Munch goes to Papa J's Centro

Regular readers of this space will recognize that this reviewer holds sacred: consumption of malt, barley and hops-based beverages; ingestion of deep-fried foods, and laziness. Especially that last one.

So when Munch noticed an uptick of activity at the venerable-but-gee-it-looks-like-it's-never-open-anymore Papa J's Centro, a mere 309 steps from Munch's second-floor desk at 34 Boulevard of the Allies, the proximity was an early Christmas gift for this brown-bagged brow.

Although you could've fooled Munch, in fact it hadn't been closed -- not exactly -- but open only for weekday lunches for quite some time, until recently when it reopened for happy hour and dinner.

Munch and Blonde Barkeep Bud of Munch (she's The BBBOM) found on a recent visit that the place is worth visiting for the history alone. According to bartender/tour guide Jeff Holt, the building, erected in 1860, is among the oldest still standing in the Golden Triangle and the many secret doors in its cavernous bowels suggest that it may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

For a large portion of its existence, it was a brothel, and the magnificent dark wooden headboard and bed frame where Madame Dolly Cavanaugh held, uh, court, is the centerpiece behind the massive front bar, which itself is cut from a single piece of oak. The discovery of a false ceiling in her bed chamber some years back yielded a black book that included copious names of power brokers of days of yore.

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The place is long said to be haunted, likely by the ghosts of at least three people who were murdered in the building over the years, one of whom met their premature fate in what is now the women's room.

"Talk about stage fright," The BBBOM quipped while sipping a glass of house cabernet ($6).

Which brings us to the food. Not bad. The menu is comprised mainly of the three staple P's of Italian-American fare: Pizza, Paninis and Pasta. Serviceable standards such as Chickens Parmigiano, Romano and Picatta (all $14), Margharita, White and Pesto Pizzas ($6-12) and Sausage, Meatball and Eggplant Parm Paninis ($7-8) form the backbone of the menu.

It wouldn't be Pittsburgh without Wedding Soup, of which Munch had a particularly excellent cup ($3). Made with meatballs and strings of chicken, carrot and celery, it was just the tonic on a cold December eve. The BBBOM was clearly envious of Munch's soup selection as she instead tepidly nibbled a fresh greens salad ($5).

For entrees, though, Munch would've traded with The BBBOM, who enjoyed a plate of Penne in a very tasty Basil Tomato Cream sauce ($12), dotted with little circles of fresh mozzarella. Munch was slightly less enthusiastic about the Cheese Ravioli in Marinara ($13) though a truly delicious plate of garlic Flatbread ($3) made up for any misgivings Munch had about the ravioli, and was a perfect and easily inhaled sponge for the tomato-ey sauce.

All told the experience was a satisfying one, and Munch and the BBBOM loved the miniature history lesson that came along with the place -- I mean really, how often do you hear that a TGIFriday's is housed in an 150-year-old ghost infested former bordello?

And ever the bartender, the BBBOM offered this astute observation: many folks might grab a drink to evade the ghosts of the present. At Papa J's you can knock 'em back with the ghosts of the past.

Quite literally.


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