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.

 image4

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.

image3

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.

image1

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

Advertisements

a late night drive through the pennsylvania countryside, a poem

Perfect crisp cold air and the scent of dying leaves rushed in the open windows.
Passing through tiny towns, ribbons of smoke from the season’s first fires wind out of chimneys, joining the scent of the leaves in the breeze, and obscuring the bright stars like whispy grey scarves.

good buddy

“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”

 ~Henry David Thoreau

And nothing makes the world seem so cozy as to be visited by friends from afar.

I’m sure Thoreau just forgot to add that last bit.

This fall I have enjoyed the new sensation of having friends visiting me. How delicious it has been!

First, a friend from Pennsic War decided to work at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, and we have had the delightful opportunity of spending out weekends together.  How wonderful it is to discover a new kindred spirit!  Whether sharing ciders and laughs, or cheesecake and knitting projects, or weekends have been a hoot!

Then, a friend who has been working in China had work that brought him to Pittsburgh, PA.  And compared to China a five hour road trip didn’t seem too far to travel for a good friend.  So a visit to Pittsburgh was made! And I have to admit I was impressed with that ol’ city.  I expected smoke stacks and coal mounds, and even sought them out for a photo shoot with the new Rainbow Rampage collection, but it was a tough search down by the river’s edge to find the grit and grime.  Downtown Pittsburgh was clean and trendy and full of art and life.  The tourist center even has a sweet little book detailing all the outdoor art installations throughout the city.  If I only had had time to explore more of them!

I did find the time to stay an extra day and attend the Mumford and Sons concert at the First Niagara Pavilion.  Which was so awesome! They were great.  And the adventure that took us from the Lawn to the third row was awesome too!

Mumford and Sons August 29, 2013
Mumford and Sons August 29, 2013

Then Sandra, my Swiss friend with whom I have shared many a travel adventure, came to Boston with her new beau; and I just had to head north again for a visit. It was one of my first road trips with Shelly, my big white van, and I was excited to test out the comfort-ability of the bed in the back.  It was great!

On the way up I stopped off in Delaware for a few hours to visit with a friend from my Drexel days, and we caught up with each other over glasses of white wine and dainty cheese plates.  Oh Wilmington how I underestimated you!

That night I stopped to sleep at a rest stop in Connecticut.

Lets pause for a moment and talk about rest stops, and deciding which ones to stop at.  Not all rest stops are created equal. As a solo traveler it is important to trust your gut and look for clues.  I was let in on this little tip at a Denny’s when I shared a midnight meal and a counter with a group of truckers on the I-10 West of Dallas.  Straight from the lips of professionals, I took their advice to heart.  I like to remember the three S’s:

1. Shakes

2. Semi’s 

3. Shadows 

Shakes, as in restaurants like 24-hour diners and fast food chains, create traffic and energy at a rest stop.  It may seem bright and noisy, but it is much better to stop over at a place busy with people and frequented by patrol cars.

Semi’s, as in tractor trailers, are usually a good sign that a rest stop is well used and on the beaten path.  If the stop is split between car parking and trucker parking…park with the trucks.  I like to tuck Shelly in between two monstrous truckers and find myself gently lulled to sleep by the deep growling idle of a monstrous diesel engine.

Shadows aren’t necessarily your friend. But the light sources that create them are.  If you are just plum exhausted and can’t bear the thought of traveling a single mile more in search of a bright glowing island of coffee and gasoline than pull into that dodgy looking blue sign rest stop off the highway. If you must park, at least park under the light.  Though it was the consensus of my trucker angels that if you have to choose between pulling over under the light on an exit ramp and pulling into a dark and shadowy abandoned rest stop, choose the exit ramp!

In all of my cross country adventures I have to say that Pilot and Love’s are pretty great truck stops. They have 24 hour restaurants and mini-marts, gas pumps, lots of lights, lots of trucks, and lots of parking.  You can always see them from the highway well before their exit because they have monstrous electric signs with the current gas prices printed in green and red which is a great beacon of hope when groggy highway fatigued eyes are searching for answers. And in the morning when you wake up in the front seat with your legs over the steering wheel and your feet stuck in the dash the cashier won’t look at you funny when you brush your teeth in their bathroom and pour yourself a 24 oz cup of steaming hot, incredibly bland, amazingly rejeuvinating coffee before hitting the road again.  Ah the life of a modern gypsy.

But I digress. Boston.  And then Houston, with another old friend and another new adventure.  Perhaps those stories should be saved for another day.  Each deserves its very own post I think, complete with catchy title and a photo that hints at stories yet to be told.

Over and Out,
Aeri

moccasisters unite

My goodness has it been a crazy couple of weeks, and the craziness just does not show signs of stopping. So here it is, the grand update on what has happened and what (theoretically planned as of now) will happen for the rest of the summer and into the fall.  When you can’t remember where I am…just refer to this here post and you might get a bit of a hint.
So, what has happened?  Things were cruising along fine ready for a standard rennie summer as of about two weeks ago.  Then my dear friend (she’s like a second mother) and owner of Medieval Moccasins was told that she had a pancreatic tumor.  We are still waiting to hear just how serious the treatment will be, but regardless, the news drastically and instantly changed the mood and plans for the whole Medieval Moccasins Clan (that means me too).
We decided that Chela, the daughter and partner owner of Medieval Moccasins, would stay home in Texas for the summer rather than take to the road on their summer show schedule so that a) she could be close to her mom and b) she could continue to keep up with production in their home workshop. I would fill Chela’s shoes for the summer, taking the stock and supplies on the road.
So I flew to Texas to pick up their Sprinter van full of shoes and foot stools and tenty things and took to the road, mostly excited to have three days to do the journey I had only recently completed in 24 hrs in the mad dash to get my own van and stuff up to Virginia in time for THAT show.  The first day of travel was long but uneventful.  I realized I would be passing through Memphis, TN around lunchtime the next day and made plans with a childhood friend to meet for lunch.
I never made it to lunch.
About 20 miles outside of Memphis (Arkansas side) the Sprinter made a sudden clunk, and lost all power and acceleration. I managed to coast off the nearest exit and into an Exxon parking lot.  The Sprincess would not turn back on.  The usual AAA call and wait followed.  I was towed to a nearby Dodge dealership that has been wonderfully helpful in this whole situation.  They rushed the sprinter to the front of the line and began diagnosing it.  Basically what happened was the dealership in Texas where the sprinter had recently (like a week ago) been taken for a new transmission just didn’t put the transmission in right.  So it fell out. And cracked nearly everything in the engine bay around it while it did so.  We are STILL not sure when it will be fixed- at least a week from now they estimate.
So that left me stranded in Memphis with no vehicle, all the stock, and a show to get to by Saturday morning.  One rented and loaded UHaul cargo van later and I was back on the road…only 24 hours behind schedule.  So much for my leisurely drive north.  I now had to make yet another mad dash through the night to get to Celtic Fling early enough on Friday to set up before the Friday night concert started.  I drove from 4:00 pm Thursday until 2:00 am, slept until dawn sprawled across the front bucket seats and my backpack, and then kept driving until 2:00 pm Friday with barely a pause to refuel on gasoline and coffee.  But I made it! And with my Wonder Twin Janeen we were set up in a record breaking 2.5 hours. Before Dark!
We went on to have a record breaking weekend, beating the previous top year by almost 20%. Thank goodness!  We tore down Sunday night, ahead of the threatening thunderstorms and crawled back to the hotel for the night.  I’ve accepted my +1 in Logistics Management and +3 in Crisis Management, and am reveling in my new level up to Super Gypsy status.
Now I am home in Annapolis for a few days, and we think that this is the plan moving forward:
I’m going to keep the Uhaul through the weekend to get up to Connecticut and set up there.  By next week the Sprinter should (oh please!) be repaired and ready to be picked up. Also by next week my own van should be road worthy again (after getting back to Maryland from Texas I had to bring it in for a Maryland inspection and have the subsequent necessary repairs done. I also had to clear up a little bureaucratic nonsense surrounding the title and that should be resolved by the end of this week I hope.  But of course it had to be problematic NOW).
I’ll drive down from CT with the Uhaul and meet the Texas driver in MD.  I’ll send them on their way with Ace as a traveling companion.  Ace, my husky, will be spending a much less chaotic summer with the Med Mocs Clan in Texas and I will met him there in the fall.  The Uhaul will be returned to Memphis and the Sprinter picked up and taken back to Texas.
I will go back to CT (we are talking July 5th-ish by this point) for the last weekend there, now loaded into my Van.  From Connecticut I’ll go to Sterling in Upstate NY for one weekend before heading west to Pennsylvania again for Pennsic War.  After two weeks of Pennsic War I say good bye to my responsibility over the moccasin stock.  It will head to Maryland to await the opening of the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Meanwhile I will go back to complete the Sterling Faire in NY as a manager for Myles Tonne Leather (Clothing this time).
I will make it back to Maryland just in time for that show where I’ll be working for Unicorn Clothing.  Maryland is open from the end of August until the end of October.   When it is over I’ll pack up the rest of my life possessions, reload the moccasin stock into my van, and make the trek back to Texas. I’ll return the shoes and camp out in Toon Town while I work at the Texas Renaissance Festival until the first week of December.
This winter I will be staying in Texas with the Moccasin Clan in San Marcos.  There is little point in driving back to MD after all that when I have to be in Arizona by the first week of February anyway.
So yeah. That’s where I’ve been and where I’ll be going for the rest of the year.  It is crazy, I know, but baring any more exploding transmissions it should all work out.
That does mean though that I’ve decided to sell my second car, the cute little BMW I picked up about a year ago.  It is a 1984 318i: 2 door, dark blue, sun roof, manual transmission (kind of persnickety though I’ll be honest).  I bought it for $1500 and haven’t put any work into her.  KBB puts her at $1900 even in the state she’s in, but I’d just like to get the $1500 back, or close to it. There’s just no point in keeping her if I never ever get to drive her.  If you are interested or know anyone who is…please send them my way!
Now, I’m going to go take a nap. I think I deserve one.
Much Love,
Aeri