Friday, June 4, 2010

Travelog Pittsburgh: A better city than you think

This city continues to have a bad rap for something that no longer exists. There used to be a perma-haze over the city, smog from all the steel mills that have long since closed. Now, the air is pure and the skyline crisp.

I've always liked Pittsburgh. The people are friendly, and that includes Jim Leyland, who was managing the Pirates in 1988 when he stepped out of Three Rivers Stadium late one night, saw me waiting for a cab and asked this visiting rookie ball writer if he could give me a ride back to my hotel.

The view of downtown that one sees when exiting the Fort Pitt Tunnel from the airport is breathtaking. The yellow bridges that span the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers every few blocks stand out as golden monuments to the steel that used to define this city. The point where those two rivers merge to form the Ohio is beautiful as well. I love doing my exercise walks (shaddup!) along the river promenades.

For all of that, though, the main reason I like Pittsburgh is Primanti Brothers, a chain of eateries that tells you all you need to know about how lustily Pittsburghers enjoy life. This is not Subway. Jared's head would explode if he walked into a Primanti Bros. The healthiest thing to eat on the menu is the menu.

This how it's done at Primanti: Whatever fried delicacy or coldcuts you order are placed between two large hunks of white bread, along with tomatoes, French Fries and coleslaw. An all-in-one sandwich. You bite into everything at once, which is challenging for anyone without a mouth like Mick Jagger's. A sign in the restaurant tells you that the cheesesteak is the No. 2 most popular item on the menu. No. 1 is not listed, but Pittsburghers know it's the Iron City beer required to lubricate your throat for the elephantine hunk sandwich about to slide its way down. I present you here the Primanti salami sandwich:

There is a Primanti Bros. inside PNC Park, where the Pirates play. When the stadium first opened, one writer went to the stand and ordered a sandwich but asked for the slaw and the fries on the side. A cook actually stormed through a door so he could see the infidel and ask him why the hell he even wanted a Primanti sandwich.

I must admit, I ask for the slaw on the side, mainly because I like its salt-and-vinegar flavor and don't want it masked by the meat and potatoes.

Last night, Baggs and I got to Pittsburgh at midnight and needed to eat. It had to be Primanti because little else is open downtown that time of night. The Primanti in the Strip District is open 24 hours. Baggs had the sweet sausage, I the bacon, egg and cheese. Four Iron Cities were consumed. For the purposes of expense-account reporting, please note that Iron City is a vitamin supplement.

Baggs and I knew we were in the right place when we walked in and saw two women (we think) sitting at a table, each weighing at least three and a half bills, the kind who would look at me and say, "Hey, Tiny, come to mama." Baggs and I sat at the counter, downed our food and "vitamin supplements" and walked back to our hotel through some dark and gritty streets.

I would love to open a Primanti Bros. in San Francisco, but I think I'd have to change the menu. I wonder how a California sushi roll, organic bell peppers, new potatoes and a pesto arugula salad would taste between two pieces of seven-grain bread, washed down by an Alexander Valley chardonnay.

I'm guessing we'll never know.


  1. There's one team that rules Pittsburgh and it ain't the Pirates.

  2. I first visited Pittsburgh in 1992 (when I was only 18 and hence not much of a beer drinker...not that I'm a beer drinker today either) and my favorite part was that nearly every eatery I visited had IBC Rootbeer on tap.

  3. "I would love to open a Primanti Bros. in San Francisco....."

    No need, Hank!
    303 Columbus Avenue @ Broadway, North Beach, CA

    Fond memories of watching all the Steeler jerseys and Penguin Jerseys spilling out into the streets after the 2009 Super Bowl and 2009 Stanley Cup respectively.
    I'm not anticipating a Pirates renaissance any time soon, but when/if you can bet that the good folks at Giordano Bros. will be ground zero here in San Francisco.

    Have a great road trip & thanks for the updates!

  4. I've only seen the new yard in Pitt on TV, but it looks even nicer than AT&T Park -- mostly because they managed to avoid installing giant coke bottles, humongous baseball mitts, and a kiddie theme park in the wasteland beyond the left field bleachers.

    Yeah, I know -- the Giants needed private money and lots of it to build their park, but for the so-called "City that knows how" to tart up an otherwise wonderful ball yard with all the visual garbage of a NorCal Disneyland is a shame.

    Love your blog, Henry. It's great.

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  6. Love Pittsburgh, love the stadium with the statues of great players from the pirates and the Homestead Grays .. Barry (not lean, speedy Pittsburgh Barry but, well, you know) could have had a splash hit there, about 600 feet! .. John Madden was always fascinated with the confluence, and he would draw arrows in the telestrator, usually all pointing toward the middle. Pat Summerall pointed out that one of those arrows must go the other way, or else the water would pile up.

  7. Pittsburgh really is a nice city. I left San Jose to come here on an internship and It is beautiful. I totally agree with you on the view approaching the city. I have yet to try Primanti Brothers, but I shall eat there my next day off.

    If only this city had a baseball team ...