pittsburgh: the pearl of pennsylvania

Like an oyster with a grain of sand, Pittsburgh is fast emerging as The Pearl of Pennsylvania. Long considered the tough and gritty anchor of the state’s western edge, a youthful artistic movement is rapidly re-gentrifying this unique metropolis. Last week I had the opportunity to check out Pittsburgh for myself, and I have to say, the rumors are true.  I found a rapidly growing artisan community that was as optimistic as it was unpretentious. Locals were friendly and genuine, the art was vibrant, and the food delicious. Our aimless wanderings quickly turned into an international gastro-tour of Lawrenceville and The Strip, two little gems that really deserve some fanfare.

Lawrenceville is an area northeast of downtown that is blossoming into a trendy and fresh neighborhood grown from industrial roots.  Along its main drag sprout coffeeshops, art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and more. Near by, accessible by foot, bike, or car, The Strip District is a historic area now home to nightclubs, bars, and oodles of specialty shops and import grocers.

While we couldn’t hit every store on our tour (our wallets and waistlines just wouldn’t allow it) I am sure you will find just as many gems on your adventure as we did on ours.  But if you’re looking for some recommendations, follow along as I recount our recent gastro-tour.

We started out in Lawrenceville at Gryphon’s Tea, 4127 Butler St., with orders of Cold Earl Grey with agave nectar, and Matcha- a powdered green tea drink.  Both were brewed fresh while we waited, and the barista was friendly and filled with recommendations of sights and eats in Lawrenceville.

After a leisurely stroll up Butler St., into a few art galleries, and down to the waters edge, past design studios and consulting firms, we wandered past La Gourmandine Bakery and Pastry Shop, 4605 Butler St., and were betrayed by our noses.  It would take someone with a stronger will than I to walk past that shop and not be lured in with the scents of fresh french bread, buttery croissants, and delicate pastries.  The smell was exactly as a French Bakery should be.  It brought back memories of living in Lyon, rushing past bakeries just taking out their fresh baked goods as I caught the bus to class in the morning, and then picking up fresh baguettes in the afternoons on my way home.  The treats were as delicious as they smelled, with flaky layers that melted in your mouth and left you completely satisfied.

Wandering back down the other side of Butler Street, we took the barista up on her recommendation to eat at Smoke BBQ Taqueria, 4115 Butler St.  Smoke is an unassuming restaurant next to a refurbished movie theater that specializes in bar-be-qua and tacos.  It was while deciding what to order here that we committed to our day of foodie exploration.  So rather than order full meals we each ordered a taco snack. I had a taco with black beans, roasted corn, poblano relish, fried potatoes, and topped with ribs pork. It was an astounding blend of flavors and textures and every bite was a delight.

From there we hopped back in our car and drove the few blocks down to The Strip. I’d like to take a moment here to applaud the geniuses at the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. Their new parking meters are brilliant in their simplicity. Rather than print out tags that one must leave on their vehicle’s front dash, at these meters you simply key in your license plate and you’re done.  Why is this so brilliant? Because it is possible to refill your meter from ANYWHERE in the city. Simply visit one of these parking pay stations, key in your license plate number and viola your meter has been refreshed.

Anyway, back to food.  Our first stop in The Strip was a visit into one of the many Asian Markets along Penn Ave. There we found all our standard favorite spices, deserts, and drinks.  I left with bags of mochi, Tom Kha soup mix, wasabi snacks, and dried seaweed.

Back outside, not two doors down, we found a Polish Deli, S&D Polish Deli, 2204 Penn Ave. Here we ordered a selection of Polish Cheeses, some spinach and cheese pierogis, and a stuffed cabbage.  The cheese was sharp, the pierogis fresh, and the stuffed cabbage just the way babula makes it.

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Pierogis and stuffed cabbage from S&D Polish Deli

Surely they must be getting full, you might think. Maybe a bit. From here we transitioned to some grocery shopping and exploring more of the specialty shops along Penn Ave.

There are Italian Markets, Middle Eastern spice shops, Mediterranean grocers, fresh butchers, outdoor produce markets, and more. The cultural cacophony is deafening, and inspiring.  “If we lived here we could make this and that and more!” we found ourselves saying over and over again.  “I can’t believe they have this!” I exclaimed more than once over rare cuts of meat, exotic vegetables, and hard to find spices.

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An outdoor produce market on Penn Ave in The Strip 

After stocking up on some Italian cheeses from the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., and some fresh biscotti from The Enrico Biscotti Co. we were ready for a break.  Rather than head home, we wandered into The Beerhive for a seat and a drink.  After a couple of refreshing pints of Octoberfest we were ready for round two of our gastro-tour.

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So many specialty shops all in a row!

We ended the day with Vietnamese sandwiches from Pho Van Vietnamese Noodles & Grill.  A Vietnamese Bahn Mi Sandwich, as I soon learned, is a mouthwatering combination of tender pork, chili sauce, onion, cilantro, and cucumber on top of a french baguette.  Pho Van does Bahn Mi right.

With that, we concluded our delightful gastro-tour of Lawrenceville and The Strip District. Everything was delicious, reasonably priced, and worth every calorie.  By the end of the day we were ready to collapse into a satiated food coma back at our hotel, and we did just that.

Pittsburgh, you hidden pearl, never again will I think of you as a city of steel mills and silly football players.  You are now forever in my heart as one of the most delicious, artistic, friendly and inviting cities in the Northeast.

Until next time, Buon Appetito and Salute!!

Aeri

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