Posted by: mchleen | May 26, 2009

No pits in Pittsburgh!

Primanti BrosWe spent the weekend in Pittsburgh, and I have to admit that I had somewhat low expectations for what I’d find. I anticipated a sooty city cloaked in grey – grey sky, gray landscape, grey economy and possibly even grey denizens. I was wrong! We discovered suburban green hills and dales reminicent of Scotland, elaborate architecture, a thriving riverfront culture, and warm, open and chatty locals.

While I did see more trashy tattoos and doughy physiques per capita than anywhere I’ve ever been in my life, this could be attributed to the venue – the Pittsburgh Zoo on Memorial Day weekend. I have no way of knowing whether these were actual Pittsburghers or just slovenly tourists giving the city a bad name. And while the city is rife with covetable, gorgeous turn of the century architecture and a wealthy heritage (it’s a city founded by names such as Westinghouse, Heinz, J.P. Morgan, Mellon, Carnegie), it was dusted in a patina of…well…dust. This also could have been due to it being a Sunday on a holiday weekend, so most businesses were shuttered lending a sort of post-apocolyptic-abandonment feel to downtown. I’ll have to return in order to ascertain the true flavor of Pittsburgh but I was very much surprised by how wrong my expectations of the city were, in fact.

There were no truly low-points, but definitely some notable and memorable high-points:

I mentioned that the downtown area felt virtually abandoned on Sunday, but on our way to find parking in the Strip District we turned a corner and **BAM!** ran smack into a little Little Italy bustling with authentic Old World salumeri and markets, pasta factories, bakeries and street vendors selling local produce. A little bit of research today reveals however that Pittsburgh’s official Little Italy is in fact in Bloomfield. Damn! I guess there’s always next time. And Pittsburg appears to have a large italian population so I suppose there are many little Little Italies.

We enjoyed walking around this very italian part of the Strip District not just for the cornucopia of visual and olfactory treats, but as a means of working off some of the roughly 1400 calories and 90 grams of fat consumed at the original Primanti Brothers. You heard me right! And that’s the actual sandwich that I consumed in the picture above – all by my gobbly self. Two thick slices of hearty italian bread hugging your choice of meat (I went with the pastrami – the original and purported best), provolone cheese, a fried egg, slice of tomato, fistful of coleslaw, and fistful of french fries. It’s a dockworkers meal that you can hold in your hand, although you have to unhinge your jaw to take a bite…a minor occupational hazard. Many people also liberally dot each mouthful with some hot sauce – highly recommended. How was it? OMFG. Hella’ good. Hella’ hella’ good. And go to the original location for the authentic experience: wood paneling, solid oak bar with brass trappings, walls lacquered with historic memorabilia, no B.S. waitresses, and open 7 days/24 hours!

And a shout-out is due to the Marriott Renaissance Hotel where we stayed. It is one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve stayed in, a renovation of the Fulton office building built in 1906 – and named for Pennsylvanian Robert Fulton, builder of the first profitable commercial steamship and one of the fathers of the submarine. And let it not go unsaid that every single employee, every single one (from the front desk to the doormen), went out of their way to be kind, mannerly and entertainingly chatty. Some of the housekeeping staff we encountered on our shortcut through the back alley even chatted us up. It has been my experience that this is usually the place where the surliest employees are found on their smoke breaks.

So I wonder if perhaps the dust that I had assumed was coal and factory dust blanketing the city, isn’t in fact fairy dust…



  1. It should also be noted that on Saturday night, the Penguins went up 3-0 against the Canes. It is a city where folks can walk to watch all three of their major sports teams play. No Fed-Ex field parking problems here.

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