, boiled, then sauteed in butter and onions. Try them as part of a sampler platter with other Polish treats such as golabki (stuffed cabbage) and kluski (noodles and cottage cheese).

The name game

Up Liberty Avenue, Tessaro's century-old building had been, at times, a rooming house, nickelodeon and biker bar, until college football star Kelly Harrington took over in 1984.

"We didn't change the name," says Harrington's sister and Tessaro's manager Ena, "because everybody knows the Irish can't cook."

That might surprise patrons who voted Tessaro's wood-grilled hamburgers the 'Burgh's best in a local magazine for so many years that they've been removed from competition. Because of Tessaro's loyal customers and staff, Kelly Harrington's unexpected death in May at age 57 made headlines. Some of the cooks have worked there more than 20 years and the bartender 23.

"And they're all under 40," Ena Harrington says, adding, "well, maybe the bartender is 40, but she wouldn't tell."

Across the street, John del Pizzo is the third generation of his family to head Del's Bar & Ristorante DelPizzo. It covers all the Italian classics: more than 150 combinations of pastas and sauces, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, and entrees such as chicken Marsala. My recent evening at Del's U-shaped bar, decked out with Steelers memorabilia, felt straight out of "Cheers"; everyone really did know everyone else's name. I feasted on Italian wedding soup, thick with carrots, celery, onions, escarole, pastina, diced chicken and tiny meatballs.

The restaurant's 60th anniversary this year has meant specials all year long. "Even with the bad economy, people will still come out for a bowl of spaghetti for $6.95," del Pizzo says.

The German Max's Allegheny Tavern is in one of the city's oldest rooms. Stained-glass lamps and ceiling fans hang from the pressed tin ceiling over the long, mirrored, burnished wooden bar, where draft German beers arrive in Mason jars kept cold in an icebox dating to 1903.

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