Steelers Nation is huge. It never fails to surprise me, a western PA native currently residing in rural North Carolina, how many people are Steel City sports fans here. Many have never visited the city but have a question for me… What is the cuisine like in the city they consider the Promised Land?
To understand Pittsburgh’s unique cuisine wholly, we must first look back at a brief overview of the city’s heritage. For the food of Pittsburgh is heavily influenced those stalwart founders who forged steel and made the city into the food and beer mecca that it is today.
The Early Settlers to Pittsburgh
During the colonial era, George Washington set up a small encampment where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers converged to form the great Ohio river. He considered this an advantage during the French and Indian War. They named the fort Fort George for the British King; it was redubbed Fort Pitt after the end of that war to honor the British Prime Minister William Pitt.
British and Irish farmers moved to the new frontier town of Pittsburgh to work the land and ply trades like blacksmithing, shoemaking, glassblowing, tinsmithing, and other crafts. In these early days before the railroad, the mountains around the community made these people tough and self-reliant, a value they retain today!
By the 1800s, steamboats allowed people to travel the rivers and move natural resources through the waterways. The mountains around western Pennsylvania offered up iron, oil, coal, and natural gas. As entrepreneurs built foundries, coal mines, and mills to feed this demand for the resources, jobs became readily available to anyone who wanted to work.
Railroads came through the area in the 1850s, and the population explosion — and the robust job market — continued.
The new people arriving came to Pittsburgh from faraway places (at least at that time) such as Poland, Germany, Italy, and Greece for the next fifty years. With the new immigrants came delicious new cuisine that became ingrained in Pittsburgh’s food traditions.
Therefore, traditional Pittsburgh dishes reflect the city’s multicultural heritage, especially that of the late 19th– century to early 20th century-era European immigrants.
Pittsburgh Cuisine Today
While these immigrant populations brought dishes like Pierogies into the city, today the cuisine is generally enjoyed by all Pittsburghers.
Other Pittsburgh specialties were developed in the city.Overall, these dishes remain wildly popular because for years they quenched the appetite of the hard-working blue collar Pittsburgher: the industrious steel worker.
Here, I have provided an alphabetical listing of some of my hometown faves:
- Cabbage rolls – (also known as Haluski) : Beef or pork, white rice, green pepper, wrapped in cabbage and baked with sauerkraut. Topped with either tomato soup or juice.
- Chipped Ham – (aka Chipped Chopped Ham) thinly sliced, processed ham from local favorite restaurant Isaly’s since 1933.
- City Chicken – pork cubes and / or veal, breaded and then baked or fried. Served always on a wooden skewer. It resembles a chicken leg, hence the name
- Clark Bar – this famous chocolate bar was developed in the city in 1917.
- Essie’s Original Hot Dog Shop – a staple of the Oakland neighborhood since 1960.
- Halusky – pasta with fried cabbage (Polish) or quark (Slovak).
- Iron City Beer – a local beer, and it is the beer primarily served at all the local watering holes and stadiums. When servedwith a dash of whiskey, it’s called a kettle maker; when enjoyed with a shot of Imperial, a gnome.
- Italian sausage – We usually serve these alongside grilled onions and bell peppers
- Kielbasa – Delicious and savoryEastern European sausages. Often served as pierogies and kielbasa
- Pierogies – Polish traditional dish, pasta dough is filled with potatoes and cheese, sauerkraut, or onions.
- Primanti Brothers sandwiches – Sandwich with fries and famous Primanti Brothers coleslaw. They have expanded to several locations from one humble shop.
- Sarris Candies – locally made, traditional chocolates and ice cream in the Canonsburg area.
- Teutonia Mannerchor – Locatedin Deutschtown in East Allegheny.Comforting, rich, and traditional German food.
- Wholey’s – Founded in 1912 in the market square district of Pittsburgh, it is currently found located on Penn Ave.Wholey’s serves a wide variety of locally harvested seafood (ie: the rivers) and a popular fish sandwich.The Wholey Company served as both the anchor and the main attraction of the historic district for decades.
Final Thoughts on Pittsburgh Cuisine
Pittsburgh cuisine is homey and unassuming. However, don’t mistake that for bland or boring. The foods there pack serious punches of flavor and satisfy the soul. It’s what you would expect from a city founded by people who knew how to to a job right, work hard, and enjoy life.