Local Flavor: Slice of life -- Glisan's celebrates its greatness



Wednesday is National Pie Day, one of those made-up "holidays" I would hate if it didn't celebrate an aspect of American life that is so sweet, so sacred and so endangered.

Have you tried finding a good slice of pie these days?

I'm afraid most people no longer know what real pie (made fresh with a scratch crust and mostly real fruit) tastes like.

   
Pie filling

National Pie Day was started by the American Pie Council, which describes itself as "the only organization committed to preserving America's pie heritage and promoting Americans' love affair with pies."

With memberships for individuals as well as commercial concerns, it unabashedly aims "to raise awareness, enjoyment and consumption of pies."

The group is holding the Great American Pie Festival on April 19-20 in Celebration, Fla., during which time its Crisco National Pie Championships will be going on in nearby Kissimmee.

The Council is to be commended for asking Americans to celebrate National Pie Day by performing "Random Acts of Pieness," from making or buying and sharing one to throwing a "pie potluck."

Diane Lally, an amateur member of the Pie Council who lives in Sewickley, is organizing a group of paddle-tennis buddies and friends to donate pies to be served on Wednesday to homeless people at the Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side. She's asked 30 women and hopes for up to 50 homemade or store-bought pies.

She also plans to mark the "holiday" by delivering some pies to her children's teachers.

For more Pie Day ideas, visit www.piecouncil.org/national.htm.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

   

The greater Pittsburgh region has a few widely scattered pie destinations, and I've tasted pie at most of them.

But probably my favorite has to be Glisan's Restaurant on Route 40, near Markleysburg, Fayette County, southeast of Uniontown and about 60 miles southeast of Downtown.

Every day is a pie day at Glisan's. Every day, the classic 1950s red-neon-signed diner offers more than a dozen different types of fruit pies and cream pies, made in its own kitchen.

Here's the list of choices for this past Monday, posted on one of those grooved Pepsi signs in little plastic letters. To me it read like a poem, starting with the title, "PIES."

Apple & .....Dutch Apple

Cherry & .....Cherry Crunch

Peach .....Banana

Lemon .....Chocolate

Raisin ..... Peanut Butter

Rhubarb .....Coconut

Blackberry ..... Pumpkin

Huckleberry

Red Raspberry

Sixteen different pies!

"And chocolate peanut butter is not there," said general manager Patti Giannopolous, who also reminded me that there are three sugar-free offerings: Apple, peach and blackberry.

So make that 20 kinds of pie.

Glisan's (the first syllable rhymes with bliss), which used to be open 24 hours a day, now is open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. The pie bakers are there at about 4:30 a.m. Two of them make and bake fruit pies four days a week. The cream pies get made most mornings, or as they're needed, by two other bakers and one who is learning.

Ms. Giannopolous is the restaurant's cream pie queen. Her meringue -- well, it stands up for itself, as you can see when her pies are displayed in the four-shelf, fluorescent-lit refrigerated pie case.

"I'm one of them that has the knack," said Ms. Giannopolous in her not-bragging-if-you-can-do-it way. At 35, she has worked half her life here, starting as a dishwasher and working her way up. Whereas some cooks' meringue might rise little higher than a fried egg, hers is consistently Rubenesque. She learned that when it comes to meringue, "If you have it, you have it. If you don't, you don't."

At Glisan's, they don't use powdered meringue. They hand-crack the eggs and separate the whites for the meringue; the yolks go to into the pudding, which gets flavored with coconut or hand-sliced bananas, etc.

   
Glisan's Restaurant

• 624 National Pike, Markleysburg, Fayette County. 724-329-4636.

   

Coconut is by far the most popular flavor of pie.

Servers know which is which by the number of toothpicks stuck in them: One for lemon, three for chocolate, none for banana.

Fruit pies are coded with their fruit's first letter cut into the top crust. The most popular fruit flavor is apple.

All the pastry is made with flour, shortening, salt and water, as it always has been, though for the past five years or so, they've had a rolling machine so they no longer have to roll each disc by hand. Each crust still gets fluted by real thumbs.

I told Ms. Giannopolous that I'm a fruit pie guy, and the reason I'm fond of Glisan's is that its pies actually contain fruit, not just sugary, cornstarchy goo. (And though I don't use shortening at home much anymore for health reasons, I grew up on shortening crust and like that taste, too.)

She told me that they start not with canned or other pre-made filling but with frozen berries and other frozen fruit. Except for when they use fresh, such as the Granny Smith apples they peel. Sometimes in the summer, one of the owners will bring in homegrown rhubarb.

(I think my heart skipped a beat there. I could practically taste the rhubarb, which, alas, I could not literally do, because it wasn't yet 7 a.m. and the bakers hadn't baked any of the day's pies. They were still making cookies, and then the cinnamon rolls and sticky buns. They also bake bread and dinner rolls as big as your head.)

Ms. Giannopolous must have noticed me fantasizing. She surprised me by saying, "We won't lie to you. Sometimes the pies aren't up to standard." That is, sometimes regulars will complain that the crust is tough. Or that this filling is too smooshy.

But thinking about that, while chewing on my real sour-dough buckwheat cakes and the restaurant's own sausage, I figured that's the beauty of real pie. It's not perfectly consistent.

I'd go so far as to say that Glisan's fruit pie can be kind of homely. But I'd mean it as a compliment. This isn't once-in-a-while, mountain-of-calories-indulgence pie. This is pie you could eat with lunch and then have a slice with dinner, too. Or two slices.

And I'm not, waitresses assure me, the only person who orders pie after breakfast. I'm just saying.

Glisan's sells tons of pie -- roughly 200 pies a week, says Ms. Giannopolous, who tracks each day's baking in a loose-leaf binder of pages with blank spaces to record "Pies Left" and "Pies Made." They made 23 dozen pies for Mother's Day 2006. Now that's a pie holiday.

A slice of Glisan's pie is $2.30, or $2.80 a la mode. You can buy whole pies, too -- and plenty of people do -- for $8.35. It's $8.85 for a "Half & Half," which Ms. Giannopolous explained thusly: "If you like lemon and your wife likes coconut, we can give you half and half."

I loved how she wanted me to write down every pie baker's name, and so in the spirit of National Pie Day, I'll print them here. They are her sister-in-law Becki Rugg and Tami Overbay on cream pies and, on fruit, Joyce Porterfield and Veronica Ankrom.

Pie ladies, we salute you.

Glisan's has recipes, but when you've been doing this as long as Ms. Giannopolous, you don't need them. She still follows the philosophy imparted to her by the late Isa (pronounced icy) Glisan, or "Grandma" as some workers call the founder whose photo is enshrined on one wall. They still do things Isa's Way.

"Isa always told me, 'You have to taste your food,'" and so, for every batch of pies, Ms. Giannopolous tastes the meringue and the filling to make sure they're just right.

Her favorite pie?

"I've made them too much," she said with a grin. "I don't eat them."




Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 18, 2008) This story about pie as originally published on Jan. 17, 2008 gave the wrong geographic location for Glisan's Restaurant. It is southeast of Uniontown and Pittsburgh.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 19, 2008) This story on pie as originally published on Jan. 17, 2008 gave the wrong first name for Glisan's Restaurant general manager Patti Giannopolous.

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930. First Published January 17, 2008 5:00 AM


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