From Pierogi to Paska, We Eat Our Way Through Pittsburgh
We were after Polish dumplings in the Steel City, but ended up finding so much more.
We were after Polish dumplings in the Steel City, but ended up finding so much more.
Cook’s Country executive food editor Bryan Roof and I recently visited Pittsburgh in the name of recipe research, and in search of regional fare (specifically pierogi). In this post, we visit classic Pittsburgh joints such as Emil’s Lounge, Pierogies Plus, and Mancini’s in search of the best food the city has to offer. Here are some photographs of our travels.
TRAVELING AROUND THE COUNTRY in search of great American recipes has taken Cook’s Country to amazing places. From hash houses in South Carolina to the taco stands of San Antonio, from the barbecue pits of Tennessee to the dairy kingdom of Wisconsin, we’ve hit some of America’s most treasured food heritage hotspots and sampled their most iconic eats. So when executive food editor Bryan Roof and I set our sights on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we found ourselves at a bit of a loss: With no immediately obvious tradition of signature dishes like shrimp and grits or pulled pork or breakfast tacos, what defines Pittsburgh cuisine?
The answer, it turns out, is a little bit of everything, and we only had a few days to take it all in. Our only course of action was to hit the ground running and dive head-first into all that the Steel City had to offer.
Fresh off our crack-of-dawn flight from Boston, Bryan and I were scooped up by Mary Miller, our first local guide, and her food exploration partner-in-crime Beth Taylor. The two spend their free time giving food tours of their favorite spots in Pittsburgh, and Mary’s car even had a stuffed pierogi hanging from the shifter—right off the bat, we knew we were in good hands. We excitedly headed out for our first stop: Pierogies Plus in McKees Rocks.
Pierogies Plus is a one-stop shop for Polish comfort cuisine located in a former gas station. Owner Helen Mannarino runs the operation, which churns out nearly 400 dozen pierogi per day, and supplies many of Pittsburgh’s top restaurants—according to Helen, the pierogi at Pierogies Plus appear on a number of local “Best Of” lists.
The secret to Pierogies Plus’ prodigious output: a team of employees working non-stop at a long, semolina-dusted table, turning hundreds of rounds of dough and mounds of potato-based filling into dozens of dumplings with ruthless efficiency. Since each staff member pinches their pierogi closed in a slightly different manner, Helen jokes that if any of the dumplings break open while cooking, she’ll know who’s to blame. It’s no loss, though: The disintegrated dumplings, affectionately called “angels,” are actually sought after, so Helen sells them at a discount.
Even with a full itinerary, there was no way we could leave without a taste of the action. Helen set us up with an impromptu four-top right where the gas pumps used to be, and we tucked into our first lunch of the day: four different kinds of pierogi (potato and cheese, jalapeño cheddar, apricot and cream cheese, and lekvar, which is a deeply-flavored prune preserve) and a Corningware dish of cabbage rolls, another popular item at Pierogies Plus.
The rest of our time with Mary and Beth was a whirlwind of meeting folks doing pretty excellent things in the Pittsburgh food scene. Those folks include:
With a few stops (and more than a few snacks) under our belts, Bryan and I bade farewell to Mary and Beth and made our way toward the Strip District, where we met up with our second guide, Richard Domencic of ‘Burgh Bits and Bites. A Pittsburgh history buff who also just happens to love food, Richard gave us some insight into how this internationally influenced section of the city came to be: Located on the banks of the Allegheny River, Domencic says the Strip District was where many immigrants hopped off the high-traffic inland waterway before it met the Monongahela River to form the mighty Ohio just a mile downstream. The result? A veritable U.N. of food stretching down Penn Ave toward downtown.
First stop: Parma Sausage, where Rina Edwards (née Spinabelli) and her family have been dealing in cured meats, fresh sausage, imported cheese, and bold homemade wine for three generations.
Italy is fairly well represented on the Strip: In addition to the charcuterie at Parma, we also got a crash course in Italian lunch-counter cuisine at Sunseri’s from owner Jimmy Sunseri himself. With an unlit cigar perpetually hanging from one side of his mouth, Jimmy talks about his pepperoni rolls, pizza, and meatball subs with such pride that you’d think he invented each dish, sprinkling his sentences with the word “incidentally” liberally, like Parmesan over pasta.
It’s not all red sauce from the Italian contingent in the Strip District, though. On Rina’s recommendation, we stopped in at Colangelo’s for a taste of their “greens and beans.” This Pittsburgh favorite is a hearty collision of all things Tuscan: white beans, baby spinach, and hot sausage, slowly cooked down together and dusted with grated Parmesan. Denese Colangelo serves her take on greens and beans over a bed of spring mix, creating a neat layer of slightly wilted fresh greens where the braise meets the salad.
From Italy, we headed to Lebanon, via Labad’s Mediterranean Cafe & Grocery, located right across the street from Parma. Upon walking inside, Bryan and I were a bit confused: Richard had touted the place as a hidden gem of Lebanese cuisine, and Larry Labad and his brother William as “the crown princes of hummus,” but in truth, the storefront bore closer resemblance to a bodega than anything else.
Turns out we were in for a bit of a surprise: Shortly after we were introduced to Larry, he whisked us down aisles of bulk grains and spices, through a doorway at the back of the store, and into a back room decorated with gilded tablecloths and tapestries on the walls. There, Larry set us up with a plate of his hummus, made from ingredients imported from his family’s native Lebanon and prepared via his father’s method of slow-cooking the chickpeas to achieve a smooth, creamy consistency.
Just down the street from Labad’s, we found the Strip location of Mancini’s, a family bakery first established in McKees Rocks in 1926. Since then, their production has grown from 90 loaves made each night to over 10,000.
It’s not a stretch to say that Mancini’s bread is all over Pittsburgh. Everywhere Bryan and I went—from sandwich shops to dive bars to home kitchens—natives were crazy about Mancini’s signature braided loaves. Nick Hartner, the grandson of founder Ernie Mancini, showed us how these loaves are formed, a hypnotic looping and twisting motion he performed in about three seconds flat.
What interested us most, though, was their paska, a very eggy, slightly sweet bread featuring a tight but tender crumb and a rock sugar-dusted crust. Traditionally prepared for Ukrainian Easter celebrations, paska is only available at Mancini’s for a few weeks in the spring, and we were lucky enough to have timed our visit perfectly.
Of course, no trip around the world in Pittsburgh would be complete without a stop in Poland, so we headed to S&D Polish Deli for a quick dose of kielbasa. When it comes to Polish sausage, the folks at S&D don’t mess around, stocking dozens of kielbasa variants for purchase (in addition to including some form of sausage in about half the dishes on their menu).
Of course, we weren’t just there to ogle their meat case, so we ordered up the original: a kielbasa sandwich topped with a mountain of sauerkraut and mustard. Simultaneously smoky, sour, and spicy, this taste bomb was the perfect way to cap off a day of eating our way up and down the Strip.
With downtown pretty well covered, Bryan and I headed out of the city center and followed the Monongahela River eight miles out to the borough of Rankin to check out Emil’s Lounge, once an after-hours haunt for steel mill employees, but now home to some of the best sandwiches in the “Mon” Valley.
Our guide for the occasion was documentarian and Pittsburgh broadcasting legend Rick Sebak. Rick’s filmography demonstrates a love affair for two things: Pittsburgh (“The Strip Show,” “Kennywood Memories,” “25 Things I Like About Pittsburgh”) and food (“An Ice Cream Show,” “A Hot Dog Program”), so getting a tour of the menu at one of his favorite restaurants was about as informative as it gets. (Plus, I grew up watching his documentaries on my local PBS affiliate, so hearing the convivial tone he uses for all his films’ voice-overs in person was a pretty surreal experience.)
Rick introduced us to Krissy Kochis, daughter of the original Emil and proprietor of the lounge bearing his name. Unfazed by the fact that we ordered half the menu, Krissy was happy to show off her family’s tradition of preparing what she called classic “Hunky food,” borrowing a term once used disparagingly to refer to Slavic immigrants who came to Pittsburgh to work in the steel mills, now used lovingly by their descendants who embrace the moniker as a point of pride.
What is “Hunky food,” exactly? If the menu at Emil’s is any indication, it’s the territory in which hearty Eastern European fare like cabbage rolls, haluski (a buttery combination of cabbage and noodles), and pierogi. . .
. . . intersect with the absolute best Reuben sandwich I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. (Yes, even outside of New York. I know, I didn’t think it was possible either, but here we are.)
Somehow, we saved enough room to sample the sandwich for which Emil’s is best known: three enormous planks of beer-battered white fish served atop about half of an entire loaf of soft Italian bread. When Rick mentioned this sandwich, I must admit I was a bit skeptical, since it doesn’t sound like there’s a lot to it. After all, how involved can fish on bread really be? The answer: Who cares if it’s involved when it’s absolutely delicious? (Note to self, for future reference: Don’t ever doubt a lunch recommendation from the director of “Sandwiches You Will Like.”)
Our stomachs full of Hunky favorites and our food-related bases well covered, Bryan and I hopped into Rick’s car for one last stop on our tour of the greater Rankin area, winding our way down old abandoned access roads through the neighboring town of Braddock, talking Pittsburgh, sharing food adventures, and listening to stories about Fred Rogers from the years when his path crossed Rick’s at WQED.
After following a set of railroad tracks away from town, we found ourselves somewhere quintessentially Pittsburgh: Carrie Furnaces, one of the many iron-producing facilities that once dotted the banks of the Monongahela, now home to the only non-operational blast furnaces still standing in the Steel City. During the mid-twentieth century, facilities like these employed most of the breadwinners in towns like Rankin and Braddock—towns whose populations have been in decline since the collapse of the area’s steel industry in the 1970s.
We met up with Ron Baraff, the director of museum collections and archives for Rivers of Steel, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of the steel industry in greater Pittsburgh. Ron showed us around the blast furnaces, towering hulks of rusted metal that once served as the lifeblood of the area.
Out of the ruins, though, something new is growing. Ron’s finding ways to link the area’s industrial past to the present, including collaborating with local artists to create installations throughout the facility. It’s a collision of the old and the new, an intertwining of tradition and exploration, a continuation of a rich history through a labor of love by passionate people—in other words, the summation of our understanding of Pittsburgh.
Read about some of our other trips around the country, in the name of recipe research:
What's your favorite regional specialty? Let us know in the comments and we might add it to our list of research destinations.