Conventional wisdom posits that “the person you are at 40” is the person you are forever — the notion being that your personality and worldview are pretty well baked in by the time the band takes the field for the halftime of your life.
I disagree. The foibles, flaws and peccadilloes that comprise this otherwise happy mess known as Munch are always in flux. But there is one thing that I’ll certainly be at 6:18 p.m. Thursday, as my 40th trip around the sun concludes: Well fed.
I don’t like gadgets, material pursuits, vehicles or golf, and I have no fashion sense. Food and drink and the pursuit thereof are my pleasure and always will be, and in that spirit these are 40 of my favorite things in Pittsburgh food.
As a fourth-generation Pittsburgher hailing from German-Irish stock with no ethnic traditions whatsoever to speak of, I’ve spent a lifetime envious of friends whose family cookouts included food like galumpki and whose parents used phrases like gutchies and dupa.
So I gravitate toward places like Huszar on the North Side, particularly on a Thursday night when the Gypsy Strings are playing and the room is filled with Balkan music to go with the excellent Hungarian food there, or at the by-appointment-only Josza Corner in Hazelwood, where Alex Bodnar cooks a feast of his homeland’s fare then entertains with stories and songs afterwards.
The International Village held each year in McKeesport is an outstanding and underrated music, culture and food festival, and one of the few where pirogi and pigs’ feet are available side by side. The lamb roast at the annual Serbian Three Day festival in Bethel Park is a one-day-a-year delight; but for Slavic food on demand, the Polish platter at S&D Polish Deli in the Strip is dobre.
In Pittsburgh, we tend to romanticize our Eastern European roots, but more recent arrivals make the modern melting pot boil, like the fiery Sichuan at Squirrel Hill’s Chengdu Gourmet, the nearly atomic level spices at Thai Me Up, the jerk chicken and pork at Leon’s Caribbean Restaurant in Allentown, or the arepas at The Colombian Spot.
El Milagro in Beechview translates literally as “the miracle” and their food is that — damn near perfect working-class Mexican in a spartan space, not unlike Edgars Best Tacos, Bea Taco Town or La Palapa.
Having spent a third of my summer trying Pittsburgh barbecue, I’ve come to the conclusion that smoked food — meat or vegetables — are quite possibly the most American food out there, and certainly a tie that binds our collective palates.
An order of the turkey “ribs” in a mustard sauce while sitting on the patio of Showcase BBQ in Homewood is a uniquely Pittsburgh experience, as is wolfing down a half rack at Pittsburgh BBQ Co. on the side of Banksville Road.
Pork & Beans has the city’s best brisket; Carmi Restaurant the best mac and cheese; but across all categories, Z-Best was zee best for me.
As we fashion ourselves a food town, it’s become just as fashionable to tear down the old idols of yore — none moreso than Primanti Bros., to which I say Feh! Classics attain their status for a reason, and if you can’t appreciate the sheer greasy joy of a Cap-Egg with some hot sauce, then we shouldn’t be friends.
Likewise for Mineo’s, from which if I knew the date of my demise I would want a half plain, half pepperoni to be my final meal, along with an outrageously expensive bottle of Brunello.
Other life staples: The Balboa at Carson St. Deli; a plate of whole, smoked Caribbean Killer wings and a pint of Headhunter IPA at Fat Head’s; the fish and chips at Piper’s Pub; weekend breakfast at Nadine’s; the Shipwreck burger at Winghart’s; and the black bean dip and chips at Kaya in the Strip.
I celebrated my first “grown up” birthday — age 23, post-college — at Casbah and have returned nearly every year since for one of Pittsburgh’s most consistently excellent dining experiences.
Stagioni likewise meets a mark of consistent excellence, but its monthly Sunday Supper series is among my favorite things in Pittsburgh: a multicourse, family-style dinner that never disappoints, whether its chef Stephen Felder’s homage to his Southern roots or his innovative take on the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Likewise, the summer dinner series at Churchview Farms features the city’s top culinary talent in a gorgeous rustic setting on a working farm, ensconced by suburban Baldwin and a city border. That you’ll enjoy a meal incorporating produce that may have just been picked a few feet away, right before dinner, is truly something special.
The cacio e pepe, porchetta and Florentine steak at Di Anoia’s Eatery? Or at Talia? Better try both places again to be sure; Gaucho — literally everything about it; Morcilla for meeting and exceeding the hype and for the cochinillo; Smallman Galley for pumping new blood into the scene and bringing us Brunoise and Iron Born Pizza; and speaking of pizza, East Liberty has the best with Pizza Taglio and Dinette.
That’s makes 38. So for my final two choices we’ll assume time travel is an option so that I can have one last meal at Dish Osteria across the bar from my better half. That’ll be followed up with a dessert trip for something sweet to Candy Rama, with my gram, who took me there as a kid in the early 1980s. Coming in off the drab Fifth Ave. corridor, it was like entering a colorful combination of Oz and Willa Wonka’s world, and truly a memory I cherish.
Looking forward to 40 more years of food memories in Pittsburgh.
Dan Gigler: email@example.com; Twitter @gigs412