Pittsburgh offers more than just fries and slaw on a Primanti Brothers sandwich, as iconic as the original may be.
This week's opening of Thin Man Sandwich Shop at 50 21st St., at the corner of Smallman in the Strip District, is the most recent proof. This gourmet spot ensures that crusty baguettes display lamb meatballs, mortadella or goat milk-marinated chicken. Homemade horseradish mayo, house-made ricotta and an array of pickles complement protein. Thin Man sandwiches barely resemble the truckers' repast down the road. The quality of ingredients catapult these to the height of the genre.
Another new sandwich place, Grateful Deli at 4065 Penn Ave. in Lawrenceville, sings for everyman. The Jerry Garcia-inspired shop offers hoagies, pizza, stromboli and salads named for all things affiliated with the Grateful Dead. No braised beef shank and shaved fennel here.
The city's burgeoning sandwich scene has me wondering where to find the best sandwiches in town. In the spirit of Oscars season, I polled for categories and nominations from sandwich dilettantes and aficionados. Many joined me the past couple of weeks sampling variations from nearly 20 shops.
Here's a subjective list for some of the most delicious sandwiches to be had in Pittsburgh right now.
Breakfast sammich ($8)
Marty's Market, 2301 Smallman St., Strip District; 412-586-7177
I pine for this sandwich only served on weekends, although perhaps Pittsburgh should be thankful this tall order isn't available every day.
Created by chef Matt Huggins, it flaunts thick-cut French toast baked on premise, layered with a house-made sausage patty. Then it's topped with a thick layer of cheddar and finished with a fried egg.
Pour the side of maple syrup over the sandwich rather than dip daintily. Behold as syrup dribbles to the plate, where it commingles with the golden yolk. This is a breakfast sandwich to savor.
The Hoya ($8.99)
Szmidt's Old World Deli, 509 Greenfield Ave., Greenfield; 412-904-3558
Darren Smith opened this shop last year with the goal of unseating Primanti Brothers for the most renowned sandwich in Pittsburgh. Named for his Polish grandparents, Szmidt's (pronounced "Szmeeds") showcases Mr. Smith's resourcefulness. He bakes bread. He stuffs pierogies. He cures meats. "His Reuben is luh-jit," wrote my Pittsburgh sandwich sherpa.
The Hoya starts with two slices of Pullman-shaped rye layered with Swiss and dressed with a swirl of Thousand Island. Mr. Smith then adds the heart of the sandwich: a fist full of grilled corned beef ribbons and pungent sauerkraut for the finish.
With house-made ingredients as satiating as these, it's easy to polish off the whole giant thing. Keep an eye out for a second Szmidt's location this year.
Carson Street Deli & Craft Beer Bar, 1507 E. Carson St., South Side; 412-381-5335
Beer lovers flock to this shop to sample unusual craft beers on tasting nights. Terrific sandwiches are also the draw, particularly the Balboa, a combination of the best-selling Godfather and the Sicilian.
"It's a humongous sandwich," said an employee of this giant stack of meat. Cuts come from Parma Sausage Products in the Strip, DiLusso Deli Co. and Margherita Italian Meats in Cincinnati.
The Balboa begins on a Breadworks baguette. Hard salami, capicola, sopressata and prosciutto are cloaked with provolone, then finished with oregano, roasted red peppers and olive oil. "People go nuts for the thing," she said.
One diner announced the Balboa "would be high in the running for my last meal on Earth."
BEST ROAST BEEF
Chicago Italian beef sandwich ($5.95-$12.95)
Tootie's Famous Italian Beef, 93 S. 16th St., South Side; 412-254-6501
Opened by Chicagoan Karl Horn, Tootie's is an homage to his mother Carol's nickname and features her recipe for Chicago Italian beef. Twelve spices, pepperoncinis and a smattering of vegetables layer shredded beef that steeps in jus for more than a day.
"Soup in a sandwich" is how the student working behind the counter described it. "It's best to eat it here." He ladled just enough broth into the bun to run down an elbow as it's scarfed down.
BEST SANDWICH FEATURING CHICKEN OR TURKEY
Chicken salad confit ($7.50)
Bluebird Kitchen, 221 Forbes Ave., Downtown; 412-642-4414
Owned by Liz Moore Pessaro, Bluebird Kitchen employs a trio of freelance bakers. Evan Wood is one of them, a former New Yorker and cook at Roberta's, the Brooklyn pizza Mecca. He's the guy who makes the flaky, golden, buttery croissant for this delicious sandwich.
Who can resist chunks of light and dark meat in a sheen of glossy fat? Confit chicken is the base, with cumin mayo as binder. Granny Smith apples and cashews lend crunch. This is the kind of sandwich to enjoy solo, so as to consider each decadent bite. Bluebird Kitchen assembles an ethereal sandwich for an affordable price.
Seitan cheese "steak" ($4.67 for 6 inches to $7.94 for 12 inches)
Spak Brothers, 5107 Penn Ave., Garfield; 412-362-7725
When the hold music for Spak Brothers is the '80s' synth Club Nouveau version of "Lean on Me," it's clear this isn't a traditional sandwich place. Visit the Penn Avenue shop in Garfield and the suspicion is confirmed.
An AC/DC pinball game greets customers at the door. Guys in black wool hats and Slayer T-shirts face each other playing Pac-Man. Hand-painted cartoon pinups of Wonder Woman and Marilyn Monroe crowd the walls. This delightful joint owned by Ryan and Nathan Spak is the sandwich shop for Gooski's regulars.
Not Satan -- sei-TAHN sandwiches here display thin-sliced wheat gluten that strangely resembles meat on a Philly-style cheesesteak.
Served on crusty Breadworks rolls, seitan masquerades as a Buffalo chicken-flavored guilty pleasure with lettuce, tomato and a heap of grilled onions. A better bet is that faux cheesesteak seitan, with grilled onions, peppers and mushrooms and layered cheddar, American or provolone cheese. It may be better than the real thing.
South Side Slopes sandwich ($10.95)
Fat Head's, 1805 E. Carson St., South Side; 412-431-7433
When a sandwich arrives that looks like a bald dome with a knife through its center, it inspires fear. I was afraid when the South Side Slopes sandwich arrived. That's the price for ordering what had been rated the fifth-best sandwich from Maxim magazine. This is a burly sandwich.
The gigantic bun from Cibrone's Italian Bakery serves as a bed for a handful of fried pierogies and kielbasa cut lengthwise. Then it's doused with grilled onions and blanketed with American cheese.
A ham-handed diner may have an easier time gripping this monster, as ingredients slide off and heap the plate. No matter. Treat house-made potato chips that catch detritus as a South Side Slopes version of nachos.
The Thin Man ($6.99)
Thin Man Sandwich Shop, 50 21st St., Strip District; 412-586-7370
Dan and Sherri Leiphart worked in restaurants such as Isabela on Grandview, Lidia's and the now-closed Le Pommier on the South Side before opening Thin Man, named for the 1930s' film noir series. The two-story shop opened this week in the space that had previously housed 21st Street Coffee and Tea.
Although Le Pommier may have closed in 2011, the Leipharts have resurrected its chicken liver mousse, part of a plat au charcuterie with country pate, cured meats and olives.
The namesake sandwich features a crusty Breadworks baguette slathered with the stuff, a decadent spread Mr. Leiphart confirmed is made with caramelized onions, apples and "a tremendous amount of butter." It's finished with a stack of bacon from Cunningham Meats of Indiana, Pa., and frisee dressed in red wine vinaigrette.
"We used to snack on chicken liver mousse at Le Pommier," said Ms. Leiphart. "We missed it."
Capicola, egg and cheese ($6.49)
Primanti Brothers, 46 18th St., Strip District; 412-263-2142; and other locations
Designed in the '40s for workers on shift, the Primanti Brothers sandwich with fries and slaw has inspired many imitations.
When visiting the birthplace in the Strip or any other Primanti's location, a diner must consider what's the best sandwich. I consulted the most senior server, Kim Barry, who has worked in the original location for 27 years.
"The pastrami is very popular, but I like capicola," she said. In addition to fries, slaw and cheese, Ms. Barry dresses her Primanti sandwich with a fried egg. For most of her tenure, Ms. Barry said this has been her favorite.
What's the best sandwich in Pittsburgh? Good ingredients and a great recipe are key, but not enough.
For in between layers of bread lies an essential ingredient: Memory. And each diner brings something different to the table.
Correction, posted Feb. 7: In an earlier version of this story, the neighborhood location of Grateful Deli was incorrect. Also, the Isabela on Grandview restaurant was misspelled as Isabella.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter: @melissamccart.