Parts Known: Anthony Bourdain captures Pittsburgh as it is now

Online speculation began the moment news broke late this spring that chef, raconteur and tastemaker Anthony Bourdain would visit Pittsburgh for his Emmy award-winning CNN TV show “Parts Unknown.” Who would he talk to? Where would he go?

Restaurants, bars and just regular people solicited him on Twitter to come and hang out with them. Because while Pittsburgh has had (as the kids say), its “swag” back for some time and we’re treated to a daily drumbeat of great press from national and international outlets, Anthony Bourdain is a different animal.

He can be abrasive and prickly but more than anything he is unvarnished. And he’s cool.

To his credit, he and his team got a lot right during their visit to Pittsburgh. The theme of the episode, which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday, is a town in transition. That subject is a source of real-time navel-gazing n’at, and has been for years. In that sense, the episode doesn’t turn over any new ground for yinzers engaged in their community.

But seeing it distilled into a where we were/where we are/where we’re (maybe) going is as useful for lifers as it is for the international audience for which the show is intended. It’s even more relevant as the city makes a bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.

“Who will live in the Pittsburgh of the future? And will there be room for the ones who’ve stayed and stuck with it their whole lives?” (As one who falls squarely into that category, I’d very much like to know myself - will Pittsburgh retain that which makes it Pittsburgh?)

Author Stewart O’ Nan, activist Sala Udin and filmmaker Tony Buba provide excellent native historical context of the industrial and economic past and present, while chef Sonja Finn of East Liberty’s Dinette offers the best insight on the change in the culinary scene.

The imagery is often juxtaposed in excellent fashion: Pierogies are pinched, drones fly, accordions are squeezed, metalheads thrash, molten steel is poured, and robots ... do whatever it is that robots do. Likewise with the interviews. 

Mr. Udin laments economic inequality and the decimation of the Lower Hill while Penguins fans march into a Stanley Cup finals game. Mr. Bourdain dines with Puerto Rico native and chef Jamilka Borges, unquestionably one of the top culinary talents in town, at the awesomely old-school Jozsa Corner Hungarian restaurant in Hazelwood. Her story about once needing to explain to someone that she didn’t need a green card to come here is damn near prescient in the wake of many Americans’ response to the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria.

Superior Motors is the ultimate contrast — high-end dining across the street from the Edgar Thomson steel mill with chef Kevin Sousa, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman and ex-Steeler Franco Harris discussing the decades of pain endured by the Mon Valley town and the decades of work ahead.

Local civic boosters might be aghast that two segments focus on amateur professional wrestling and a demolition derby, but both provide a bit of unpretentious fun during a show that deals with mostly weighty philosophical matters. (But this reviewer couldn’t help but gnash his teeth at the sight of not one but two attendees of the latter wearing Confederate flag clothing.)

My favorite segment is the first one, with Mr. Bourdain playing bocce, eating sausage and peppers and drinking wine out of plastic cup with the Italian men of Bloomfield. It’s a delightfully matter-of-fact welcome-to-Pittsburgh kind of scene. That it ends with a typically howling June thunderstorm is pitch perfect. 

Ultimately it’s a refreshingly honest and unbiased examination of Pittsburgh at this moment in time with its beauty and warts, gloss and grit and many of the things that we universally love about it. 

Dan Gigler:; Twitter @gigs412


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