Eat Like a Local: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Rachel Tepper Paley
August 22, 2014

For Yahoo Food’s travel summer series, Eat Like a Local, we’re taking you on a cross-country food crawl, city by city. Here’s where to chow down in America’s lesser-known destinations without sticking out like a sore thumb.

Pittsburgh’s dining scene has blossomed well beyond the old-school sausages and French fry–stuffed Primanti Brothers sandwiches over the past five years. The modern culinary tropes of “seasonal and local” have taken hold, sure, but in addition, there’s a broader enthusiasm among locals about dining and drinking.

Sarah Sudar, co-author of “Food Lovers’ Guide to Pittsburgh" and co-founder of popular Pittsburgh food blog eatPGH, is here to share the best spots in Steel City.

Best Hole in the Wall: Jozsa Corner

From the outside, Jozsa Corner looks like a “completely abandoned building,” Sudar admitted. But when you step through the door—”and walk right through the kitchen”—a small back room with two long picnic-style tables comes into view. The white walls are lined with tchotchkes, and patrons are seated so closely that they’re nearly on top of each other. The menu? “Warm, traditional, Hungarian food like a great-grandmother would make.” Goulash, rouge-hued paprika-spiked chicken, and the noodle-and-cabbage dish haluska are all on order. “The best time to go is the second Friday of every month,” Sudar advised. “There’s no menu, it’s all communal dining, and [the owner] just starts bringing out dishes,” she said. “It’s a great place that no one ever knows about.” (4800 Second Ave., Pittsburgh, PA; 412-422-1886)

Best Dive: Kelly’s Bar & Lounge

When considering dive bars, go where the locals go. In Pittsburgh, that’s Kelly’s. “It looks dive-y, but it’s a great bar,” said Sudar, who is particularly smitten with its “killer macaroni and cheese that when it comes to your table, the top is burnt and bubbling.” Red walls, diner-style booths, and a checkered floor lend an old-fashioned vibe, as does the old-school jukebox in the corner stocked with an eclectic mix of soul and punk-rock classics. (6012 Penn Circle South, Pittsburgh, PA; 412-363-6012)

Yellow fin tuna, spot prawn, calamari, scallop, caponata, saffron risotto and sea asparagus at Dish. Photo credit: Dish Osteria and Bar/Facebook

Best Dark and Sexy Date Spot: Dish Osteria and Bar

Tucked amongst the sports bars and college kid haunts of Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood is Sudar’s favorite date spot, the Italian and Mediterranean-accented Dish Osteria and Bar. Located in the ground floor of a former saloon built in 1885, Dish has an Old World quality uncommon this side of the Atlantic. “When you go at night, the atmosphere kind of transforms it,” Sudar said. The maroon-and-gold color scheme and simple feel to the whole place make you feel like “you’re in a tiny European village.” She favors their homemade pasta, particularly a rich dish of cream-laced rigatoni topped with smoked mozzarella, prosciutto, pistachios, and peas. (128 South 17th St., Pittsburgh, PA; 412-390-2012)

The wood-burning oven at Gaucho. Photo credit: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina

Best Lunch: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina

For a change from the same-old-same-old sandwich scene, Sudar hits up this Argentinian lunch spot. “It’s rustic food like Argentinian cowboys would make,” she said. Steak, chicken, and vegetables—charred and smoky thanks to a wood-fired grill—arrive stacked in sandwiches, salads, and platters often splashed with piquant chimichurri or a garlicky ajo sauce. Sudar’s favorite offering, however, is Gaucho’s steak-and-pepper empanada. Dine while standing at the small eatery’s wooden counter so you can see all the action. (1607 Pennsylvania Ave., Pittsburgh, PA; 412-709-662)

Photo credit: La Prima Espresso Co./Facebook

Best Coffee Shop: La Prima Espresso

In 1988, La Prima began its existence as a commercial espresso showroom. But when owner Sam Patti noticed that locals liked to linger at the shop over a potent cup of espresso, his business plan evolved. These days, the place is “where all the Italians hang out,” Sudar said. “You can get the Italian newspapers. You’ll see old Italian men playing cards. And they make a really mean cappuccino.” Also a plus: La Prima roasts its own beans, which it sells to restaurants and shops around town. The blue-carpet and brick-wall interior isn’t much to look at, but Sudar advises settling into one of the patio table outside with your cup of joe. (205 21st St., Pittsburgh, PA; 412-565-7070)

Best Hungover Brunch: Pamela’s Diner

"If anyone comes to Pittsburgh, everyone tells them go to to Pamela’s," Sudar said. Past patrons include President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, though presumably their interest in the spot did not align with Sudar’s. “They have a special called ‘The Morning After,’” she told us. “I have always gotten it since college: Two eggs, your choice of ham bacon or sauce, and hotcakes. With a cup of coffee, it’s the best hangover cure.” Other visitors to any of the retro-styled diner’s six locations—one of which boasts bright pink chairs and photo-plastered walls painted a shade of robin’s egg blue—dig its famous crepe pancakes, which are cooked up large and thin, then folded crepe-style. (Several locations)

Best Ethnic Eats: Conflict Kitchen

Conflict Kitchen, its website proclaims, “only serves food from countries with which the United States is in conflict.” Although that’s a pretty heavy way to start a meal, Sudar told us the high-minded takeout joint serves up some of the best multi-culti cuisine in town. Right now, the fare is inspired by the cuisine of Colombia—crispy fried tequeño pastries filled with mild cheese, cheese-stuffed empanadas, and lime-cured tilapia ceviche are all in the menu. Past menus have been inspired by Afghanistan, North Korea, Cuba, and Iran. “The purpose of it is to get people engaged and talking about these issues,” Sudar said. “And food is the best conversation.” (221 Schenley Dr., Pittsburgh, PA; 412-802-8417)

Fluke, sweet peas, and radish at Notion. Photo credit: Notion Restaurant/Facebook

Best White Tablecloth: Notion

Expect the unexpected at Notion, Sudar said, because the restaurant challenges one’s preconceived notions of taste and texture. (Get it?) The modern, sleekly upscale eatery serves seasonal American tasting menus from chef Dave Racicot. Alhough the dishes change frequently, Sudar recalls one stunning scallop number that incongruously “looked like gnocchi.” “I don’t know how how did it! He’s just super inventive.” The current menu includes dishes like a delicate salad of quartered scallops, thinly-sliced onions, and edible purple-hued flowers. (128 South Highland Ave., Pittsburgh, PA; 412-361-1188)

The bar at Butterjoint. Photo credit: Butterjoint/Facebook

Best Serious Cocktail Spot: Butterjoint

Butterjoint, the cocktail bar that adjoins seasonally driven modern American restaurant Legume Bistro, is so named for the style of masonry with which both buildings were constructed. A “buttered joint" is when bricks are stacked with only a thin layer of mortar squeezed between them. It’s apt for a place like Butterjoint, where patrons snugly sit (and drink) shoulder to shoulder. “My favorite thing to order is ‘Mercy of the Bartender,’” Sudar said. “It’s a surprise cocktail based on whatever the bartender likes. You get no say in it—I’ve never had the same cocktail twice.” Drinks are well-made enough that you can just trust the bartender, she added. Less adventurous types can opt for the bourbon-based “Allegheny” cocktail, swirled with sweet blackcurrant liqueur cassis, dry vermouth, and lemon, or the “Blood-Sucking Lawyer,” a potent mix of cold brew coffee and four types of the bittersweet herbal liqueur amaro. (214 North Craig St., Pittsburgh, PA;

Best Roadtrip Destination: Sarris Candies

Sarris Candies in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, founded more than half a century ago, is more than worth the half-hour trip from downtown Pittsburgh, Sudar said. In addition to its Wonka-like chocolate factory, the spot boasts an “old-timey ice cream shop” and candy store replete with antique chandeliers, old fashioned lighting, and ’60s-era booths. A pink-and-red neon “Sarris Ice Cream” sign hangs above the service counter, and red walls lend the dining area a regal feel. Sudar suggests the banana split: Three scoops of creamy vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream topped with pineapple sauce, roasted walnuts and peanuts, chocolate sprinkles, and a maraschino cherry. It’s the perfect cherry on top of your trip to town. (511 Adams Ave., Canonsburg, PA; 724-745-4042)