I firmly believe that a life well lived is full of adventures and that it all begins at the end of your comfort zone. Earlier this fall, I accepted a new position in Pittsburgh, PA. This is my first week in a new city with a new job and new culinary frontiers to explore. I am ready to belly right up to this buffet and fill my plate with Pittsburgh goodness. Since accepting this position, I have been reading up on the Pittsburgh food scene and there seems to be a lot going on here. The cultural melting pot in this city offers a lot of culinary diversity and my curiosity is piqued.
On my second day here, I was invited to attend an evening meeting. One of the people at this meeting showed up with a cake box and there was a significant discussion about the unique qualities of its contents. The box was opened to reveal a lovely, nutty cake sprinkled with powdered sugar. What is this thing of beauty, I wondered. I soon found out that it was a burnt almond torte from Prantl’s Bakery, apparently one of the most famous foods in Pittsburgh. Prantl’s has been open for 40 years and its current location in the Shadyside neighborhood has been in continuous operation as a bakery for 100 years, although under different names. They specialize in German baked goods and their burnt almond torte is their most prized creation. A generous slice was placed in front of me and the earthy aroma of toasted almonds wafted up into my face. I took a bite. The white cake was a fluffy, ethereal wonder. It was topped with a thick layer of sugary frosting and coated with sliced almonds roasted to a deep, dark brown, then dusted with powdered sugar. I gratefully gobbled the whole thing and I ended up taking a huge piece home with me.
The following evening, there was a Welcome to Pittsburgh party in my honor. Knowing that I’m a bit of a foodie, they arranged to have some local specialties brought in for our snacking pleasure. When the trays were uncovered, I was delighted to see a vat of pierogi taking a bath in hot butter. If you’ve never heard of a pierogi, don’t feel embarrassed. This Polish specialty is not a widely consumed product, but one that Pittsburgh has embraced as its own. Apparently, the fine folks in Pittsburgh eat more than 10 times the amount of pierogi than any other city in America. There is even a pierogi race in the middle of the 5th inning of Pittsburgh Pirates home games. It’s a dumpling filled with potatoes, cheese, sauerkraut, meat or fruit, typically boiled, then fried in butter and sometimes topped with sautéed onions. I’ve only eaten them frozen, so this was my first time to taste freshly made, locally crafted pierogi. The only words I could find to describe them were “little pillows of love”. The dough was thin and delicate and their fluffy potato filling was perfectly seasoned and of course, they were annointed with copious ammounts of butter. Nothing wrong with that!!
During my first weekend in Pittsburgh, I decided to do a little exploring. People have been telling me about a placed called The Strip District where local food purveyors are in great abundance. This area of downtown is right on the railroad tracks and at the turn of the century it became the central transportation hub for wholesale produce coming into the city. The adjacent railroad lines and riverfront made it a natural fit for merchants. When I was here to interview for the job, someone drove me through the area to show me what the Strip Discrict was all about. So, I thought I might see if I could find this place on my own. I got in the car and started driving in the general direction of the disctict…and lo and behold, guess what I found? As I drove down the middle of the main drag, I saw Italian bakeries, Asian markets, produce stands and butcher shops. I found a parking spot, got out and started wandering from shop to shop. My first stop was Lotus Food Market, a very nicely appointed Asian market, resplendant with condiments, produce, meats, frozen items and many Asian delicacies. This is the kind of market that I used to drive an hour to visit and I was so delighted to find it just a few short miles from my apartment. I wandered the aisles, inspecting the canned goods, trying to figure out what was in them, marveling at the produce and examining the frozen dumplings. I made a mental note to head back down to Lotus for frozen items when I wasn’t planning to spend time wandering around.
My next stop was one of the most notorious places in the Strip District, Wholey’s Market. For almost a hundred years, Wholey’s has been supplying Pittsburgh with fresh chicken, meat, seafood, produce and specialty foods. I stepped into the doors of Wholey’s and almost wept tears of joy to see the dizzying variety of fish, all beautiful and fresh, all reasonably priced. They had a live lobster tank as well as frozen lobster tails from all over the world. I couldn’t count the different varieties of fresh fish beautifully displayed at their fish counter. I wandered through their spotless butcher area looking at the amazing array of different cuts of beef, pork, chicken and turkey. I found the refridgerator case filled with unique imported butter and locally crafted soft drinks. I tasted a sample of rich and succulent crab and lobster bisque made in house and sold in the refridgerator section. They even had a bin of crushed ice by the check-out counter so shoppers could pack their fresh fish on ice before making their way home. I wandered through the produce and bakery before finally finding the exit, floating back onto the street in a haze of foodie ecstacy.
I thought I’d found the ultimate place for a food lover like me, until I found Penzeys Spices on the next block. A couple years ago, my friend Debbie came to visit me and she brought me a small package of Penzeys spices, including the most pungent and flavorful cinnamon I’d ever come in contact with. Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for Penzey’s spices and my brain almost exploded when I saw their shop in the Strip District. I thought, can this really be happening right now? I plunged through the front door and inhaled deeply through my nose to take in the warm aroma. Penzeys has everything you could ever want or need…a massive variety of dried herbs, spices, extracts and gift boxes. There was an entire section of shelves dedicated just to vanilla. Chili powder and cinnamon had their own sections. I could visit Penzeys every day and never tire of browsing.
I stopped into a couple more places and looked at kitchen gadgets, wine, Middle Eastern foods, cheeses and baked goods before hitting the wall. My senses assaulted, I made my way back to the car and drove home on a cloud. Strip District, you are my new friend and I will be back to see you very soon. And I’ll be on the lookout for more interesting culinary adventures here in Pittsburgh.