After four years of wandering for Eater, one of my favorite research trips remains a return to Pittsburgh in 2015 that was 26 years in the making. In 1989, the summer before my senior year in high school, I attended a six-week program for singing at Carnegie Mellon University. It was my own variation on Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh; I had the kind of affirming, awakening experience there that I wish for every artistic teenage soul. Two people I met that summer remain among my closest friends.
The premise of my piece three years ago was to consider the claims made by some national arbiters at the time that Pittsburgh was the country’s “next hot food town.” My conclusion then: “After gorging through around a dozen of its buzziest restaurants, do I think it’s time for food fanatics to book a flight solely for the purpose of dining through Pittsburgh? Not yet. ... Beyond national talk, proud Pittsburgh doesn’t strike me as a city of people clamoring for validation. Its character will keep developing on its own time, in its own way.”
Recently I circled back to the Paris of Appalachia, at a far chillier time of year. After another round of glutting, that assessment still stands up. One glaring disappointment this visit: dinner at Superior Motors, a long-anticipated opening in the town of Braddock just south of Pittsburgh. The menu enmeshes many of the cuisines that have defined this decade of restaurant dining — Korean, Mexican, Japanese, and the resurgence of Italian flavors — but dishes like crab in a strange puddle of nixtamalized corn, a mealy-textured black mole, and a too-rare duck breast just didn’t come together. Beautiful dining room, though, with picture windows framing the steel mill across the street as it billowed steam into the chilly night.
If you had only one dinner in Pittsburgh, I’d steer you to Legume and its next-door bar, Butterjoint, run by chef Trevett Hooper and his wife, Sarah. I love the Eastern European thread that runs through the cooking. Pittsburgh sustains itself on pierogies, and the ones Hooper serves at Butterjoint (where you can also order anything from Legume’s menu) might be the best in town. He fills the dumplings with mashed potato and farmer’s cheese before boiling and sautéing them; they come with caramelized onions and a side of sour cream but bloom into a full meal with extra additions of kielbasa, grilled escarole, and kimchi.
To warm up, I wolfed that plate down alongside zurek, a puckery rye soup of Polish origins flavored with slices of kielbasa and dried marjoram, and a textbook chicken schnitzel fried in duck fat.
I nearly skipped the one new restaurant in Pittsburgh that utterly charmed me. The food at tiny Bitter Ends Garden & Luncheonette, which serves breakfast and lunch, reads as decidedly plain: French toast, grilled potatoes, chicken soup, chicken salad sandwich. But local food writer friends Melissa McCart and Hal Klein kept steering conversation to the place. It sits along Liberty Avenue, the main drag through Bloomfield, a historically Italian-German neighborhood lined with three-story brick buildings that look sturdy enough to weather the ages.
It turns out that chef-owner Becca Hegarty, and her partners Jason Oddo and Lou DeVito, have the gift for making the ordinary feel special. Pastries like whole wheat doughnuts with snow pea glaze show some whimsy — and some warranted longing for spring. But the secret here is the spectacular bread that the crew bakes. It crunched and squished in soul-satisfying ways around a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich, with a tangled mix of bright green shoots trailing out between the bread slices like feral vines.
The restaurant operates a small, organically farmed plot of land in Verona, Pennsylvania, eight miles east of the city. Obviously its crop output is low in March, but there was a dish on the menu that airlifted me right out of the current season. It was toast made from that remarkable bread, spread with goat cheese and spiced peaches preserved last August. It was three basic ingredients, but everything about this $5 snack made me happy. It brought back summer in the ephemeral sense, and it also stoked the memory of my transforming six weeks nearly 30 years ago in this city of rivers and bridges and hills.
Hey, Pittsburghers: I’m curious about your local pizza style. I filled up on a provolone-covered cheese boat of a pie at Mineo’s, but will snoop around for other examples next time I’m in town. Hit me up with suggestions at email@example.com.
Your roving critic,