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Neighbourhood Watch: Pittsburgh's Strip District

A vibrant, delicious new life for the birthplace of North America's favourite ketchup

On a Saturday morning, the crowded sidewalks of the Strip District is a mix of locals: passionate fans dressed in their colours discussing the latest win or loss by the Black and Gold, hip couples deciding on which coffee shop to get a jolt of caffeine and families waiting in line for a table at one of the numerous restaurants.

But on any day, a visit to the Strip District is never a quiet, solitary experience. Business owners swapping stories with customers are a regular part of the shopping experience in this neighbourhood: any newcomer will soon be integrated into the extended family with a dash of Strip District hospitality, a dose of sports trivia and a list of where to get those items on the grocery list. Don’t expect to leave this neighbourhood empty-handed (or hungry).

A narrow tract of land in downtown Pittsburgh, the Strip District is a beloved combination of speciality food shops, restaurants, bars, cafes and the Pittsburgh Public Market, a daily farmer’s market. Located between the Allegheny River and Middle Hill east neighbourhood of downtown, the “Strip,” as locals call it, has kept out well-known chain stores and restaurants (a few have opened and then closed) and celebrates family-run and independent businesses that were opened numerous decades ago (like the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company) to newly-added hotspots that are not even five years old (like the Wigle Distillery).

As part of the industrial heritage of Pittsburgh, this district was a bustling combination of warehouses, manufacturing and shipping at the beginning of the 20th century, and once the home of the H.J. Heinz Company.

Its name, less salacious than the Vegas connotation, may refer to the physical shape of the land or it may be a reference to the steel strip mills that lined the city’s riverbanks. In the 21st century, it’s ground zero for old-school gourmet food shops, farm to table restaurants, cutting-edge drinking establishments and a wide range of new businesses. The Strip District is just as much about history as it is about possibility for newly-minted entrepreneurs.

When you’re wandering the Strip, here are Billy’s picks for some places to experience and explore.

For sandwiches

Primanti Brothers’ humble origins began with selling sandwiches from a cart. Now with multiple locations across the city (and in other states), the signature offering here is the “Almost Famous” sandwich, rumoured to have been created for truck drivers to eat while working. Salami, turkey or roast beef, french fries (yes, inside the sandwich!) and coleslaw are piled high between slices of soft Italian bread.

For local spirits

Wigle Distillery has brought whiskey back to its birthplace in Pennsylvania, with the first distillery opening in the state in decades. Since 2012, the friendly folks have been transforming locally-sourced organic grains into award-winning whiskey, gin and bitters, offering tours and encouraging another way to drink local.

For a taste of history (with ketchup on top)

The Senator John Heinz History Center focuses on Pittsburgh’s industrial and social history. Part of the Smithsonian family of museums, there’s six floors to learn about figures who had a hand in building the city, including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and George Westinghouse, as well as famous faces like Fred Rogers and Gene Kelly. Exhibits explore the Pittsburgh roots of television’s Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and the H.J. Heinz Company, and tell the story of Pittsburgh’s past 250 years.

A cycling trail

The Three Rivers Heritage Trail recently reopened its path through the district, offering an alternative way to explore the neighbourhood’s natural history and noted historic places (weather permitting). And it’s easy to find a Healthy Ride Pittsburgh bike for rental, with numerous bike sharing stands located around the city.

For the black and gold

Yinzers in the Burgh is the store for getting game day gear, whether you’re a Steelers, Penguins or Pirates fan. The shop can outfit just about anyone in black and gold from head to toe, thanks to an endless array of t-shirts, jackets, hats, sweaters, socks and even stilettoes and onesies.

For gourmet bites (Italian)

The Pennsylvania Macaroni Company opened in 1902, and remains an old-school Italian food shop offering a wide range of Italian and European sourced food products as well as locally sourced items. The cheese counter is the star of the show: showcasing products from England, France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Greece, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland, it’s also known for its Allegheny Mountain Cheese, Pennsylvania smoked cheeses, like the hickory smoked cheddar that is a local obsession.

For gourmet bites (Middle Eastern)

Visit Labad’s, a grocery store filled to the rafters with treats from the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. It’s a must to indulge in the freshly made hummus and baba ganoush to fuel a wander through the shelves in search of unique pantry items. If it’s the weekend, grilled sandwiches are made to order at the store’s sidewalk cart.

Contemporary dining

Make reservations at Eleven, where Chef Derek Stevens and his team are regularly inspired by local and seasonal ingredients and reinventing classics. At Happy Hour, share Calamari served with spicy romesco sauce and salsa verde or Pretzels with raclette cheese and smoked honey mustard. For the main, put your palate into the hands of the chef with the tasting menu, showcasing influences from the around the globe and ingredients from around Pennsylvania like the Elysian Fields Farm lamb chop with grapes, couscous, beets, kale and zaatar or One Woman Farm carrots with pine nut, farro, sweet potato puree, parmesan and grilled apple with white bean toast.

Visit the mayor of the Strip

Sunseri’s serves fresh baked Italian bread and pastries, deli meats, cheese and condiments are just as popular as the pizza, meatball sandwiches and pepperoni rolls and sauce. Make sure to say hi to Jimmy, owner and unofficial Strip mayor – he’s the guy with great stories who walks around sporting an unlit cigar.

For cocktails

Maggie’s Farm Rums, also known as Allegheny Distillery, opened in 2013, creating craft rums on site, the first rum distillery to open in Pennsylvania since Prohibition. You can enjoy them in a cocktail; some include a nip of the award-winning Queen’s Share Rum.

To take it all in at once

For those looking for an organized way to explore, the ‘Burgh Bits & Bites Food Tour offers a friendly, fun and tasty way to explore the Strip District’s culture, history and food options.

Published Friday, January 15th 2016

Header image credit: Good times at The Pennsylvania Macaroni Company. Courtesy Visit Pittsburgh

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