Before I begin to discuss the best places to eat in Pittsburgh I need to first talk about the people. Pittsburgh could be the friendliest city in North America. So friendly that I was almost taken aback and it reminded me of Colombia – perhaps the friendliest country I’ve been to.
I visited Pittsburgh for a press trip but asked to come a few days earlier to explore on my own. Traveling alone you really get a sense of the city. Without a companion you’re left to amuse yourself. But also it means you’re more likely to interact with locals.
And I talked to so many locals.
But I rarely initiated the conversation. People said hi on the street, asked me if I needed help. Once I asked for directions and instead a gentleman walked me there. I was shooting a time lapse on the bridge and after 45 minutes of waiting for the sun to set I was looking tired. A woman stopped to ask how I was and chat about the weather.
These weren’t crazy people. Just locals.
I came to Pittsburgh with few expectations and only knowing it was home to a few sports teams. But I left on a mission to tell friends, family and anyone who will listen that Pittsburgh is an underdog city that you need to visit before it gets crowded.
It’s not a dying rustbelt city, but an up and coming city. Uber is testing its robot driven cars there, Google and Apple have offices here and there’s an energy of revival here. Plus it’s also home to my favourite condiment – Heinz ketchup.
But I didn’t come to test my life with driverless Uber cars. I came to eat. Because while Pittsburgh is on the rebound, what has made it charming is its midwestern-like friendliness.
Just don’t call it part of the midwest, people in da’ burgh hate that.
I came for the food. And I wasn’t looking for the newest, hottest places – I follow Justin Severino on Instagram and know he’s doing great things with Cure and Morcilla. I was there for the food that built the city of bridges – the traditional food.
I just had no idea what it was.
Culinary History of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh is a multicultural city with early immigrants coming from Europe (Ireland, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Italy) and African Americans coming from the South.
With a booming steel industry, newcomers flocked to Pittsburgh and it created food that was unique to the city. Made for blue collar workers, it was cheap and plentiful, with influences from many cultures.
Best Places to Eat in Pittsburgh
It is impossible to speak about food in Pittsburgh without mentioning Primanti’s. However, I found that most visitors don’t understand why Primanti’s is so important to Pittsburgh.
The Strip District was once primarily an industrial area of warehouses and a produce terminal. During the great depression, Joe Primanti opened a sandwich cart and sold hearty sandwiches to the truck drivers who were delivering food.
Eventually his brothers Dick and Stanley joined Joe and opened a deli. But the sandwich didn’t always have fries. But legend has it that a driver delivering potatoes came over thinking the potatoes were frozen so Joe grilled them. Discovering they were okay the driver asked for them in is sandwich.
Today the location is 24 hours and is popular with Yinzers (slang for Pittsburger) as a late night eat before going home from the bar or local workers wanting a big lunch.
There is no ONE Primanti sandwich. You order your deli meat, and they all come with tomato, sweet and sour coleslaw, cheese and fries on Italian bread. I was advised the capicola was great so I went with it.
Two Crucial Tips for Primanti’s
1) You must go to the original location on the Strip, this is about iconic history not a sports bar with fries in a sandwich.
2) You must sit at the bar. Go just before lunch and you’ll sit next to locals who will advise you on how to tackle this massive sandwich. My neighbour told me to squish the sandwich, open my mouth and give up any sense of dignity. That’s the only way to eat it.
46 18th St, Pittsburgh
S&D Polish Deli
Like any town with the history of pierogies the best place to eat them is at home. You either make them or go to some church basement where grandparents make them. But if you’re eating in downtown Pittsburgh you need to go to S&D Deli in the Strip.
In the front it’s a market selling Polish and Eastern European goods, but there’s a kitchen serving lunch from 10:30-3:30pm every day. If you have an appetite get the polish platter to try 3 Pittsburgh traditional foods: pierogi, haluszki (butter sauteed onion and cabbage with noodles) and cabbage rolls.
S&D Polish Deli
2204 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh
The original German bakery is over 100 years old. While the original family does not own the business any longer it remains just as popular at both locations.
It’s most famous for the Burnt Almond Torte, which has been named probably the best cake in America. The recipe is nearly 50 years old and inspired by the Almond board who wanted to inspire bakeries to use almonds in new ways.
It’s a vanilla sheet cake, topped with buttercream and toasted almonds. While it’s commonly ordered for special occasions, you can also pop in for a small cupcake size, log, or quarter sheet depending on how hungry you are.
438 Market Street, Pittsburgh
A local pizza joint with a bar attached, you can eat on either side or take out. While Genoa’s is known for its pizza, I came for the Pittsburgh Salad, which is a steak salad with fries on it.
You can find the Pittsburgh Salad all over the city. Rossilynn Culgan, the food and culture editor at The Incline tweeted this was her favourite downtown spot. I liked that the spinach, cucumber, tomato and other vegetables made me feel less guilty about getting a salad with shaved steak and fries on it.
If you’re not a fan of steak it’s also possible to get any protein on top. In fact, I’ve heard there are also vegan Pittsburgh salad so vegans don’t miss out.
111 Market Street, Pittsburgh
Wholey’s is a fish market that has been around since 1912. Sandwiched between produce markets on the Strip, it’s known for its fish sammich as locals call it.
In Pittsburgh a fish sandwich is not as you would expect. At Wholey’s you choose your roll and then an entire 1/2 lb fillet of batter dipped Icelandic cod sticking out of both ends for $6.75.
As soon as the market opens at 8am you can order from the kitchen and eat upstairs. There’s a full menu with everything from crab cakes to smelts that are made to order. Portion sizes are generous and prices are so reasonable it’s easy to split a meal if you’re touring a few spots to discover the best places to eat in Pittsburgh.
1711 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh
This is an old school diner that has been around since the 1950s. Also on the Strip (noticing a trend) the diner rivals Pamela’s Diner as the most iconic.
DeLuca’s is known for it’s large portion American breakfast and Pamela’s is most well known for its crepe style pancakes. I’m not a fan of breakfast so I didn’t eat at either but I’ve only heard good things.
2015 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh
An Italian bakery for nearly twenty years, Mancini’s has won numerous awards and is the roll of choice for the Wholey’s fish sandwich next door. The location on the strip is the only bakery in Pittsburgh that makes it’s bread from scratch on the premise. Others bake on site but not from scratch.
Locals buy its cinnamon bread for french toast and often just grill it in butter. But Mancini’s also serves another Pittsburgh classic – the pepperoni roll.
You can find pepperoni rolls at any Steelers tailgate party but it’s also a popular lunch item.
A roll cooked with pepperoni and served with a side of marinara sauce, it’s the most popular lunch item at Mancini’s.
1717 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh
Enrico’s Biscotti + Larry’s Cafe
A small store on the strip, Enrico’s is owned by Larry, who wisely understood that if he wanted to run a successful Italian biscotti store it could not be called Larry’s Biscotti. Enrico’s has more flavours of biscotti than you could imagine but what is the most interesting is the cafe at the back.
Local’s call it “Larry’s Cafe” and rave about the “beans and greens” and the wood fired pizza. If you’re brave enough also try the wine they brew in the basement.
Enrico Bakery and Cafe
2022 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh
La Prima Espresso Company
In Buenos Aires I learned that locals believed a shot of espresso after a meal of heavy Argentinean food helped digestion and may even keep your figure trim. Despite all the women being so thin I think that was due to other reasons. Yet espresso does help after big meals and so La Prima is a popular spot on the strip.
Originally established as an espresso machine store in the late 80s, it quickly turned into a popular espresso bar for locals.
La Prima Espresso
205 21st St, Pittsburgh
Although I wanted to focus the best places to eat in Pittsburgh to focus on the traditional and iconic food of Pittsburgh I loved the Smallman Galley so much I had to include it
This chef incubator is a must-visit in Pittsburgh, four restaurants and a bar in one communal setting. Professional cooks from all over the country apply for this program to create a fast casual concept and work here over 18 months.
This is not about home cooks thinking it could be fun to open a restaurant some day, participants have worked in professional kitchens and this round includes chefs that worked at Alinea and in Thomas Keller’s kitchen but need help building their own business.
The Smallman Galley takes on most of the risk as it owns the space and handles the marketing. It’s on its second round of chefs and now opening another location in Pittsburgh and expanding to other cities in the rust belt like Cleveland and Cincinnati.
54 21st St, Pittsburgh
Taking a Food Tour in Pittsburgh vs. Independent Discovery
I explored the Strip for two days on my own and then returned with ‘Burgh Bits and Bites Food Tour. I was able to taste some items and meet locals on my own and really enjoyed the people of Pittsburgh.
But I discovered new places and the history of the neighbourhood through the tour. It was a great mix to get the full story. They have tours in a number of neighbourhoods to discover the best places to eat in Pittsburgh.
If you’re looking to find the best places to eat in Pittsburgh I’d recommend taking the tour first and then going back to the places that interest you the most.
Where to Stay in Pittsburgh
The Renaissance Pittsburgh is historical building was originally a bank, which is why there is so much white Carrara marble from Colonnata, Italy (also the home of lardo). But it’s more beloved to the community as the home of Heaven nightclub in the 80s. It’s the perfect spot for walking to discover the best places to eat in Pittsburgh in the downtown core.
Thanks to VisitPITTSBURGH for inviting to discover the best places to eat in Pittsburgh and allowing me the time to explore on my own and wonder – why are people in Pittsburgh so friendly????