Tour guide Melissa Balkovec tells a Bits & Bites Food Tour the history of Old St. Patrick's Church to lead off her tour Pittsburgh's Strip District.
Tour guide Melissa Balkovec shows dried Mediterranean chickpeas and ground sesame seeds as the staff at Labad's Mediterranean Cafe & Grocery tells a Bits & Bites Food Tour how they use the ingredients to make hummus.
Tour guide Melissa Balkovec, center, leads a Bits & Bites Food Tour of Pittsburgh's Strip District into Labad's Mediterranean Cafe & Grocery where fresh hummus is always available.
Eric Doan serves up sample of Italian meats at the Parma Sausage Co. for the Bits & Bites Food Tour of Pittsburgh's Strip District.
Sam Wholey explains the finer points of choosing a live lobster for the Bits & Bites Food Tour of Pittsburgh's Strip District. The venerable Wholey's Market is one of the stops on the tour.
By Kate Mishkin / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Melissa Balkovec is the kind of woman that will get up from her restaurant table to go talk to other people so she won‘t have to shout across the room. She‘s social, she loves food and she loves history, which is why it makes sense that she works as a tour guide in Lawrenceville, Brookline and the Strip District for ‘Burgh Bits and Bites Tour -- a tour that simultaneously gives both tourists and natives a taste Pittsburgh’s food and history -- literally.
Bubbling with energy, the 37-year-old Moon resident has been working for ‘Burgh Bits and Bites Tour for a year, but said she continues to learn something new on every tour. Most guests on her tours are Pittsburgh natives who are also looking to learn something new.
“It’s helping people become tourists in their own neighborhoods and exposing people to all the things that are down here, that’s really fun for me,” Ms. Balkovec said.
Her Strip District tours begin at St. Patrick Church on Liberty Avenue, where she discusses the historical landmark. She then zigzags around the Strip as she allows people to try food from seven restaurants and shops, offering historic information, dates and tidbits during the two-hour tour. For her, though, the most important aspect is the people behind each counter or in the kitchen.
“You meet some real characters. ... These are all very very hardworking folks who’ve done this for years and years, and so I think that the tour would be much different without them,” she said. “Pittsburgh represents all different people with all different stories and when I have these out-of-town people I love that they get to interact with all of these different business owners because you’re really getting an idea of what Pittsburgh is like.”
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The people on the tour, too, are just as important. People often come on public tours in small groups, but she wants people to talk to each other and develop a bond.
“I feel like then the mom in me takes over and we don’t want to leave anybody out and you want people to have fun. It’s hard when you have a mixed group like that,” she said. In two hours, though, people begin to organically get to know each other. Sharing food, she says, provides a connection.
It‘s important to her that she promotes her city and encourages people to support the local businesses, but also to appreciate her city.
“I think it’s awesome that tourism is as big as it is in Pittsburgh,” she said. “Ten or 20 years ago, people said ’why would you go to Pittsburgh?‘ I guess it’s funny-ironic that a city that for so many years got such a bad rap as a smoky, dirty city is now a destination.”
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