After work on the first Friday in March -- the first Friday night in forever that it wasn't snowing -- my cabin-feverish wife and toddler and I ventured out. We didn't care where we went. We just had to go out.
I wound up, on a restaurant tip from a reader, in Brookline. Just south of Downtown, it calls itself the second-biggest city neighborhood, but it's off the beaten track -- a pizza slice wedged between West Liberty Avenue and Saw Mill Run Boulevard/Route 51 -- and lots of Pittsburghers never have spent any time inside. It was so relatively nice out that I decided to park near one end of the uncommonly wide Brookline Boulevard business district and walk the six long blocks to the other end.
We started at Pitaland. the landmark Middle Eastern store, where we grabbed a few treats, including quince preserves and whole-wheat pita just baked in the store's Lebanese oven. My son couldn't wait, so I gave him a fluffy disc of bread to munch on as we headed up the boulevard.
Next stop: Las Palmas Carniceria, the Mexican butcher shop that had opened in late December. I'd been wanting to check it out, and loved how bright and well-stocked it was, not only with unusual cuts of meats but also exotic produce and groceries. The guy behind the meat counter told us that they sell hot tamales and carnitas (roast pork) on weekends. We said to the friendly family members hanging out, "We'll be back."
We passed the cutest Italian place, which I didn't know -- Mateo's Cucina Italiana. A sign on the door said it was closed for a private party. Through the big window, we saw tables pushed together to make a long one down the center of the room.
We were headed to Tong Garden, the old-school Chinese restaurant at the district's far end, at the cannon war memorial. I'd seen it for years and never went in, but a reader had e-mailed me to tell me it's an overlooked gem.
Only one other diner was there, and soon we were the only table. We hardly ever eat Chinese, but we enjoyed the three dishes we shared -- including Double Cooked Hot Pork -- and loved the vegetable egg rolls -- fat ones packed with crunchy cabbage and other veggies, and lip-smacking good with the nose-tickling hot mustard. Soon my son was playing with the manager's son's cars on the floor and cried when we had to leave.
On the way back, we passed several interesting places, including the new Cannon Coffee and Mateo's, where the happy crowd around the table, like a movie scene, had fogged up the windows -- and it struck me:
Brookline is a fantastic food walk.
We have gone back, and done several walks on this homey stretch, always coming away with some goodies.
Some nice night, or afternoon, you and your family or friends might want to try it.
Saturday, in fact, could be a nice day to check it out, as Cannon Coffee and other businesses are hosting their second gallery crawl and day of art from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (with an artists' reception starting at 6 p.m.).
Things are happening along this boulevard, which itself is to get a long-planned improvement project started in the fall of 2011. It certainly has potential.
You could never eat something at every place on just one walk, but different people will be drawn to different places.
Here are some of the stops:(Numbers correspond to map location.)
1.) Moonlite Cafe
530 Brookline Blvd.
11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Mon.-Thur., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Sun: 4-9 p.m. Sun.
I love the old-fashioned separate dining room entrance on the side (you don't want your grandma to walk through the bar. Not if you're grandpa, anyway). Classic Pittsburgh Italian fare includes the fried Zucchini Mountain appetizer ($6.95), Wedding Soup ($2.50 cup), and lotsa pasta, chicken and veal, including a sandwich called the Veal Chu-Chu ($11.95). Take out a quart of soup or marinara or meat sauces ($6.95-$7.95)
2.) No Name Coffee Shop
536 Brookline Blvd.
7 a.m.-5 p.m Mon.-Sat., 7 a.m.- 3 p.m. Sun.
Tiny (four tables, four stools) tin-ceilinged joint, not named after anyone to prevent arguments, employee Kathy Garman told me. "We got the best hamburger on the Boulevard" and the Brookline Sandwich -- chipped ham with horseradish and other condiments ($4.75) -- and breakfast anytime. The regulars are mostly retired and loyal, says Ms. Garman. "The only way we lose our customers is God takes 'em."
3.) Zippy's Saloon
542 Brookline Blvd.
11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily (closes midnight Sun. if it's slow)
Smoking is permitted in this noisy, black-and-gold-storefronted saloon, but the food, including daily specials, from its "Grandma's Kitchen" is said to be good. Barber "Little Sal" Sirabella from down the street walks up Fridays to get the giant fish sandwich with fries and coleslaw ($8) for his parents who live above his shop.
Owner Ron Zeppiri says a lot of the recipes are from his mom, Giggi, who used to cook here. "Our wedding soup, it's the best in Pittsburgh." Has started regular dinner shows: $20 gets you a full buffet meal and entertainment. May 15: It's Chris Denem, who does a Neil Diamond tribute. June 19: Frankie Capri.
4.) Kribel's Bakery
546 Brookline Blvd.
6 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., 6 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun.
One of Pittsburgh's oldest bakeries, it started in Troy Hill in 1931 and moved here in the '40s. Two of the founders' children still run this and two other locations (Bridgeville and Pleasant Hills). I am drawn to the wooden racks laden with cookies -- at least 20 types, says Maxine (Kribel) Kaminsky. She recommends the iced thumb prints, as well as the white almond cake ($8.99), lady locks ($1.59) and apple nests ($1.19). "It's like eating a piece of apple pie."
5.) Tisha's Sunny Farms
600 Brookline Blvd.
8 a.m.-3 p.m. daily
Tisha Carricato, who took over the place a little more than a year ago, serves classic diner fare for breakfast and lunch. With two days notice, she'll even make you a pie to take home (cherry, sweet potato) to order ($9.95), but pie isn't on the menu. She points out that they hand-cut all the bread for toasts, french toast and sandwiches -- not just white Italian but also wheat and rye.
6.) Vinny's Pizza
618 Brookline Blvd.
620 Brookline Blvd.
8 a.m.- 7 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
This place not only makes the best pita -- you're welcome to tour the oven -- but it also has a great variety of Middle Eastern staples and prepared foods. Great snacks. Two Saturdays ago my family stopped in and saw, in the small produce section, fresh almonds, which we were welcomed to try; the fuzzy buds, dipped in salt, were sour apple-y -- very different.
As a longtime fan of the place, I was thrilled last week to have Danny Chahine tell me that the family is in the planning stages of a remodeling that could add hot foods and tables to enjoy them on. I can't wait.
8.) Las Palmas Carniceria y Supermercado
700 Brookline Blvd.
9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
This new place is run by the four Berumen-Cruz brothers. An amazing array of specialty meats and exotic produce and Mexican groceries. On a recent Saturday visit, another Mexican customer regaled us with a way to prepare an herb called huazontle. We walked out with a bag of warm tamales, kept in big pots by the cash register, that cost just $1.19 each. They're available Fri., Sat. and Sun., along with carnitas, or roast pork ($4.95 a pound), which is delicious on soft tacos made with the store's own salsas. Soon they plan to sell more prepared foods including burritos and tacos.
9.) Party Cake Shop
706 Brookline Blvd.
6 a.m.-6 p.m. Tues-Fri., 6 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., 6 a.m.-1 p.m. Sun.
This place has been a bakery since 1910 and Party Cake since 1961 (a second Party Cake opened in 2007 on Beverly Road in Mt. Lebanon). Both now are owned by Scott Smith and his wife, Nancy; he started here, worked at Breadworks for years, and also trained at the Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis and the Ecole Française de Boulangerie in d'Aurillac, France, and is the main baker.
Signature item: Burnt almond torte ($9.99 half, $16.99 whole). And, Mrs. Smith says, "People love our pepperoni rolls" and birthday cakes, which are made from scratch. For spring they're making jumbo cupcakes completely covered with icing flowers ($1.99) and, for Mother's Day, flower pot cakes ($19.99).
10.) Scoops on the Boulevard
719 Brookline Blvd.
Summer hours will be noon-10 p.m daily.
Just remodeled and reopening, this is a sibling to "Scoops on Beverly" Road in Mt. Lebanon. Cones and cups ($2.25) to hand-packed half gallons ($10.95). Owner Mike Collins took it over because he likes neighborhoods and he likes the word "Boulevard" -- "Everyone knows you're talking about Brookline."
11.) Mateo's Cucina Italiana
718 Brookline Blvd.
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-9 p.m. Sat., Sun. closed
Charmingly spare storefront dining room. The simple, Calabrese menu includes rustic soups and salads, panini, pasta. The most interesting stuff is under "side orders," including small pizzas ($5 to $7, plus 50 cents for toppings), pasta fagiola ($4.95), greens & beans ($5.95), arancini (rice balls, two for $4.50), polpettine di patate (potato meatballs, sans meat, four for $4.50) and divine zucchini pancakes (three for $4.95). Dessert is cannoli ($3). Check the board for daily specials, including eggplant parmigiana. Take out large containers of sauce, greens & beans, wedding soup and pasta fagiola ($6.95 to $8.95). BYOB (try a bottle of Cantina Zaccagnini from the nearby state Wine & Spirits store).
Our lunch there Saturday, and dinner Monday, were like eating at the home of Lisa and Franco Gualtieri and their daughter Caroline. They moved the eatery in mid-January from their old takeout-only spot a few doors away. Mateo is Caroline's 5-year-old son. That's his high chair.
12.) Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits
722 Brookline Blvd.
Mon.-Tues. 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Weds.-Sat. 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
23.) Brookline Beer
1019 Brookline Blvd.
10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun.
New owner is offering more craft brews.
16.) Cannon Coffee
802 Brookline Blvd.
7 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.
Fabulous tin-ceilinged, tile-floored space, especially the back deck (there was yoga there Monday night). Inside, its typical coffeehouse decor seems cooler and comfier than most, and includes a piano in one corner. Serves bagels and fruit and panini (just added a Cuban sandwich for $6). Signature drink: The Cannonball, a shot of espresso and your choice of flavoring in sparkling water with a little cream ($3).
Just opened in February by Nathan Mallory with Benjamin Haake. They regularly fire up the stainless-steel grill on the deck for community events, poetry nights (third Wednesdays) and artist receptions like the one for this Saturday's gallery crawl.
13.) Brookline Pub
734 Brookline Blvd.
11 a.m.-2 a.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-2 a.m. Sat.-Sun.
New owner Leo Hughes says they've cleaned up the act of this former basement nuisance bar, moving it upstairs and putting downstairs a kitchen that specializes in homemade food such as cut-to-order potato chips and "Nunny's" (that's his mom, Denise Cummings) real roast beef. They say their sandwiches and salads are huge. Daily drink specials and 60-plus beers that you can enjoy on the front deck. You may want to sit outside because smoking is still permitted, but Mr. Hughes is in the process of opening a new dining room that is to be smoke-free and serve family-style Italian fare.
14.) Antonio's Pizzeria
758 Brookline Blvd.
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat.
Antonio Casciato, who moved from the Little Italy of Bloomfield, is proud to run a typical Pittsburgh pizza place, even if the pizza is much better than typical.
15.) Michael Whitlinger Designs
800 Brookline Blvd.
9 a.m.-5 p.m., Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat. (closed Sun.)
Not a food place, but a lovely flower shop that sells jewelry and more, and leaves water and dog biscuits out front for your pooch.
17.) Gordon's Restaurant and Lounge
806 Brookline Blvd.
No longer serves food.
18.) Fox's Pizza
902 Brookline Blvd.
19.) Boulevard News
908 Brookline Blvd.
8 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.
News stand also sells fresh Cibrone bread ($1.75), hoagies ($3.75) and frozen homemade pierogies ($6 a dozen).
20.) Hank's Too
919 Brookline Blvd.
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat., cash only.
Hot dogs, burgers and things fried, carrying on the name and tradition of the original Hank's that was on West Liberty Avenue for decades before it closed in 2008. Colleen Griffiths worked there and then opened this place, where she serves the secret homemade chili recipe that was handed down from the original Hank who started in 1967. You might think you've gone back in time, too, when you're handed your food on wax paper.
21.) Tong Garden
956 Brookline Blvd.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-10 p.m. Sat., 4-9 p.m. Sun., cash only.
The dining room is not much to look at -- what's left of the carpet could really use a good cleaning -- but good food and nice folks; I want to go back for some vegetable egg rolls ($1.25 each).
22.) It's Greek to Me
1011 Brookline Blvd.
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. 2 to 7 p.m.
One of the quirkiest places I've ever eaten in Pittsburgh, but decent Greek food -- everything from gyros ($4.68, or four for $13.50) to Octopus Dinner ($18.99). BYOB. Owner Mike Petrou, a long-time Brookliner who came from Cyprus, is, well, passionate, as you can tell from the wonderful motto boldly painted in red letters on the exterior:
"Eat, Live and Love."
Bob Batz Jr.: email@example.com or 412-263-1930.