Sometimes lightning does indeed strike twice; such is the case for Pittsburgh, a vital star in the constellation of so-called Rust Belt cities. The city's recent economic developments have re-energized its long culinary legacy, and new restaurants are popping up each week alongside some of the city’s stalwart faves – both types worthy of international acclaim.
Once the apex of industrial America, the Steel City was Andrew Carnegie’s fiefdom, minting him gobs of money as the country quickly expanded outward and upward. Pittsburgh thrived during the Industrial Revolution, and then Western Pennsylvania’s metropolis fell out of favor as technology evolved. But Pittsburgh is back with a vengeance as a refreshed locus of modern industry, with its tech boomlet buoyed by Google’s mini-hub headquarters, Uber’s super-future self-driving vehicle technology and Carnegie Mellon’s world-famous robotics and engineering labs. The promise of forward-thinking careers and a seriously good-value lifestyle has started to attract many newcomers to the city; it’s even encouraged the locals who fled to other cities to return home.
In order to properly get acquainted with the edible side of Notorious P.I.T., we’ve compiled a shortlist of some of the city’s musts with some knowledgeable locals weighing in on their picks from the menus.
Our top picks
If there’s one name on every Pittsburgher’s lips, it’s Morcilla, a Spanish-style setup created by Chef Justin Severino. Severino has solidified his reputation as the city’s champion of slow, thoughtful food, pulling the very best produce from the city’s surrounding farmlands and showcasing the bounty in inventive and – most importantly – extremely tasty ways. He’s mastered the art of charcuterie, with meaty piñatas of Iberico ham ready to be shaved into thin strips of salty-umami heaven.
Local tip: 'You have to try one of the Gin & Tonics,' suggests Meredith Meyer Grelli, co-owner of Wigle Distillery. 'They mix them up with housemade tonic and jam them full of artful, fresh garnishes.'
Before there were Pittsburghers, there were 'Yinzers'– blue collar citizens with a distinctive local twang. Primanti’s is from that generation, pioneering the brilliant idea to take the standard cold-cut sammy, scoop of coleslaw and side of fries, and cram it all into one sandwich. Brilliance often comes from pure simplicity, and no one will argue with the fact that hot Primanti’s takeaways are the perfect midnight snack. You’ll find wings, pizza and cheese fries on the menu too, but we suggest sticking to their so-called 'almost famous' sandwiches of sliced meats tucked between two slices of Italian bread. The best part? The joint’s joined the chain gang, which means there’s probably a location within stumbling distance of where you’re staying (or where you’re going out…).
Let’s face it, the proliferation of hipster-chic food halls is just plain exhausting, and many of 'em are starting to teeter on verge of full-on food court. Smallman is a delightful exception to the rule: it’s positioned itself as more of a test kitchen than a gaggle of mall stalls, with room to regularly launch a handful of up-and-coming food concepts. Four restaurant stands (plus a bar and an espresso station) keep a steady stream of diners flowing through – when we visited, guests could gorge on everything from a spicy, cheesy pizza to a savory bahn mi perfect for dipping in an accompanying marrow sauce.
If you thought Eastern European fare was just a greasy plate of pork and potatoes, then Apteka is about to blow your mind. Firstly, everything on offer is vegan – but carnivores would never know it – and stacks of veggies pair perfectly with one of the many original mixed drinks on offer. There’s a certain minimalism to the decor and food presentation that perhaps feels little Soviet in style, but really it’s all about showcasing the perfected flavors.
Local tip: 'Go for the pierogi and the Baba Jaga sandwich. Their herbal cocktails are excellent, too,' suggests Rachel Maran, Uber ATG’s Test Mission Specialist.
Of all the openings in the last few years, it was the Ace Hotel that caused the biggest change in the city’s gravity. It helped redefine the eastern neighborhoods, and the hotel’s lobby became one of the most coveted hangouts. Tucked just to the left after you walk in is Whitfield, the Ace’s signature restaurant, which doubles down on the city’s reputation for high-quality meats. But don’t worry, the vibe is still retro-chill and not stuffy steakhouse. Come early on Tuesday for Game Night or stay late for DJed beats in the old YMCA gym towards the back.
Everyone knows Primanti’s when it comes to Pittsburgh’s legacy eats, but 1905 Eatery is a worthy entry in the category as well, where heaping portions of your favorite Italian mains are dished out by good, salt-of-the-earth folks. It’s no-frills dining from the boot-shaped land at its finest, and the BYOB option (sans corkage fee) is the cherry on top.
Local tip: 'Try the fresh pasta with their homemade bolognese – the sauce is so good you could just eat it with a spoon,' recommends Lauren Work Phillips, the co-owner of The Farmer’s Daughter Flowers.
A funny thing happens when to come to Pittsburgh – you end up wanting seconds. Here are our picks for Round Two:
Take the best of the Italian dinner table, elevate the homemade goodness to a foodie’s standard and you’ve got DiAnoia’s, currently soaring as one of Pittsburgh’s faves. The rotating Sunday brunch pizzas are nothing short of divine.
Yeah, you’re gonna eat a lot of Italian in Pittsburgh, so try Sienna Mercato, which spins it in a different direction. Each floor offers a dedicated menu: meatballs on the first, pastas (including gluten-free) and pizza on the second, and a rooftop beergarden on the third.
The OG Morcilla, Cure opened with the intention of showcasing the very best of the Western PA and its farmers’ bounty, and Chef Severino has made good on his promise since the day he opened in 2011. Pittsburgh magazine named him chef of the year in 2015, among his many accolades.
It’s tako like ‘octopus' in Japanese and ‘taco’ like…Bell, all blended together under one roof. Täkō promises some of the boldest So-Cal surf-shack flavors in town. We could live off the papas bravas (fried potatoes).
Twisted Frenchman (and Bar Frenchman)
With a recent shift to a new location, the much-coveted haute French fare from Chef Andrew Garbarino now has a half-venue dedicated to more accessible brasserie-style noshing. Though don’t get us wrong, the 21-course Chef Table is still one of the best bets in town.