On the Menu: Impress visitors with food scene

The school year is drawing to a close, and thoughts of summer are on everyone's mind. While this is the season of travel, it's also one that can be almost as much fun as going on vacation yourself -- the summer visitor.

The recent arrival of one savvy, food-loving New Yorker on his first trip to Pittsburgh got me thinking about the Pittsburgh food scene, and about the benefits of outside eyes. One of the best ways to experience your own town anew is to show it off to someone from out-of-town. Especially for this particular visitor, there was a decided emphasis on the edible, rather than on Pittsburgh's many other wonderful attributes. Here's some inspiration for a food-loving visitor of your own:

Although dreams of a Central Market are still alive, I'm pretty content with what we already have: the Strip District, that stretch of Penn Avenue, Liberty Avenue, and Smallman Street between 11th and 33rd street. Any food tour of Pittsburgh must contain an extended trip to this area, possibly more than one. If the visit is brief, this may be the only thing you do, but it's out of the question to skip it.

Seems too much like grocery shopping to be fun? Just make sure you leave the list of necessities and staples at home. Although a weekday morning is ideal, even a weekend crush can be fun so long as you're not trying both to give a tour and get through a mile-long grocery list. Instead, wander through specialty shops like Penn Mac, Reyna's Foods, Lotus Foods and Wholey's, looking for the unexpected, the unusual, even the strange. Visiting a specialty foods shop can be like taking a vacation itself. Take some souvenirs home for yourself, like the young coconuts from Lotus Food. Our guest transformed them into a cocktail made with ginger syrup, lime, coconut juice, rum and orange bitters. (Now that's a great housewarming gift!)

If your guest loves coffee, take a mini-tour of Pittsburgh coffee, sampling brews and/or espressos at La Prima, 21st Street Coffee and Prestogeorge Specialty Foods.

Check out new places too, like the Pittsburgh Popcorn Co. and (slightly less new) Chicken Latino.

A visitor can be a great motivator to shake off the Pittsburgh tendency to stick to one's own neighborhood and head a little further a field. One place too long on my to-do list was the independently owned Aldo Coffee in Mt. Lebanon. Our visit more than met my expectations. I got to taste a fantastic espresso drink that I haven't had since my last trip to Florence, Italy, almost four years ago -- a shakerato, a drink served in a martini glass and made by shaking espresso with ice, just like a cocktail. The espresso is chilled so quickly that it is diluted just the right amount, and the shaking creates a thin layer of foam. Chic, delicious and oh-so-Italian, this drink is perfect for summer.

The second discovery inspired by our visitor was Josza's Corner, a Hungarian cafe in Hazelwood where you can make a reservation for a special, multi-course meal. Josza's has been around for 20 years, but it still feels like a well-kept secret. The food and the decor aren't fancy, but for an astonishingly low price ($15 per person) we sat down to an absolute feast of Hungarian home cooking. This meal was so good, it deserves more than a paragraph, so for all the details, look for a full write-up in the dining section on June 5.

Our guest has departed, already excited about his next trip to Pittsburgh. Personally, I'm already anticipating my next browsing expedition to the Strip District and my next shakerato.

Of course, there are still a few things on my Pittsburgh food to do-list, such as visiting Klavon's Authentic 1920's Ice Cream Parlor (also in the Strip District), and picking up a growler along with a tour during "Growler Hours" at the East End Brewing Co. in Homewood.

Fortunately, we have another visitor coming into town on June 19.

Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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