Commonwealth Press was packed Saturday afternoon. Some people perused the South Side shop's T-shirts emblazoned with "Stillers," "Yinzer" or "412." Others joined a game of bean-bag toss, where one guy heckled another for standing in his throw line.
Most were there to visit the outpost for Piper's Pub, stop No. 14 of 23 restaurants entered in the ninth annual South Side Soup Contest.
Here at a back table restaurant employees ladled a thick Boxty and Rasher Chowder -- an Irish reference to potato and bacon -- into paper cups. This hearty soup stirred the energy here, although a spirited game and a crew of regulars from the bar helped.
Held in mid-February since 2005, South Side Soup Contest is run by the South Side Chamber of Commerce and and Brashear Association, which helps in-need families with food, shelter and other essentials. Proceeds benefit both organizations.
On Feb. 1, 1,100 tickets at $20 apiece sold out in less than an hour. Pittsburghers apparently like soup.
"Winter and soup go hand in hand," said Hugh Brannan, executive director of the Brashear Association and staff member for the past 30 years. Mr. Brannan didn't cite a favorite soup although he noted interesting new entries and more vegetarian soups among the offerings this year.
What makes soup good food? A bowl that complements the season and staves off the cold, said several participants. Who's cooking is another factor, because home-cooked favorites serve as a reminder of the loved ones who make them.
Some tasters savored a kick from chilis, the heartiness of potatoes or a layer of cheese. And for meat eaters, a wedding soup with little meatballs or a hearty bowl starring bacon can win hearts.
Many have done this soup loop before. They enjoy the stroll through shops and offices where restaurants set up tables from East Carson and 27th to 10th streets. Promoting South Side businesses and encouraging post-holiday shopping is a parallel goal.
From noon to 3 p.m., groups of twos and threes lapped the neighborhood. They stood in line at Pandora's Box, where volunteers marked punch cards for stop No. 18, in which Emiliano's staff dressed a tomato-based soup in tortilla strips, avocado slices and a dollop of sour cream.
"People like all this stuff in their soup," said an attendee who polished off her serving outside. "That's why this stop is so popular." She and her husband hit all 23 stops in 11/2 hours. It was their second year at the contest.
Restaurants set up in shops with whom they have a relationship or were nearby. Marty and Jennifer Maloney staffed the OTB Bicycle Cafe station at REI, a partner since they first entered in 2010. "It seemed like a good fit," said Ms. Maloney, who noted her restaurant won "best vegetarian" soup last year for a corn bisque with poblano pepper.
OTB Bicycle Cafe was stop No. 23, for which she featured a sweet potato and jalapeno soup. "We had a last-minute change," she said, noting the Bodacious Biketater Bisque listed on the program gave her wiggle room. She inherited her recipes from her family, she said, as she tended to her baby in the sling she was wearing.
Spicy soups were a theme this year, as Double Wide Grill offered a roasted mango and habanero bisque at The Headboard Shop, while sibling Beehive Coffeehouse ladled a spicy tomato and cayenne soup. "With that kick, it's quite a way to start the day," said soup committee member Kristi Rogers.
Many came from out of town for the event. Food writer for Eater.com, Missy Frederick from Washington, D.C., visited her sister here, with soup sampling an added bonus. She cited the Beef Oxtail Barley from Claddagh Irish Pub as a favorite: a thick, meaty stew that resonated on a cold day.
Jeremy Suraf from Buffalo also planned his visit around the contest. "I like trying each restaurant's entry because we have tasted some really interesting things," he said. "And where else can you have one of the best soups of the tour as you walk through these offices and shops?"
Soup served at restaurants show off chefs' strengths. Such was the case with the entry from Stagioni, where Cara Delsignore ladled chef Stephen Felder's soup halfway through a maze in a dentist's office. Mr. Felder assembled a stunning Le Virtu -- Italian for the virtues -- a 49-ingredient soup that requires seven pots.
Traditionally made on May 1, the soup's lore states that winter and spring ingredients are prepared in seven pots by seven virgins. Pots are separated by beans, greens, ham and other pig parts, bacon, pasta then meatballs. Each pot simmers for hours then is combined at different intervals.
The elaborate process is chronicled in Waverley Root's "The Foods of Italy," which denotes dishes from every region of the country. New York's Del Posto chef Mark Ladner went to Italy to explore dishes, reported Bon Appetit, and ended up having to create a flow chart as instructions.
Despite his effort, Mr. Felder did not win the South Side Soup Contest. The Sweet Corn Basil from Mario's South Side Saloon won "best vegetarian," while a silky Bone Marrow Bisque from Bridge Ten Brasserie tied with the Sunflower Soup for "most unique."
The "best soup runner-up" was a Leek Beer Cheese and Roasted Pepper number from The Smiling Moose. And, the one that attracted revelers and the attention of the crowd was the Boxty and Rasher Chowder from Piper's Pub, named the year's "best soup" of the contest.
I'm convinced bacon clinched the win.
To purchase tickets for next year's soup contest, keep an eye on www.southsidesoup.com or the contest's Facebook page to see when they go on sale.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or Twitter: @melissamccart.