Exploring Pittsburgh's Little Italy
Upon a recent visit to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I was delighted to find an unusual neighborhood nestled into the edge of the city’s busy and urban downtown district.
Most think of Pittsburgh as an industrial steel town, gritty and tough. Food is usually hearty, created to keep eaters warm against the brutal winter cold. Primanti Bros. makes the iconic french fry sandwich. Pierogi are found everywhere. But there's one section where the atmosphere is a little warmer, the food a little homier, and the folks stand on the street corner and actually talk to each other. Race and ethnicity don't seem to matter here. Pittsburgh’s Little Italy opens its arms and beckons you to sit and stay awhile.
Visiting the neighborhood by accident, while in town for a grandchild’s birth, a trip downstairs from the 5th-floor maternity ward at West Penn Hospital dumped me onto Liberty Avenue. In the village of Bloomfield, a quick cup of Starbucks next to the hospital was in order. But when my eyes finally opened for the day, it occurred to me that I was standing in the middle of a very old Italian neighborhood. Making a rapid ascent back to the waiting room, and finding that we were still on baby watch, I headed back down to the street to explore.
The first stop, as suggested by the hospital information desk, was Angelo’s Pizzeria across the street. When you see pizza by the slice on the counter, you know you’ve found good, authentic Italian pizza! This stuff oozes olive oil and garlic. The cheese is indescribable because I’ve never had anything like it, being from the Midwest. Creamy, stretchy, gooey and buttery are the best I can do.
I don’t know if that is what handmade mozzarella is like or not, but my gosh, it's fantastic. It’s so blazing hot out of the oven, but it looks and smells too incredible to wait to cool. The pepperoni is even different than any other I’ve ever had with more intense flavor. Going back for another slice and adding green peppers, black olives, and mushrooms was a good choice. I still crave this pizza three months later.
After leaving not completely full, my Dad and I searched for some other authentic eats. We were not disappointed. Finding Groceria Italiana tucked in a back parking lot of the hospital, choices are sparse, but the deli counter had Italian wedding soup, or greens and beans hot and ready for 2 bucks. We got one of each. Then we switched off and ate each others', while we sat at the only tiny table outside. It was a good Dad/daughter bonding moment.
He’s not mad, I promise. That is his “I’m trying to decide which soup I like better" concentrating face. He's a retired Air Force sergeant. Greens and beans won out. What are greens and beans?
Scarola e fagioli, or greens and beans is an iconic Pittsburgh Italian dish with cannellini beans and escarole. Being brought from Southern Italy, the home of much of Pittsburgh’s immigrant population, there is one die-hard rule to the dish: no canned beans. Fresh, soaked, and cooked beans and broth are added to escarole that has been sauteed in garlic, olive oil, and red chili flakes.
Groceria Italiana is the first place I caught a glimpse of the quiet sense of humor that hides under the surface of most Italians.
This is what I spied sitting on the counter at checkout.
Donatelli's Italian Food Center
It’s striking that other than Starbucks, there is not one fast-food franchise on these few blocks of Bloomfield. Street food is available inside the stores, very cheaply, and a lot of choices are meant to be eaten on the go.
One such example is Donatelli’s Italian Food Center. It is a jam-packed grocery store and deli. The back end of the store more resembles a farmers market with locally grown fresh produce choices. The deli counter is lined across with customers three deep, so not a lot could be viewed, or photographed. But what we could see of it looked like home cooking, with lots of smothered sausages and pasta dishes.
The cookie counter is what we were drawn to, and we had a really hard time deciding on one or two choices. Biscotti of around 12 different varieties, Italian wedding cookies, pizzelle, and pignoli were available. We chose lemon-almond biscotti.
A Wonderfully Diverse Neighborhood
Taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood of Liberty Avenue, we noticed that there was a diverse mix of cultures and cuisines sprinkled here and there among the shops. A Thai restaurant sits in between two Italian grocers, and a Chinese noodle cafe sits next to the traditional “old man” barbershop. In addition, there is a Portuguese home goods and gift store and a Kathmandu Indian Fashions clothing store.
This is not a touristy neighborhood, unlike the Iconic St. Louis’s Hill Italian District. Of course, The Hill District is home to Yogi Berra and several other famous personalities which contribute to the pull of tourism.
It’s apparent that diverse nationalities live in the area, as one views the wonderful mix of folks shopping and lingering on the streets. The strong sense of heritage and family draws those from similar backgrounds, although diverse in ancestry.
Fried Fish Sandwiches: A Pittsburgh Tradition
Day two at the hospital, we finally had a grandbaby! Daniel was born during the night, so bright and early, we were back at West Penn maternity ward. With the baby still receiving all of his tests and such, we descended back to Liberty Avenue for further examination of the food scene.
We noticed fish sandwich signs everywhere. It was not Lent season. What’s up with the fried fish sandwich? Is it Bloomfield thing, or a Pittsburgh thing?
There it is, the humor I mentioned earlier. This was literally the third fried fish sign in one block.
Apparently, for Pittsburghians, it is not a question of liking these famous fried-fish sandwiches, but rather depending on them. It’s usually fried cod, big, with fish hanging off both ends of the bun. Lent is the reason the sandwich came to town, but it's popular year round. My husband has a dependence on the McDonald’s filet of fish, so he would be in heaven here.
Today, it’s time to eat less and shop more, as I’m leaving for home in the morning. Yeah right, we kept eating. I found Merante's Gifts. What a find! It is a gift shop and has food in the back. Mario sits at the door in a chair, acting as a greeter although he doesn’t talk much. He looks about 80 years old, and smiles sweetly and speaks with such a thick accent that I don’t know if he is speaking Italian or English. It doesn’t matter, he’s so adorable.
He does finally speak English and asks to assist in choosing housewares. I score a wooden gnocchi board, a handheld tool to create those signature lines in the potato dumplings without having to use a fork. There is a huge array of traditional culinary tools and dishware, but I already had most of those things.
Strolling to the back of Merante’s, one finds Maria working hard, rolling and kneading something on a hard surface, while joking with a couple standing nearby. Maria is encased in glass with an amazing array of Italian soul food displayed around her. She is more than happy to chat after I announce that I am a travel writer from Missouri.
She cranks out hand made traditional “Nona” or grandma style food all day, and serves it at what frankly looks like my grandmother's dining room table. Several of these antique wooden dining tables are placed together, with chairs surrounding the area. Antique fine china furnishes the table settings along with elegant serving ware. The eating area is empty in mid-afternoon, but one can only imagine stopping here as a visitor and being welcomed to the neighborhood table for dinner.
Paddy Cake Bakery
Could we be hungry again? After watching Maria prepare heaping platters of dinner choices, you bet we are. What to do at 3pm? Luckily we found Paddy Cake Bakery next door to Merante’s Gifts.
Paddy Cake Bakery was filled with all of the most popular Italian treats, as well as some I have never seen. So it was a given that I was gonna order cannoli the minute I walked in that door. My narrow minded choice was quickly evident by the contrast of all of the other offerings that were new to me.
Everything is really too beautiful to eat. A long time ago when I traveled to Taiwan, I came across the same problem. Big difference here, though. In Asia, the bakers spend ridiculous amounts of time hand decorating tiny works of art. Notice that I did not describe them as delicious? That’s because they taste like barely sweet, dry, crumbly sheets of newspaper.
Not so with Italian bakers. Everything could literally look like something a second grader cranked out and it’s would still be the most delicious baked goody you have ever had. Cookies, cakes, tarts, tortes, donuts, eclairs, breads, and pies lined the cases. Daily customers came and went quickly picking up called in orders, or just grabbing a long bread loaf for supper. That bread is what hits your nose when you get near the storefront outside. I would serve that every night too.
After grabbing my customary cannoli, which delightedly was available in chocolate cream as well as vanilla, almond torte is what really jumped out at me. It reminded me of the big, fluffy, meringue-frosted coconut cakes my great grandmother used to create. Not wanting a whole cake to myself, the baker showed me that they were available in individual-sized tortes. This tiny version is perfect, covered in toasted almonds, but so light and delicate, it’s heavenly. I think I could have eaten a big cake after all.
That’s when I noticed that they did this with a lot of the items they offer. A normal-sized sweet croissant matched a giant one across the room with the cakes. There were also mini and large size cannoli. The appetite option is a nice gesture for the customer.
A Unique, Must-Visit Neighborhood
I’m sure there are a million other interesting things to do in the Bloomfield neighborhood. It’s just refreshing not to see a busy borough with wall-to-wall microbreweries, wing restaurants, and coffee shops. I am glad that Starbucks sits in the middle, however. As one of the only franchises on Liberty Avenue, it throws back to the day when Starbucks was still a unique treat instead of daily fuel.
© 2020 Vicki Wood