The Strip District is a great place to shop for food ¾ if you know how to go about it.
By Rebecca Fribush
So you think that, besides pierogies, "O" fries, and greasy pizza, Pittsburgh offers no culinary experiences worth having? Think again. You obviously havent been to the Strip District. Cross your grandmothers kitchen with the United Nations, and add just a little bit of carnival atmosphere, and you get this ethnic-market-lined neighborhood. The Strip District of downtown Pittsburgh is a long, narrow strip hence the name of stores, restaurants, and atmosphere thats concentrated around Penn Avenue.
The Strip got its start as an industrial center in the mid-19th century during the Civil War, a foundry in the Strip produced what was then the worlds largest gun. In the 20th century, the district moved from outfitting armies to outfitting kitchens. The skyline still looks industrial, but warehouses have been converted to market stalls and bakeries, and, while the Strip still has a predilection for the massive, it now runs more toward huge cuts of meat and giant sacks of rice.
Needless to say, the Strip District is a great place for students to shop for food. If youre a gourmet, theres all sorts of imported foods, as well as the kind of fresh, high-quality produce and deli goods that you just dont find at the nearest Giant Eagle. If youve ever been thwarted in preparing some international recipe because you havent been able to locate one weird ingredient, odds are that the Strip District has that ingredient. Or, if youre not as ambitious and simply want to explore new frontiers in ramen noodles or in pasta with tomato sauce, the Strip will satisfy you too.
Getting to the Strip from Carnegie Mellons campus isnt a problem at all. You can catch a 54C bus on Craig Street. To get a bus going in the right direction, wait on the side of the street closest to campus. Once youre aboard, youll wind up heading down Liberty Avenue, which is parallel to Penn. Get out around 21st Street, walk the two blocks to Penn Avenue, and breathe in the heavenly aromas now surrounding you.
But dont rush out just yet to make your food fantasies come true. First, there are a few things to keep in mind about shopping in the Strip.
First of all, remember youre in the city thats always asleep. Like all good Pittsburgh businesses, Strip District shops tend to shut their doors at 5 pm and not even bother to open them on Sunday. So if youre not used to weekday or Saturday afternoon shopping, you may need to plan ahead.
Go with a friend if possible. Strip District shops delight in large quantities of food. Were talking tubs of Romano cheese, sacks of black beans that could double as dorm furniture, and balls of provolone so big they could be used as weapons. So if you must succumb to the temptation to buy in bulk, you want someone you can split your purchases with. After all, do you really need a 10-pound bag of Chinese rice all to yourself?
Also, resist the urge to buy things at the first store you see. You can find great bargains, but things can also be overpriced, so you want to check prices. Also, theres so much food to choose from that you dont want to limit your selection early on or wind up with more than you can possibly eat. For example, Prestogeorge has a 7 oz jar of Penotti chocolate hazelnut spread for $3.98, but if you hold off on your hazelnut cravings for a few blocks until you hit Sunseri Brothers, youll find twice that amount of equally chocolatey Nutella for $2.99.
Dont hesitate to make your needs known. At deli counters, dont be afraid to ask for a sample and dont feel pressured into buying a full pound of something just because they say they only sell it by the pound.
Cant get enough food?
Whats the perfect way to relax after hauling yourself around for hours in search of food? More food, of course. A few Strip District restaurants to try:
Spaghetti Warehouse (26th & Smallman) is, surprisingly enough, a converted warehouse that offers spaghetti and other no-frills Italian foods for decent prices.
Buon Giorno Cafe (Penn between 18th & 19th) features good pastas, salads, and sandwiches at moderate prices.
Primanti Brothers (18th & Smallman) specializes in overstuffed sandwiches with French fries and cole slaw on top. Really greasy. Really good. Fairly cheap.
Vermont Flatbread Company (26th & Penn), another place with a self-explanatory name, has flatbreads and appetizers. A little pricey for what they are, but you can get really cool toppings.
La Prima Espresso/Il Piccolo Forno (21st between Penn. & Spring) is a coffee shop attached to a little place that offers daily lunch specials of pastas and salads. Nice and cheap.
Klavons (28th & Penn) is an ice-cream parlor with a fun old-fashioned atmosphere.
And, for those of you who feel youve had enough unique Strip District dining experiences for one day, theres also the inevitable McDonalds (16th & Penn) and Starbucks Coffeehouse (Penn between 17th & 18th).
Be familiar with where youre going. The Strip can be pretty overwhelming to people who are there for the first time. If you dont have some sense of what you can find at what store, you could wander for hours without ever coming close to buying the Kalamata olives of your dreams. To prevent such tragedies, heres a list of the best bets for finding key foods or types of foods you might be looking for. All stores noted are on Penn Avenue.
bread You cant lose if you go to Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. (between 20th and 21st). This bustling warehouse of a store carries Breadworks bread, which is chewy, flavorful, freshly baked, and likely the best in the city. You can get anything from a mini Tuscan or sourdough loaf for 60 cents to baguettes and traditional Italian breads like ciabbatta.
gourmet foods - Small yet overstuffed Prestogeorge (between 18th & 19th) is crammed with specialty foods, from French mustards to Indian curries to Italian cookies and chocolates. It also has a great deli counter with hot sandwiches and lunch specials, a bakery section, and coffee.
cheeses "If its Italian, its at Sunseris!" boasts a slogan painted on the outside wall of Sunseris (between 19th & 20th). Which seems true enough. But, even among all the Italian bounty, the cheese selection stands out. Theres a big deli counter where you can order pretty much any cheese a normal person could ever want. You can also buy huge 10 lb pieces of provolone and mozzarella , as well as tubs full of enough Parmesan to garnish your spaghetti until you retire.
pasta Try Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. again. Youll find over a whole wall of shelving devoted to the dried stuff, including the ubiquitous spaghetti and ziti as well as more obscure shapes like casarecce, ditali, orecchiette and, for the carbo-loading tennis player in your life, racchette, which are shaped like little rackets. Theres also a case full of fresh homemade linguini, in flavors like spinach and garlic herb. Its a little pricey, at $3.49 a pound, but its oh-so-worth-it. While youre drooling over Penn Macs pastas, also check out the big selection of sauces and other pasta paraphernalia. I swear, this place has a whole wall devoted to nothing but olive oil.
produce Cheerful green-and-white Aliotos Produce (between 21st & 22nd) has whatever fruit or vegetable youre looking for -- and a few that youve never thought of. You want bananas? Theyve got regular bananas, petite bananas, sweet exotic bananas, and even red macabu bananas. Once you decide between the many varieties available, youll find that quality is uniformly fresh and prices are for the most part low.
homemade baked goods Follow the delicious aroma wafting out of Enrico Biscotti Co. (between 20th & 21st) to find freshly baked biscotti, scones, and other treats. Especially tasty are the coconut macaroons, which you can get either plain or dipped in chocolate. The place is small and cozy, with barely enough room for the stores owners to spread out their assortment of goodies.
Latin American foods Only one store really specializes in Latin products, and thats Reyna Foods (between 20th & 21st). Look in the front for fresh chips, salsas, and a Coke case full of tortillas, as well as frozen entrees. Farther back youll find jars of dulce de leche and guava jelly, Mexican spices, and roughly 20 types of rice.
Greek and Middle Eastern foods In addition to the usual array of Italian specialties, Stamoolis Brothers (between 20th & 21st) has fresh pita bread, stuffed grape leaves, frozen phyllo dough, and all of the accoutrements of a good Greek meal.
a global experience Despite the name, Kim Do Oriental Grocery (between 18th & 19th) carries African, Latin American, and Caribbean foods in addition to all things Asian. You can find paella mix on a shelf above curry sauce, above Taiwanese dried black fungus, above Nigerian-style pounded yams.
anything else Enormous Wholeys (between 16th & 17th) is as much a theme park as a food store. Its known for its seafood, which it has lots of right in front. But it also stocks anything else you might possibly need, including meats, dairy products, baked goods, and and fruits and vegetables. It even has a second floor devoted entirely to kitchenware and a trio of overall-clad stuffed pigs who sing "Ive been working on the railroad" at the touch of a button. Perhaps most importantly, Wholeys also has the only public restrooms Ive been able to discover in the entire Strip. Youll find out for yourself how helpful it is to know that particular detail about Strip shopping.
And of course, youll also discover other things once you become familiar with shopping on the Strip. Youll figure out for yourself where to find the tastiest pasta salad, the cheapest fresh Parmesan, and the friendliest salespeople. And when you do find your favorites, be sure to pass the tips on to me.
Before she graduates from Carnegie Mellon next year, Becca Fribush wants to try pasta in every single shape that Pennsylvania Macaroni sells. Fortunately, shes already well on her way.