They are synonymous. Pittsburgh and Primanti Brothers. You can’t have one without the other. I’ve been in Pittsburgh just shy of two years now and the famous Primanti Brothers sandwich has eluded me. There’s a Primanti Brothers in every neighborhood and I’ve walked past them hundreds of times but never stopped to sample their famous sandwich – until today.
The story of the famous Primanti Brothers sandwich starts in the 1930’s during the height of the depression. Joe Primanti had a sandwich cart in the Strip District, which was a major manufacturing hub in Pittsburgh. The Strip is set along the Allegheny River and lined by railroad tracks, making its location perfect for moving huge amounts of materials and products. It was home to many factories and mills and companies like U.S. Steel, Westinghouse and H.J. Heinz all had huge operations in the Strip. In the 1920’s, The Strip was the economic hot spot of Pittsburgh and given the number of workers in the area, it was only natural that purveyors showed up to serve their needs. Joe Primanti was selling sandwiches to the shift workers and truckers who were coming and going at all hours of the night. His sandwiches were filling, inexpensive and a huge hit with the locals. Joe decided to expand and he opened a small storefront with the help of his brothers. From there, Primanti’s became a Pittsburgh institution, serving good food for a good price to hungry workers.
The Primanti’s sandwich (or “sammich” as it is known in the Burgh) is unique in that it has coleslaw AND french fries right in there with the meat and cheese. That’s right, nothing is served on the side, its all on the sandwich. Absurd, you say? Not to Pittsburghers. Primanti Brothers has 17 locations in the city and suburbs and has opened 3 shops in Florida, just for those Pittsburgh expats who need their hometown comfort food. When I first learned of this singular sandwich, I was a little taken aback. Cole slaw is one thing, but french fries ON the sandwich? No way. But it truly is a Pittsburgh thing. You can also find any number of dishes, such as salads, served “Pittsburgh style”, which means they have french fries on them. So, I got to thinking about this local delicacy and decided it was high time for me to dive into the deep end. I decided to take a Pittsburgh native with me to guide me through my first Primanti’s experience. I took my coworker Joey, who ate his first Primanti’s sandwich at age 5.
The Primanti’s sammich is served according to the decades old tradition, always on thick, white Italian bread, always served with meat, provolone cheese, tomato slices, fresh cut fries and their own special coleslaw, which is dressed with a vinegar dressing and lots of ground pepper. They actually squeeze the extra liquid out of the slaw to keep it from making the sammich soggy. There is no mustard or mayo, no lettuce or pickles. It is what it is and that’s all that it is. I have been warned about special orders. Apparently, if you ask for your sammich without tomatoes, they will throw the tomato slices at you. The rule at Primanti’s is that you take your food how it is served. If you don’t want tomatoes, you can pick them off yourself. The Primanti’s sandwich does offer a few choices, however. You can choose what kind of meat you want and there is a wide selection of meats from salami to knockwurst to fried fish. You can choose provolone, swiss or American cheese. You can add fried onions or a fried egg to your sammich. They also serve wings, nachos and just fries at most locations. But if you want a sammich, those are your choices. Joey suggested that the capicola and egg was a good way to start, so I followed the advice and ordered the “cap and egg”.
The sammich is tall and looks a little daunting. Surprisingly, though, it actually holds its shape quite nicely, considering the ungodly amount of french fries and coleslaw on this thing. The portion of meat is relatively small in relation to the rest of the stuff on this monster. And no matter how big your hands are, they look small wrapped around this sammich. Its huge. I surveyed it for a few minutes with an en engineer’s eye, trying to figure out just how I was going to get a bite out of this bad boy. But once I bit into it, the bread began to compact and it squished down enough to eat. The fries were piping hot and the slaw cooled off the roof of my mouth which suffered some burning from the scorching hot fries. The egg was fried hard, so there was no runny yolk, which was a little disappointing because I was craving some viscosity to help the whole thing go down a little easier. But all in all, it was quite delicious and satisfying.
No doubt about it, this is a major gut grenade. I made it through half the sandwich and had to stop. I did force a couple bites of the other half, but my pants were starting to cut me in half and I was uncomfortably full, so thought it best to quit eating. We walked back to the office and the fresh air and exercise helped a lot. But I was pretty much done for the day and my afternoon was not terribly productive. Now I can say that I’ve had my Primanti’s sammich, but it might be years before I travel down that culinary road again.