Forget steel and iron factories, Pittsburgh is a gem of innovative food, art and city-planning

For the average Australian, first thoughts of Pittsburgh elicit passing references in TV and movies that pin the city as a large factory and manufacturing town with one of the most recognisable NFL franchises – the Steelers. After a few days of staying near the airport and Burgettstown, PA (20 minutes from Downtown) for Farm Aid 2017, it was time to head into Pittsburgh and explore for ourselves. As we discovered in Pittsburgh, the days of incredible iron and steel production are gone in favour of a small-town community feel in a large city that is firm in rearing a new and unique cultural scene.

Farm Aid 2017 at the KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown, PA

445 bridges are used to link The Steel City’s numerous hills and streets as three major rivers surround the city and it has naturally earned the title the “City of Bridges”. That doesn’t mean getting around is a burden on your time because in a masterstroke of city-planning, The Port Authority of Pittsburgh offers free subway rides within the Downtown area and to and from the North Shore where Pittsburgh’s stadiums reside. It’s a remarkably refreshing major-city approach to easing workers and tourists pockets and lifting morale.

When asking locals the one place we had to check out whilst in town, the most common response was Primanti Bros. The sandwich shop was established in Pittsburgh’s Strip District during the Great Depression in 1933. These signature sandwiches boast a wide-range of meat options but will always be stuffed with an Italian dressing-based coleslaw, French fries and tomato slices and housed between two pieces of Italian bread that are 3-4cm thick. From tuna to sausage to turkey, the towering sandwiches will sway and jiggle as they are walked to your table.

 

More than a mouthful – Primanti Bros.

It is quickly recognised why Primanti Bros. now has 16 Pittsburgh locations and a die hard following – they’re a banquet in a bite. Creamy coleslaw soaks into the thinly cut layer of fries and the bread yet doesn’t fall apart. Sandwiches start at US$6 and all are under US$10. Serving sizes are large, but with a vast array of sides like fried pickles, cheese/chili/sour cream fries and chicken wings all around US$5 it is difficult to stop yourself from ordering an all-out Americana-feast at this iconic Pittsburgh institution.

Perhaps the most inspiring, unique and innovative experience in Pittsburgh is rightfully one of the most talked about places in the city. Smallman Galley was started by two U.S. Navy Lieutenants and the establishment offers 4 kitchen spaces on a rotational basis to anyone with a rousing kitchen and menu idea; from new culinary school graduates to those seeking a new career path.

The kitchens of Smallman Galley.

Their goal is to provide the 200 seat, 6,000 square foot space as an incubator environment that will accelerate and cultivate local and undiscovered chefs in a low-risk and low-cost setting. The 4 kitchens lie side-by-side and each has their own section to line up for ordering and payment. The White Pie from Chef Pete Tolman of Iron Born was a highlight of the day. The deep-pan base was shockingly light and dissolves in the mouth with a crisp crust as garlic cream, arugula and marinated cherry tomatoes bloom on top.

The White Pie from Chef Pete Tolman of Iron Born.

Like Smallman, Bar Marco is situated nearby in the Strip District and showcases the best produce sourced from local purveyors. Located in an old firehouse and founded in 2011 by 4 high school friends, the menu features such delights as Pumpkin and Squash Soup (US$8), Carrot Gnocchi (US$18) and Milk Braised Pork with Smoked Brussels ($25). Limited downstairs seating is cosy and warm with dark wooden furnishing completing most of the décor with the upstairs opening up into a high-ceiling gallery space with dark floorboards and white walls. It is frequently booked out for art shows and wedding receptions. Bar Marco made headlines previously for taking a stand against tipping and instead implementing a solid, base wage for all its staff. Dishes at times are minimalist and forces you to realise and be in awe of flavour combinations (for instance, pork belly and honey or pork and tuna) in the controlled ingredients on your plate.

Caesar salad. baby kale, white anchovy, bacon, and a not-quite-hard boiled egg.

After some research into Pittsburgh’s Italian food scene and a twenty minute Uber out of the CBD to Squirrel Hill, the red awnings of Mineo’s Pizza announced my destination. Sure, a Google search would have answered the question but walking into Mineo’s and enquiring what a calzoni even is, was an experience. The staff seemed at first taken back but immediately the kitchen became a shouting match of ways to describe it between staff manning ovens, folding boxes and working the cashier. Answers ranged from “it’s a rolled over pizza” to hearing passionate replies about how the air-tight crust helps to quickly roast the tomato pizza sauce and locking in the steam of the cooking meat.

Calzoni. Fork for scale.

The Traditional Calzoni is stuffed with pepperoni, ham, mushrooms, ricotta and provolone and a large (which can easily make up two meals) goes for US$13.50. It definitely needs to be paired with the thick and rich pizza dipping sauce. After hearing my accent and inquiring where I was from, a younger staffer proudly pointed out that Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa and Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers Quarterback) both attended high school nearby and Miller’s notable 2011 track “Blue Slide Park” gets its name from a park only two blocks away from Mineo’s.

Founded by Sylvia McCoy, ‘Burgh Bit and Bites is a walking culinary tour that offers a behind-the-counter view of many Pittsburgh deli’s, bakeries and even wine makers. Our two tour guides, Beth and Sylvia, took us amongst the lively Strip District – an area that used to be mainly factories and mills since it lies beside the Allegheny River and made for easy importing and exporting of good.

Owner of the Enrico Bsicotti Company chatting with ‘Burgh Bits and Bites Tour.

Tastings are offered at each stop with constant historical facts of the suburb pointed out throughout the walk. From home-made meats at Parma Sausage to biscotti and wine from Enrico Biscotti to Pittsburgh’s adopted love, Pierogis from S&D Polish Deli, the tour is a fulfilling and enlightening stroll.

When you are fulfilled and don’t even want to think about food anymore, stimulating museums and galleries surround the city.

Infamous artist Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh and The Andy Warhol Museum (one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh) boasts the largest collection of his artworks and archival material in the world. From Downtown, a flat fifteen minute walk, and a crossing of the Andy Warhol Bridge to the North Shore of Pittsburgh will get you there easily. Patrick Moore, Director of the museum, notes the aim of the space is “present not only Warhol’s canvases, sculptures, and moving images, but also an unmatched archival collection that explores his family’s immigrant roots” and for a frequent art and museum visitor, never have I gained such a new understanding of someone I felt I had already researched enough.

Over 7 floors, guests take elevators straight to the top and slowly descend down through the chronologically placed exhibits of early family photos, early sketches and drafts, inventory of Warhol’s medicine cabinet and hospital bills to his most famous works that greeted my like a pleasant punch to the chest; shockingly delighted to turn a corner and be face to face with some of the most famous works of art in the world. Beneath the lobby is a space aptly titled “The Factory” where guests can do their own Warhol-inspired ink blotting sketches, water color painting, collages or silk-screen prints on shirts/caps/bags/notebooks with the help of local artists. Admission is free for children aged 0-2, US$10 for children and students and US$20 for adults.

Still on the North Shore of Pittsburgh is another must-visit renowned art space. The Mattress Factory was established in 1977 by artists in the hope of supporting artists. It is a space spread between two buildings (do not leave without visiting the 516 Sampsonia Way building) that commissions new installation and performance works and has presented over 750 different artists in its history.

Yayoi Kusama, ‘Infinity Dots Mirrored Room’, 1996

Notices such as “This floor is intentionally dark” for James Turrell’s three pieces of Danae (1983), Pleiades (1983) and Carso, Red (1967-1994) warn of the ensuing enchanting and immersing you feel from these inclusive and absorbing works. The buildings have their own personality and are made up of tight corridors and weaving rooms with creaky wooden floor boards. The Mattress Factory space acts as a mysterious wonderland of artistic adventure and exploration amongst radical installations and projects.

As previously mentioned, the city of Pittsburgh is surrounded by three main rivers – the Monongahela River meets the Allegheny to form the Ohio. Cycle and walk-ways exist down the length of the river-sides and whilst this is a calming and pleasant way to take in the water views, there are two supreme options for taking in the sights of the landscape.

The Gateway Clipper sails daily June through October and weekends in the Spring and Winter and will over the course of the hour trip will sail all three rivers before looping back to dock, a route it’s been doing for over 50 years. Historical commentary about buildings on both sides of the rivers and each bridge as you go under it is supplied by both a live on-board narrator and the captain. You will slowly chug down the Allegheny River past Heinz Field (home of the Steelers in NFL) that you might recognize from The Dark Knight Rises (which was filmed in Pittsburgh) and PNC Park (home of the Pirates in MLB). A snack bar and full service bar are available on board and would be perfectly used for a sunset-timed trip.

On board The Gateway Clipper

After doing a sea-level cruise around the city, it was time to go up. The Duquesne Incline offers the best views of Pittsburgh as you ascend a 244m track up Mt. Washington to a viewing platform. Originally used to transport goods up and down the mountain, it was one of numerous inclines along the mountain but today only two remain. Before stepping out onto the platform, you will be met by walls of historical photographs of Pittsburgh.

 

From mill workers covered in dirt and soot to a photo of Downtown showing extreme levels of soot, ash and dirt blocking sunlight in the middle of the day, you are pleasantly surprised when the soft breeze on top of Mt. Washington is clean and crisp as you step out into a view of the entire Pittsburgh skyline and three rivers, soot free.

Just as Pittsburgh defined the steel and iron market in decades prior, the city is now leading the charge in how a world city can cultivate a new identity. Dark brown brick factories and mills of eras long ago aren’t crumbling and ignored; instead, they’ve been repurposed and embraced by newer generations of Pittsburgh locals and given a fresh lease on life. Innovative businesses like Smallman Galley are refreshing and the hearty local fulfilment of Bar Marco presents a charming duality as they lovingly lie beside delis and bakeries that have generations of history. From steel to charm; Pittsburgh’s current evolution is America’s best kept secret.

Experiences were kindly provided by Visit Pittsburgh. For more on many of these attractions, visit the here.