This lit­tle blue-col­lar Burgh’s catch­ing the elite food scene by sur­prise

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY MAURA JUD­KIS maura.jud­kis@wash­post.com

Pittsburgh, the city that birthed Amer­ica’s most fa­mous condi­ment — Heinz ketchup — is per­haps best known culi­nar­ily for en­hanc­ing dishes with french fries. Fries on sand­wiches. Fries on sal­ads. And un­til re­cently, the city’s food scene had a sim­i­larly un­so­phis­ti­cated rep­u­ta­tion. Those guilty plea­sures are still abun­dant on Pittsburgh menus, but in re­cent years, they’ve been sur­passed by such re­fined fare as squid-ink gnudi, duck-con­fit tacos, and avi­a­tion cock­tails made with lo­cal gin.

Pittsburgh’s res­tau­rant scene has grown up, and food tourists are be­gin­ning to no­tice.

“When I moved to Pittsburgh, half of the things I en­joyed on a reg­u­lar ba­sis” — Ne­gro­nis, Fer­net-Branca liqueur, brut rosé—“no one even knew what they were,” said Justin Sev­erino, a 2015 James Beard Award semi­fi­nal­ist for best chef in the Mid-At­lantic. Even worse, back in 2007 his fine-din­ing train­ing in Cal­i­for­nia didn’t help him get a job at what he re­calls as a fusty lineup of unimag­i­na­tive Amer­i­can restau­rants. “I re­ally felt like I’d made the worst de­ci­sion of my life,” he said. “My ré­sumé meant noth­ing to a chef in Pittsburgh.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a chef who wouldn’t want to work with Sev­erino now. But he works for him­self in­stead, as the chefowner of Cure, an up­scale, whole an­i­mal, Mediter­ranean-inspired res­tau­rant in a newly trendy neigh­bor­hood. Cure is a mecca for car­ni­vores; the share­able sa­lumi plate alone comes with no fewer than 17 types of cold meats, in­clud­ing lamb cu­latello, coppa di testa and duck ril­lettes.

Sev­erino is a good ex­am­ple of the ma­jor shift that has hap­pened in Pittsburgh: Given the bar­gain rent and low cost of liv­ing, chefs around the city have struck out on their own— and they’ve given the din­ing scene a whole new fla­vor.

Newly hip home town

I grew up in Pittsburgh’s hilly sub­urbs, hap­pily eat­ing spe­cial-oc­ca­sion din­ners at white-table­cloth restau­rants that, in ret­ro­spect, seem to have been pre­served in am­ber. But in re­cent years, I be­gan to hear rum­blings about up­scale farm-to-ta­ble eater­ies and trendy fu­sion places. Twelve-dol­lar cock­tails were be­ing mixed on the same streets where an­cient dive bars sold Iron City for $1.75. Bon Ap­petit’s Food­ist col­umn named it the next big food town in 2014. My home town be­came cool when I wasn’t watch­ing.

So on a re­cent trip to visit my fam­ily, I reac­quainted my­self with Pittsburgh, where the most fa­mous res­tau­rant is prob­a­bly still Pri­manti Broth­ers, pur­veyor of the afore­men­tioned belly-bust­ing french-fry-filled sand­wich. Best en­joyed at the chain’s flag­ship, in the Strip Dis­trict — noth­ing un­seemly here; the neigh­bor­hood is named for the stretch of land it sits on along the Al­legheny River — the sand­wich, in­vented for truck driv­ers, is a low­brow and de­li­cious re­minder of the city’s blue-col­lar roots.

So, too, is the pierogi, a stal­wart of the city’s Pol­ish com­mu­nity. But now those hum­ble dumplings have be­come a sym­bol of Pittsburgh’s past and fu­ture. You’ll find them in such places as down­town deli Szmidt’s, where the pierogi are done “Old World” (potato and ched­dar) and “New World” (buf­falo bleu cheese, among oth­ers); or at Ohio City Pasta in the Pittsburgh Public Mar­ket, where a heap­ing plate of break­fast potato-ched­dar pierogi comes topped with a runny egg, ba­con, av­o­cado, sauteed leeks, tomato and herb but­ter sauce.

“I think the best chefs are try­ing to re­tain a lit­tle bit of that home­town fla­vor and el­e­vate it,” said Me­lanie Cox McCluskey, the man­ag­ing editor of Pop City, a lo­cal news and cul­ture blog.

The Strip is a long­time venue for food whole­salers, where side­walk ven­dors ad­ver­tise fried fish and two-pound pep­per­oni rolls. Older es­tab­lish­ments skew Ital­ian, like the charm­ing En­rico Bis­cotti and La Prima Espresso. But the newer spots in­tro­duce duck­fat-fried hash browns and egg topped Bel­gian waf­fles (Sec­ond Break­fast, in the Pittsburgh Public Mar­ket), and craft cock­tails cus­tom­ized ac­cord­ing to guests’ whims (Bar Marco, where tip­ping has been abol­ished — a grow­ing trend).

Pittsburgh is proudly a meat-and-pota­toes town — and it’s a beer and whiskey city, too, and you’ll find both be­ing pro­duced in abun­dance. Wigle, a dis­tillery named af­ter a man con­victed of trea­son in western Penn­syl­va­nia’s Whiskey Re­bel­lion, of­fers tast­ings and tours in its Strip Dis­trict home. And brew­eries — from the long­time Church Brew-Works, in a de­con­se­crated Catholic church, to rel­a­tive new­com­ers like Round­about, in a for­mer me­tal treat­ment plant— are pro­lif­er­at­ing.

Round­about brew­ers Steve and Dyana Sloan set­tled in Pittsburgh af­ter stints in New Zealand, Mis­souri and Colorado, and have watched tastes change over the last decade.

“I think that peo­ple are a lit­tle bit more will­ing to try dif­fer­ent beers now,” said Steve, whether it’s their Earl Grey pale ale or the ginger-hinted Ginga Wheat, with a touch of lo­cally pro­duced honey. (Although, he added, “we still have — I don’t want to call them train­ing-wheel beers. Those sell quite well.”)

The Sloans and Sev­erino have both set up shop in the Lawrenceville neigh­bor­hood, where that gritty in­dus­trial-chic look that de­sign­ers else­where pay small for­tunes to re-cre­ate is in­her­ent in the bones of most build­ings. Not far away are the lo­cally for­aged mar­ket Wild Pur­vey­ors, the di­vey hipster bar Spirit and Al­legheny Wine Mixer. Go south on But­ler Street for an even more con­cen­trated clus­ter of bars and ca­sual restau­rants. We stopped by craft cock­tail bar Ten­der where mixol­o­gists, who climb a wheeled li­brary lad­der to reach their top­shelf li­ba­tions, are cred­ited by name for their ro­tat­ing con­tri­bu­tions to the menu, like El­liott Sussman’s po­tent cock­tail of gin, zir­benz, ver­mouth, grape­fruit bit­ters and straw­berry-bal­samic that I sam­pled.

Another new foodie neigh­bor­hood is down­town, where the fu­sion taco res­tau­rant Tako fea­tures oc­to­pus mu­rals, plenty of te­quila and a steam­punk aes­thetic. In a new twist on the open kitchen, cooks make tor­tillas and stack Cuban sand­wiches in a kitchen that opens up on both sides — in front to the side­walk seat­ing, and to the bar in the rear.

The Ho­tel Monaco’s new rooftop beer gar­den is another spot with an in­ter­est­ing view, this one of the sur­round­ing sky­scrapers. But if it’s closed be­cause of rain, as it was for our visit, you’ll fare well at the down­stairs res­tau­rant Com­moner, where the decor pays trib­ute to the city’s steel in­dus­try and steak tartare is pre­sented in a jar filled with a fra­grant puff of smoke.

(Bless­edly) risky busi­ness

Pittsburgh is a place where a res­tau­rant can “af­ford to take risks,” Robert Sayre said. And Con­flict Kitchen, the take­out res­tau­rant near the Univer­sity of Pittsburgh’s cam­pus where Sayre is culi­nary di­rec­tor, is Ex­hibit A of that kind of bravura. Con­cieved as an art pro­ject by Carnegie-Mel­lon Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Jon Ru­bin and artist Dawn-We­leski, Con­flict Kitchen serves food from coun­tries the United States has tense re­la­tions with. Ac­com­pa­nied by literature and ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­rial about these other cul­tures, the menu is a way of us­ing food to foster un­der­stand­ing. Past menus have fea­tured Ira­nian, North Korean and Afghan food; onmy visit, the stand was about to wrap up its Pales­tinian menu— a par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial choice that re­sulted in death threats in Novem­ber. It is now serv­ing Cuban food.

“I think, if any­thing, we’ve helped peo­ple re­al­ize not to un­der­es­ti­mate the au­di­ence,” Sayre said. “It may not be the most di­verse city, but peo­ple are per­fectly will­ing to try things.”

In fact, it’s that chronic un­der­es­ti­ma­tion that has ush­ered in this newwave of restau­rants. Peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions of Pittsburgh re­main low, which is lib­er­at­ing for the food en­trepreneurs there: With­out the high stakes of New York, the scru­tiny of San Fran­cisco and the cliqueish­ness of Charleston, chefs and restau­ra­teurs here can do what­ever they want. But with all of the press the city has been get­ting lately, that could change.

“I would hear peo­ple come in and say, ‘ Oh, this is re­ally good, and I’m from New York,’ ” Sayre said. “We don’t need the ap­proval of some­one from New York. It’s ex­cit­ing to get broader no­tice, but it’s also I think within the scene, there’s a feel­ing of ‘ thanks for notic­ing, but we got here on our own.’ ”

MAURA JUD­KIS/THE WASHINGTON POST

The Char­croute, a fam­ily-style dish served at Cure in Pittsburgh’s foodie Lawrenceville neigh­bor­hood, in­cludes six types of meat.

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