Ex-Pittsburghers are hungry for Pittsburgh
Other than "Here we go, Steelers," here's the most common rallying cry of the displaced Picksburgher:
"Dem jagoffs didn't cut my chip-chop ham right 'n'at!"
A couple months ago we asked readers who have moved away from Pittsburgh to tell us which foods they miss most. Boy, did we get an earful -- more than 200 responses, some spanning multiple pages.
I figured ex-Burgers missed the sports culture and tailgating parties, but who knew people thought of this area as such a food hub?
I had a few predictions going into this venture:
1. People would wax poetic about Primanti's.
2. Chipped ham would get a mention.
3. We'd get some votes for the region's Eastern European fare: halushki, galumpkis, perogi/pierogy/perogy/pyrohy.
What I didn't see coming was the passion for Pittsburgh pizza. Chicago, maybe, but Pittsburgh?
We also heard about favorite neighborhood restaurants, locally made foods, bakeries and local beers.
And we heard about what I might call "food experiences," which are about atmosphere as much as food. In this category I'd lump the ethnic church food festivals, Lenten fish fry dinners and, as one reader put it simply, "Saturday mornings in the Strip."
We can't give a shout-out to every one of the more than 200 foodstuffs and restaurants that were mentioned, but here are some of the highlights.
It's hard to know how to write this one: Is it chipped, chip-chop, chip-chopped, or chipped-chopped? Hyphen or no hyphen? Some readers even got their knickers in a twist over the spelling.
I was shocked that chipped ham was the No. 1 item folks missed. I thought it would be Primanti's. After all, the quintessential 'Burgh sandwich has gotten lots of press even outside the region. The fries-and-slaw-topped sandwich will be featured in a Travel Channel show called "Adam Richman's Best Sandwich in America" at 9 p.m. June 6.
And restaurateur and TV personality Lidia Bastianich included a Primanti's sandwich recipe in her latest cookbook, "Lidia's Italy in America," so desperate Pittsburgh expats can cook one up at home.
But that's enough for dyed-in-the-wool 'Burghers, who gave chipped ham and chipped ham barbecue 53 votes to Primanti's 51.
And Primanti's even had three naysayers, including Facebooker Tim McIntyre: "I live in Pittsburgh and I won't even eat a Primanti's sandwich. Really, what is so good about it?"
In a later Facebook post, Lisa Hindmarsh sounded as if she'd take him on: "Love me some Primanti double egg and cheese. And I add mayo to make it extra healthy."
But chipped ham generated more hype. Here's the sort of story I heard over and over:
Reader Pat Altenhof, who said "home is where the U.S. Air Force needs us," left Pittsburgh in 1964 for her husband's military career.
"I have spent fruitless hours at deli counters around the world trying to explain to a counter person that the chipped chopped ham should be thin enough to just about see through, but thick enough to stand up to barbecue sauce on a bun," she said.
Apparently it's all in the chipping because Ms. Altenhof wasn't the only one.
"No one here knows how to chip/chop the ham at all," wrote Erin McElroy of Winston-Salem, N.C., on the PG's Facebook page.
Same in South Carolina, said Jeffrey Wertz: "Down here they are not any good at chipping."
At least Mia Dentice Carey found deli workers from home. The St. Mary's, Ga., resident said, "Luckily, there's a couple people from Pittsburgh who know what 'chipped' means at the base commissary!"
In lieu of good chipping, people have resorted to some extreme measures to get their chipped ham fixes.
"Don't get me started about the lack of Isaly's chipped ham," said Stacey Robb of Las Vegas. "I once paid $99 to have McGinnis Sisters ship it to me out here (for 2 pounds) because I had such a craving for it."
After a visit last winter, Jean Sabbagh packed 2 pounds of chipped ham in a freezer bag, ice and a hot/cold bag and stuffed the bundle in her suitcase.
"The chipped ham made it all the way to Miami with ice still around it!" she said. "Of course, it didn't last long once I got it home."
If you counted up votes for individual pizzerias as well as votes for "Pittsburgh pizza" in general, you could say pizza beat out even chipped ham with a total of 80 votes.
Apparently the difference lies in the thickness of the crust. Denise Holland of Dillsburg calls Pittsburgh pizza a cross "between New York thin and Chicago-style pizza." Apparently you can't wander too far from Pittsburgh before the crust changes. To her chagrin, she says Central Pennsylvania makes New York pizza, or, as she calls it, "floppy mall pizza."
Top Pittsburgh pizzerias readers miss include Mineo's in Squirrel Hill and Mt. Lebanon, Vincent's in Forest Hills (recently closed), the confusingly similar Bado's in Mt. Lebanon and Beto's in Banksville, Fiori's in Brookline, and Aiello's in Squirrel Hill (readers mentioned 26 establishments).
Reader Sandra Sullivan wrote on Facebook, "I still have Mineo's number committed to memory and order as soon as I get into town so I can pick it up on my way home."
And like the chipped hammers, some faraway readers have gone to great lengths to get a bite of Pittsburgh pizza.
"In 2006 when the Steelers were in the playoffs," recounts Dorothy Michalski, "we ponied up the cash to have a Mineo's FedExed to our house in South Carolina. It was worth every penny!"
Pierogies were the next most-missed food item with 31 votes -- "especially the ones sold by little old ladies for their churches," wrote Robert Morgan of Knoxville, Tenn.
Along with pierogies, some -- but fewer -- folks mentioned other Eastern European fare. For those of us not of that lineage, the challenge is always figuring out what these things are and how they're spelled.
Reader David Pisani of Castleton-on-Hudson, N.Y., misses "Oktoberfest Catholic Church pigs in a blanket (galumpkis)." Apparently these are actually what I grew up calling cabbage rolls; to me, "pigs-in-a-blanket" were hot dogs or little sausages wrapped in biscuits.
And Tom Berich of Bloomington, Ind., misses halushki, which has several spelling variations.
"I've made it a number of times -- all very good -- but I can never quite make it the way many of the old Polish and Hungarian bubbas would make it," he wrote. "I know I'm doing the same things with the exact same ingredients. I think it's how they cook the cabbage.
"The fact that I get a little worked up about how to cook cabbage is one of the signs that I am old."
Another item readers mentioned repeatedly was "Pittsburgh-style salad" or salad with meat -- usually steak -- and french fries on top.
"I got so used to it back home," said Ben Stauffer of Nashville, "that I always assumed a salad came that way unless the menu said it didn't."
"No one else puts fries on a salad the way it's meant to be eaten," said reader Kelly Black -- a funny way to put it because in most places, people order salad to be healthy. Only in Pittsburgh can we make a salad a weight-gainer.
"I've ordered salads and a side of fries to toss on the salad," said Chauntel Summers of Fayetteville, N.C.
We asked folks to tell us the specific foods they miss most, but many readers simply sent us lists of restaurants. Case in point: Emilie Spruill wrote on Facebook, "GIRASOLE! Pizza Sola, Mad Mex, Sweet Basil, Buon Giorno, Strip District and Eat 'n Park! When I go home from Houston, it's like a taste tour of Pittsburgh!"
Except she used a lot more exclamation points.
The top restaurant expatriates miss is Eat 'n Park with 41 votes. The chain's burgers, strawberry pie and Smiley cookies each got several mentions.
Next on the list was the fish sandwich; places to get one mentioned as favorites included Wholey's and Benkovitz in the Strip District, Carl's Tavern in Wilkins, McGinnis Sisters grocery chain, Back Door Tavern in Fallston -- and those Lenten fish fries.
"On several occasions," wrote Facebooker Charles Putt Thomas, "my first stop after my plane landed was Wholey's -- love the fish sandwich."
Other restaurants -- or dives -- folks miss include the Original Hot Dog Shop in Oakland, better known as "The O"; Fat Head's, South Side (especially a monstrosity called the "Bay of Pigs" sandwich); Church Brew Works, Lawrenceville; Tessaro's, Bloomfield; and regional chains Mad Mex and Quaker Steak & Lube.
You couldn't exactly call it a "restaurant," but 10 readers said they miss Potato Patch fries at Kennywood.
Readers also mentioned a fistful of bakeries, such as Bethel Bakery in Bethel Park, famously dissed by presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a recent Pittsburgh stop.
And many readers miss Pittsburgh's Italian restaurants in general. Retired Post-Gazette Food Editor Suzanne Martinson, now living in Washington state, said she misses "having an Italian restaurant on every corner and the wealth of good food they provide."
Or as Facebooker David Shaw put it more bluntly, "Please send an Italian person to Dallas -- We don't have any here that know how to cook!"
Readers mentioned 56 individual foods and beers they miss, including:
• City chicken, or, as Diane Dadowski wrote on Facebook, "CITY CHICKEN!!!!!!! Cannot even find a butcher who knows what I'm talking about... and I'm only in Central PA."
• Mancini's bread -- and if you're Kevin Vettorel, you'd top it with chipped ham. He wrote on Facebook, "Currently stationed in Alaska. Missing my Mancini's bread & Isaly's chipped ham. In 5 short years I can retire and come back home."
• Sarris Candies, including chocolate-covered pretzels.
• Hoagies/Italian hoagies.
• Kielbasa, Italian sausage and hot sausage.
• Snyder's potato chips, particularly the barbecue variety -- an affinity we can understand because, unlike most barbecue chips, Snyder's don't have an overwhelmingly smoky flavor and do have a touch of sweetness. "When I lived in Arizona, I missed Snyder's of Berlin BBQ chips," Christine Kanalis wrote on Facebook. "My husband, who lived here while I was there, used to woo me home with stories of how delicious they were."
• Iron City Beer -- a surprise because it's not exactly known for its, um, flavor. But Robert Morgan of Knoxville, Tenn., captured its charm: "Honestly, not great stuff, but has a distinctive taste that smacks your mouth a little bit and says, 'Welcome back, you missed me!' "
You could tell which respondents were true Pittsburghers versus those who simply passed through the region for, say, college.
On my personal Facebook page, I asked ex-Pittsburgh friends if they missed any Pittsburgh foods, and Angelica Montgomery of Dallas wrote, "The first word that came to mind was 'nope.' Too much starch wrapped in starch."
Sounds like the perfect description of a pierogi.
But some born-and-bred Pittsburghers -- like the above-mentioned FedExers and suitcase-toters -- have found ways to satisfy their cravings.
Marilyn Turner just loads up when she's here and takes it all back home.
"We were just back," she wrote in an email, "and we went to Giant Eagle and spent over $100 on food to bring back... We definitely pick up some chipped ham, banana peppers... city chicken and some homemade kielbasa and hot Italian sausage. We take an empty cooler in our car and come back with it full."
And Cindy Hardisty of Portland, Ore., has gone the homemade route: "I've learned to make do and make my own hoagies, city chicken, halushki and fries on my salads. Mrs. T's (the frozen pierogie company) is better than nothing. I have a french fry cutter that gets me close to Potato Patch fries. I have finally found a guy from Chicago that makes great hot sausage. I have toted kielbasa, Smiley cookies and Lemon Blennd home in my checked bag (TSA found these interesting and swabbed for explosives.)"
But no matter how displaced Pittsburghers feed their fixations, they might not get their service with a Pittsburgh smile.
"I miss Isaly's chipped ham, Eat'n Park milkshakes and Smiley cookies, Mancini's Italian bread, Wise potato chips, a real hoagie, and Pittsburgh nice!!" Colleen O'Hare Miller of Chanhassen, Minn., wrote on Facebook. "MN doesn't have MN Nice!!!"
PRIMANTI'S SANDWICH (PANINO ALLO PRIMANTI)
So you moved away from Pittsburgh and you're missing your Primanti's? Make a knockoff sandwich at home! Lidia Bastianich's latest cookbook, chronicling the Italian immigrant experience of various enclaves around the United States, includes this Primanti's sandwich recipe and a description of the historic restaurant. We suspect she tinkered with the recipe, though; this sandwich seems quite a bit less greasy than its restaurant counterpart. -- Rebecca Sodergren
- 3 cups very finely shredded Savoy cabbage
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon celery seed, crushed
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- 2 small russet potatoes
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- 4 ounces capicola, sliced
- 4 ounces provolone, sliced
- 4 thick slices Italian bread (ideally about 6 by 4 inches, not too crusty)
- 1 ripe tomato, sliced
Toss together the cabbage, vinegar, olive oil, celery seed, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Let the slaw sit and the flavors mingle while you make the fries.
Cut unpeeled potatoes into sticks about 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick. Heat 1 inch vegetable oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. The oil is ready when the tip of a potato really sizzles on contact. Carefully slide the potatoes into the oil to fry over moderate heat, turning occasionally with tongs until crisp, golden brown and cooked through, about 8 to 10 minutes. Don't let the fries brown too quickly. (They might remain raw on the inside and burned on the outside if they are cooked too fast.) Drain on paper towels, and season with salt.
Heat another large skillet over high heat. When the skillet is hot, sear the sliced capicola until crisped on both sides, about 1 minute per side. Remove skillet from heat, and make 2 stacks of capicola on a side plate, laying the sliced provolone on top to get it started melting while you assemble the sandwich.
To assemble, lay 2 slices of bread on your work surface. Top with the capicola and melted cheese. Top with the fries, slaw and sliced tomatoes. Top with the remaining bread, cut in half, and serve immediately.
-- "Lidia's Italy in America" by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, $35)
First Published May 31, 2012 12:00 am