Friday, November 16, 2012
“The Strip District.” This is an answer often uttered by proud Pittsburghers in response to a visitor asking for a recommendation for how to spend time in the city. But why? Well, it seems there’s something for everyone – be it cheap eats, lavish meals, seasonal produce, high-quality meats, fresh seafood, artisanal cheeses, international spices, kitchen supplies, just-out-of-the-oven bread and baked goods, hot coffee, gorgeous flowers, local art, black and gold souvenirs, live music…wait…this could go on and on…
There’s more to it, though. We think it’s easy to enjoy the Strip District because its attractions are as diverse as the European immigrants who founded the neighborhood centuries ago. Today, many people can feel connected to the neighborhood’s history through their own traditions and customs. If Pittsburgh was a melting pot for immigrants, then the Strip District is the most apparent example of that today.
The Strip, as it is affectionately known, is one of our favorite neighborhoods in the city (but who knows what other neighborhoods are out there waiting to win us over!). We find ourselves there many Saturday mornings shopping for the usual veggies, meats, and cheeses. For this trip, though, we wanted to take a deeper look at the neighborhood to see what else it had in store for us.
The Location and a Little History
The Strip District is bounded on the west by Pittsburgh’s Central Business District (downtown) at 11th Street and Lower Lawrenceville on the east at 33rd Street. The Allegheny River provides its northern border while Grant’s Hill looms along its southern boundary. In a sense, its confines are provided by both natural topography (north & south) and man-made developments (the distinctive neighborhoods east & west).
In the early 1800s, the Strip was called Bayardstown after namesake property developer George A. Bayard and partner James O’Hara. Officially, Bayardstown was called the Northern Liberties and, in 1837, it joined the City of Pittsburgh. Its location along the river (think water transportation) made it a natural place for industry to develop and flourish. From its early days as the Northern Liberties through the post-Civil War era and into the 1900s, industry (glass/iron/steel) was prevalent. Leaders like Carnegie and Westinghouse were at the forefront of the progress.
Let us continue to cite the Neighbors In the Strip website as we relay something that is particularly striking for us.
It’s easy to think about the Strip District and imagine that the ubiquitous produce markets were always part of the area. It sure feels like they must have been there forever, right? It’s hard to believe, but that wasn’t always the case. It was the aforementioned industry during the 1800s and, at that time, the produce markets existed elsewhere. They were further west on Liberty Avenue in today’s downtown neighborhood. It worked because there was a railroad line right on Liberty Avenue and the produce was delivered to their doors downtown.
Next, in 1906 (we need to find out why!), the railroad line was removed and it left those produce merchants without an efficient means of importing product. They began clamoring for real estate in today’s Strip District so they could have that ease of delivery. So, gradually, there was a morphing from hard industry to produce markets and that’s the neighborhood we know today.
Be sure to read more from the best source for this area’s history, Neighbors In the Strip.
Since our aim was to dive a little deeper than we usually do during our frequent visits to the Strip, we wanted to visit some places for the first time. Of course, it’s not like we could skip our favorite locations. We can never spend too much time in this neighborhood!
While some of our stops are deserving of a post all to themselves, we’re going to limit ourselves to a couple of sentences per destination, except those we’re especially excited about. Also, by no means are we attempting to provide a comprehensive list of everything that’s available in the Strip. That’s already been done and, ultimately, this is about documenting and sharing what makes the city’s neighborhoods so special to us. Here we go!
We actually started our trip to the Strip the night prior to our 90 Proof visit at this Carribbean-style gem. The restaurant is part of the big Burrito Restaurant Group, which includes some of our favorite restaurants in the area. We shared the Kaya Chips with Mango-Tomatillo Salsa as an appetizer, Kim had the Crispy Fish Tacos, and Derek enjoyed the Tropical Paella. Yum! Do yourself a favor and sign up for their birthday club to score a free entree on your big day…like Derek did!
There’s often a debate in the Strip over the best breakfast spot. We usually go to Pamela’s Diner, but decided to mix it up and head to DeLuca’s. While our Mixed Grill with Hot Sausage (Derek) and Egg Whites, Fruit, and Toast (Kim) filled us up for the day, Kim couldn’t help but miss Pamela’s Chocolate Banana pancakes. Among our other favorites is a new second location for Kelly O’s (formerly Jo Jo’s), which we know from our neck of the woods in the North Hills. One more – check out Cafe On the Strip for some solid breakfast, good cappuccino, and Frank and Dean-o setting the mood. These breakfast choices are all really close to one another and should make you want to start your day in the Strip early!
We lucked out again with gorgeous weather (55 and sunny!) but still needed a hot cup of coffee. This spot recently moved about one block down on Smallman Street to a larger and more open location. They also have a location downtown.
What goes better with coffee than a good doughnut?! Even though we were full from our DeLuca’s breakfast, we decided that we had just enough room to split one little hippie doughnut before our walk.
This is an example of one of those places we’re ashamed to say we never visited. And this is going to take more than a few sentences…
If you are a Pittsburgher and have not visited this destination, clear your calendar and take the initiative. If you’re not a Pittsburgher, clear your calendar and take the initiative. The Senator John Heinz History Center, in association with the Smithsonian Institution, is truly remarkable and works to capture the totality of our great city’s history and significance unlike any other place and any other resource.
We only had one regret during our glorious day in the Strip District; we wish we could have spent more time within these walls and still had time to explore the rest of the neighborhood. We’ll be back!
The Heinz History Center features both long-term and rotating exhibitions. Football fans or not, we, as residents and visitors, have a unique opportunity right now to visit the first ever touring exhibition of the Pro Football Hall of Fame entitled Gridiron Glory, the Center’s current rotating exhibition. There’s good reason for the tour to start here in Pittsburgh. 46 out of 273 Hall of Fame members have a Pittsburgh connection and 22 of those men were Steelers. Beyond that, the area is celebrating 120 years since the first ever professional football game was played (yes, it happened here!), 80 years since the Steelers’ inaugural season, and 40 years since one of the greatest plays in sports history, The Immaculate Reception.
There are six total floors of awe-inspiring artifacts and insights into our region’s past. Beyond the rotating exhibition, two more floors make up the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. Since we probably won’t ever focus this much on sports again in 90 Proof, let’s take just another second to address this portion of the Heinz History Center.
When you walk into the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, there’s a countdown in progress. It’s dark and there’s a feeling of great anticipation. After winding through a hall, you land in a room with around six television screens, including two over-sized projection screens. A clock ticks down to “kick-off” on the screens and the dark and quiet room is suddenly illuminated by the sights of hair-raising historic sporting triumphs and sounds of chilling radio/tv broadcasters’ now-famous exclamations. For a few minutes, you’re transported through the decades across dozens of sports in an unforgettable montage of the greatest moments you’ve seen – and heard about from your grandparents and parents – in your life. Mario. Arnie. Maz. Franco. Roberto. The list goes on and on as you’re reminded of just how many significant athletes have made history in Pittsburgh. After the montage, we were left chomping at the bit and for the next couple of hours we soaked up everything we could about great moments in local professional, collegiate, and high school athletics. It all serves as a reminder of the human body’s astounding capability and the importance of sport in bringing people together. Pictures are probably worth more than our words. Take a sneak peek now, but this is no comparison to being there:
Beyond the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, the Heinz History Center boasts several more floors with a number of long-term exhibitions. Among our favorites was Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation. Spanning two floors, this area highlights those monumental achievements you recall learning about as a child, but also those you didn’t realize until your trip here. The exhibit transports you to other times and places; in one area you’re inside a partial replica of the famed Crawford Grill learning about Mary Lou Williams and, in another, you’re coming to understand the wire rope suspension bridges designed by John A. Roebling (in Saxonburg no less…where we got hitched and some of Kim’s family resides).
Glass: Shattering Notions was another outstanding long-term exhibition. Did you know that Pittsburgh glass was used in the crown of the Statue of Liberty and for presidential tableware through the centuries? Beyond seeing where our local glass has been utilized, we learned how it’s made and how important it was to Pittsburgh, especially in the pre-steel years.
We hope you’re planning your visit to the Heinz History Center now. When you get there, we recommend one more thing (if your legs are feeling good). Skip the elevator and take the Smart Steps. The stairwell is an exhibit in its own right. The steps are numbered and some of those numbers call out significant Pittsburgh trivia. Think about steps #3 (Rivers), #57 (Heinz) or #87 (Sidney Crosby), for example. We were pleased to see this one most of all. Can you believe it?!
And if you make it to the top, 123 steps later on the 6th floor, you’re rewarded not just with access to the treasured Thomas & Katherine Detre Library & Archives, but also with a special reward in the Center’s lobby. Turn in your stamped Smart Steps card and take home a Pittsburgh collectible along with your healthier heart.
In this land of freedom, the future is ours if each and every one of us renews a respect for tolerance and diversity, initiative and compromise and accepts challenges and responsibilities as great as our predecessors.” – John Heinz
Next on the agenda was a stop for some new music. With three floors stuffed full of new and used media – CDs, DVDs, vinyl, VHS, comic books, action figures, etc. – this place has it all. We snagged the soundtrack to The Last Waltz, which was coming up on its 36th anniversary later in November.
This is a must-see stop for out-of-towners and a frequented market for Pittsburghers. Known mostly for the huge fresh seafood selection, some call their peanut butter to die for. If you’d like to soak in the unique environment a little longer, grab a sandwich or some sushi and eat-in while trying to follow the overhead model train around the store’s tracks. You can read some company history here.
Of all the glorious smells in the Strip, the wafting aroma of fresh-baked bread out of Mancini’s is among the best. This store has only been around since ’02, but the Mancini name dates back to 1926 when Jim Mancini started work in McKees Rocks. He later teamed up with his brother, Ernie, and it’s Ernie’s grandson, Nick, who opened this Strip District location. There’s a third location downtown in Market Square. We recommend the pepperoni rolls and focaccia bread!
Every spice and herb you can imagine, from all corners of the globe, can be found at Penzey’s. It is a national chain, but the old downtown Pittsburgh wall mural inside makes us feel right at home.
Add Parma to the list of extremely special places in the Strip. If ever there was a company committed to quality, this is it. Within the last couple of years, we can recall the company halting the selling of their most popular product – prosciutto. We, and the other carnivorous lovers of cured Italian meats in town, learned that they grew dissatisfied with the quality of the pork they were using at the time and set out to start all over again with a new source. The wait was worth it; we were thrilled when they began selling it again and it was better than ever. Check out the full story here; it’s a fascinating read!
Here’s the scene inside Parma with the workers slicing our order. Derek was salivating looking at the butcher’s block and that first end piece of sopressata laying on the cutting board.
Derek: “I want that butt!”
Kim: “Me too!”
Derek: “I meant the butt-end of the sopressata!”
Kim: “Oh. I didn’t.”
On our way to the next stop…
Located inside the multi-block Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction and Sales Building along Smallman Street, this place fills a gap that Pittsburgh had for around four decades. This market provides a space for dozens of merchants to sell their local produce and wares. You can find it all – from beer to pies to soaps to pierogies and much more.
If you don’t live under a rock, you know what this is all about. Here’s the original…right here in the heart of the Strip.
Kim loves the Ragin’ Cajun Chicken Breast & Cheese while Derek sometimes opts for the Capicola & Cheese. Either way, the coleslaw is the perfect vinegar-based kind and the fries are fresh cut and piled high between the slices of Italian bread. This one is open 24/7, so you have no excuse not to check it out.
Here’s a new one…for us, anyway. This wine cellar had a sandwich board outside that caught our eye, so we decided to stop in and check it out. We chatted with the owner for a few minutes and he offered some tastings. He brings his grapes in from all over, many from the Lake Erie area, and makes them on-site. We decided to grab a bottle of Zin to take home and enjoy with our feast of Strip District goodies later that night.
Enrico’s is another one of our favorite stops. We can’t make a trip to the Strip without grabbing some biscotti to gift away or enjoy ourselves. In a way, we don’t want to tell you about this because we don’t want you to cut line in front of us, but they offer bread making classes. There’s also a cafe on-site we’re hoping to check out soon. Of course, if you can really dedicate some time and resources, we saw an advertisement welcoming the public to join Enrico on a trip to Tuscany and Rome in April of 2013! Imagine the food!
Not to sound like a broken record, but this is another one of our favorites. It’s another reason this neighborhood is incredible.
We typically stop in Penn Mac for a number of reasons. Sometimes we need a new bottle of extra virgin olive oil, so we’ll fill up an empty bottle from the huge vats in the back of the store. Other times, we’re craving pasta so we purchase some fresh crushed red pepper linguine and Penn Mac vodka sauce. Once in a while, Kim likes to stock up on spices, nuts, or puntini (Italian candies) from the bulk section. Every time, though, we enter the cheese sanctuary. This place must be one of our favorite places on earth. The line can be out the door on Saturday mornings, especially during the holidays, and it’s a couple of people deep even at apparent off-times. It’s all worth it, though, for the product and for the service.
Among the cast of characters at the cheese counter, all of whom put you at ease even when you don’t have a clue what you’re ordering, is Carol “Dear Heart” Pascuzzi. She has helped us select a cheese many times and, each and every time, she’s greeted us by asking, “How can I help you, dear heart?” Take a minute to read an article on her from a few years back here.
Here’s a relatively new spot, at least for us, to grab a beer and catch a break. We stopped in and found a nice selection of drafts and craft bottles, as well as a menu full of appealing pub grub.
We stop at Reyna’s every time we’re in the Strip to pick up some fresh tortillas, rice, or beans. They claim to be Pittsburgh’s first Mexican grocer, having settled at their location in 1988. We just know we hope they never leave. We wanted to try something new this time, so we took home a small tub of “fresh table salsa.” Now, we look forward to going back and trying another flavor!
We learned at our first-ever visit to Wigle that the Pittsburgh region was once the home to whiskey in America. Of course, before Wigle opened in the Strip in the spring of 2012, our city hadn’t seen a distillery since Prohibition.
Our experience was a history lesson as much as it was a fun tasting session. We learned immediately that the distillery’s namesake is Philip Wigle, a distiller from the area who unknowingly sparked the Whiskey Rebellion when he argued with a tax collector.
We also learned that Monongahela Rye (sounds like a familiar term, right?), a style of whiskey but not a specific brand of whiskey, was award-winning and celebrated through the 1800s and it was “white,” meaning it was not aged in barrels. It’s the barrel-aging that gives today’s popular whiskeys their color and distinctive tastes.
Wigle Whiskey claims to make their products in “much the same way Wigle and his friends did – from scratch with a copper pot and local ingredients.” The tradition, they say, helps to create distinctly Pennsylvanian whiskeys.
Wigle offered tasting flights and complete cocktails, each at $5. The flight included their award-winning white wheat whiskey, white rye whiskey, ginever, and a small-batch aged whiskey. Cocktails included the Bees Knees, adding cream and local honey to the white wheat whiskey; the Ginever Fizz, comprising lemon juice, simple syrup, bubbly water, and Ginever; and a couple of others.
The distillery will be releasing a small amount of aged whiskeys in December and a slightly larger batch in November of 2013. Check it out and let us know what you think!
Despite our best efforts, we just couldn’t pack anything more into our great day in the Strip! Here are some additional things we wanted to mention, though.
This non-profit organization is housed on the eastern end of the Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction and Sales building. We’ll often stop in to see the latest exhibition and we’re always glad we did! Admission is free and donations are accepted.
Here’s a great sweets shop on Penn and 21st offering chocolates from all over the world. Kim usually doesn’t want to leave the Strip without at least walking in for the smells.
Cioppino is an excellent dinner destination and is deserving of all the good word on the street. Beyond offering a delightful seafood/chophouse menu, the establishment also features a gorgeous dark-wood cigar bar well separated from the restaurant. They claim to offer some of the best cigars in the world, but also sell reasonably priced varieties to be enjoyed on the spot in the relaxing leather wing-backs and couches.
If you’re going to have a conversation about the top restaurants in the City of Pittsburgh, Eleven must be in the conversation. Yet another member of the big Burrito Restaurant Group, the second in the Strip, this place is phenomenal. We had one of our favorite meals ever here a few months ago. They call it “complex flavors, simply prepared” and we can’t think of a better way to put it. Go if you have the chance. Remember, the birthday club can help with your tab!
What a treat. This time machine takes you back to the 1920s. It’s all about nostalgia. Everything about the place – the stools, woodwork, soda fountain, ice cream, etc. – is charming and legitimate. It’s a must-see.
Looking for a place to live in the city? Don’t forget about these buildings. Can you imagine having the Strip District at your fingertips every day? What a life!
Do you know what’s scary about this post? It’s pretty long, but we didn’t cover close to everything. There’s so much more. We didn’t talk about other favorites of ours like Penn Avenue Fish Company or Pittsburgh Popcorn. We didn’t talk about Mullaney’s Harp and Fiddle, Bella Notte, or Roland’s Seafood Grill & Iron Landing. We didn’t mention some of the Middle Eastern and Asian grocers and restaurants along Penn Avenue. Live music? There’s the Altar Bar and the 31st Street Pub. How about yoga? Oh my; we didn’t even mention the street vendors! What about the new Marty’s Market or an historic florist? There’s a pottery store, Attack Theater Company, Pittsburgh Opera, and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Oh, and Stan’s Market and a couple of churches.
Forget it. It’s too much. Actually, it’s never enough. That’s the thing. We can never get enough of this amazing neighborhood. Every visit offers endless charm through a one-of-a-kind blend of ethnic backgrounds and a genuineness we can’t take for granted. The Strip is more than a place to buy crazy-good food. It’s a place where all walks of life can come together and revel in cultural diversity and have an opportunity to engage each other. It’s absolute proof of Pittsburgh’s greatness.
Now, rest up and get ready for the long haul. We’ve only completed 3 neighborhoods together and we’ve got 87 to go!
See you soon as we look for the next proof!