Some dads coached, and some took their kids fishing. Mine took me grocery shopping. I grew up in a small suburb of Boston, and every Saturday from the time I was about six, my father would wake me early. We’d drive to either Brown’s Dairy or the Driftwood, a local breakfast joint by the pier in Marblehead, and order eggs, hotcakes and coffee. Dad took his coffee black. I took mine with eight creams and four packets of sugar. We would eat and sip our coffee as we planned out our shopping route and menus for the week.
Without fail we would hit the fruit and vegetable markets first, then onto Athen’s Bakery for hot bread and rolls for sandwiches. To Gloria’s Deli for cold cuts: peppery Genoa salami, wafer thin ham, smoky turkey breast, and blood-red roast beef. And the cheeses: Swiss, provolone, and sharp cheddar the mellow orange of a Cezanne sunrise. For meats we shopped Pennies Market where my father and the butcher were on a first name basis. There we procured small quantities, just enough to last the week, because most of the things we bought were best eaten fresh.Â By the time we returned home and put away our treasures (less a portion invariably consumed during the car ride home) it was just about time to start dinner. An entire day devoted to food.
The search for ingredients grew into my life-long passion for any type of food shop. In fact, to this day, I’d much rather wander the wide aisles of a Dean and Deluca, or Whole Foods, than any designer boutique. Don’t even get me started on farmers’ markets.
I moved to Pittsburgh in the summertime, twenty-five years ago, and spent several lonely weeks here before my husband came to join me. I was young, barely twenty-five and in a strange city. No car and a tiny apartment with a kitchen that had once been a closet. On my way home from work, I’d stop by the local Giant Eagle and pick up a frozen dinner, which I’d eat alone while watching St. Elmos’ Fire on my Betamax recorder. Every night.
I’d been here three miserable weeks when I complained to an acquaintance at work that I was poor, homesick, and not even able to find flat leaf parsley at the local supermarket.
“You should go to the Strip District”, she replied.
Thinking that meant the red-light district, I wasn’t sure if she was suggesting a shopping location or a new career. Then she explained that the Strip District in Pittsburgh is a five or six block stretch down by the Allegheny River, filled with produce markets, ethnic groceries and bakeries. The next weekend I found my way there and was instantly smitten. Old-fashioned butcher shops and fishmongers, cheese shops, flower stalls, a shop that sold coffee roasted on the premises, and a little espresso bar where Italian men hovered and sipped espresso while nibbling pastries and trading stories in Italian. By the time I found my way home, it was late afternoon. I filled my tiny refrigerator and made myself a swordfish steak– my first piece of fish since moving to land-locked Pittsburgh. I dragged my tiny folding table out onto the back porch and ate my dinner al fresco, smiling for the first time in weeks.
I’ve been shopping the Strip ever since. And it never fails to make me smile. It is, quite simply, one of the best things about Pittsburgh. Yes, other cities have market districts: Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, Boston’s North End Markets, San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, Seattle’s Pike Place Market, I’ve visited many, but nothing is quite like the Strip.
It’s where many local chefs come to pick up their produce, cheeses, meats and fish at wholesale prices. On the weekends, home cooks, tourists and various passers-through begin to swell the ranks, vying for the few available parking spaces, not to mention tables at Pamela’s, a retro diner that serves the best hotcakes in Pittsburgh. Street vendors crowd the sidewalks outside the markets, selling beaded necklaces, hand knit sweaters, used CDs, bandanas in exotic colors, and Steelers paraphernalia by the ton. It is a loud, jostling, carnivalesque experience, not to be missed.
My first novel, Aftertaste, is set partially in the Strip. My protagonist is a New York City chef. I won’t give too much away (you’ll have to wait for its August release) except to tell you that she learns, as I did, just what a great food town Pittsburgh is.
Pennsylvania Macaroni Company
A few things have changed in the twenty-five years I’ve been going to the Strip, but much has remained the same. Pennsylvania Macaroni Company still features imported pastas, Italian tuna fish in jars, salted anchovies, fresh pasta made on the premises, nuts, olives and a staggering assortment of wonderful cheeses.Â No matter how crowded the cheese counter is, I promise you it/s worth the wait. Grab a loaf of wood-oven baked bread next door at Enrico/s Biscotti. Even a bottle of wine from Carlo’s Garage winery, if you are so inclined.
Enrico’s Biscotti, opened in 1993, is another of my favorites. Varieties of biscotti too numerous to count, wood fired bread, a killer wild mushroom tart, and croissants to rival the best I’ve had in France.
Peace, Love, & Little Donuts at 2018 Smallman Street
I dare you to pass the storefront of Peace Love and Little Donuts without going inside.Â They should have to pay to rent the airspace along Smallman Street itâ€™s so redolent with the aroma of their freshly fried donuts. Don’t miss their signature funkadelic donut, topped with bacon and maple glaze. They/re sweet, salty and utterly addictive and they are small, so you don’t even have to feel too guilty! To wash down those donuts, go right next door to 21st Street Coffee, where they take coffee brewing to a whole new level. Each cup is brewed to order. Thanks to their brewing artistry, I no longer take my coffee with eight creams and four sugars.
Far Out, Groovy, & Funkadelic
The relatively new Pittsburgh Public Market, only open Friday through Sunday, is home to Crested Duck Charcuterie, a purveyor of beautiful exotic meats: duck, elk, bison and rabbit. Pittsburgh Marshmallow Factory has a dizzying array of homemade flavored marshmallows: vanilla, pistachio, caramel, and recently, Guiness Stout-flavored marshmallows. (I served them atop spiked chai and along side my Guinness Chocolate cupcakes. Happy, happy husband.) Then, there is my personal favorite, Sustenance Bakery. Delicious, unadulterated cookies, crackers, pretzels, scones and muffins made with flavors so pure and fresh you can taste every ingredient. Since discovering Sarah’s butternut squash and cornmeal muffins several weeks ago, I’ve taken to camping out there on Friday mornings before they open and buying the lot of them. I even qualify for the bulk discount rate. (My apologies to other Pittsburgh muffin-lovers for this uncontrollable muffin-lust.)
Next time you need a pick-me-up, head down to Smallman and Penn Avenues, preferably on a Friday or a Saturday morning when the mood is especially jovial, the coffee brewed to order, and the parking spaces precious few. For me it is reminiscent of some of the best times of my childhood, but for anyone who enjoys the best in fresh food, it is an experience not to be missed.