This article list top things to do, great food and other must see spots in the historic Strip District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Regardless of the time of day, or what strata of society you come from, you need to go to Primanti Brothers on the Strip and take a bite out of history.– exploringwithbruce.com
If you only have 1 day or even a 1/2 day to visit the Strip, immediately following the Brief History of “the Strip,” see the list of Top Restaurants, Bars Specialty Shops and where to buy the legendary Anise Pizzelles (from a Strip Street Vendor of course … just like your Pittsburgh Great Grandmother did!)
About the Strip District Area
The Strip District in downtown Pittsburgh is a “must visit” area. Considered by many to be the heart of the life of Pittsburg, the District simply known as the “Strip” is a highly-recommended stop to experience the cultural roots of this diverse and thriving city. Situated at an important landing on the Allegheny River, this area provided the growing Pittsburgh community of the early 1800’s a convenient Port to the greatest water highway in North America, the Mississippi.
The historic importance of the area grew as large manufacturers moved in to take advantage of the cheap river transportation for their products. Produce and food vendors soon followed. And as this thriving area continued to grow, restaurants and specialty shops began cropping up to serve the masses that would descend on the Strip to work or shop at all hours of the day. Some establishments are still open 24/7 to accommodate locals and visitors alike.
1-Day Strip Visit Tips
Those in the know will say that it takes several days to fully see and appreciate the Strip District’s rich array of offerings. But if you only have limited time such as 1-day, here are some Strip highlights to make the most out of your Strip visit.
Note: Your walking visit here is not just to hang out and grab a bite or drink, you are walking through actual living history. In addition to the restaurant and bar recommendations below, take a few minutes to experience some of the small shops that generations of Pittsburgh natives frequented. Enjoy imagining these locals of the past buying the food and needed commodities that define their lives in the late 1800s and throughout the last century.
Restaurants and Bars
When a local finds out you’ve just arrived in Pittsburg, they will likely utter the phrase, “You need to experience Primanti.” So you know, they are not referring to a neighborhood, or even a restaurant …… they’re referring to a sandwich.
Lovingly called the “Pittsburgh sandwich” by the local “Yinzer” population, the Primanti’s signature bite is a simple creation of bread, a meat of your choice, cheese, an egg if desired, some other stuff and an oil-based slaw and french fries … not on the side, but inside the sandwich itself. Sound a little crazy? See a version of the Primanti Sandwich recipe here.
During the Great Depression, Joe Primanti opened a sandwich cart in the Strip, and it became so successful that he and his brothers opened a full service restaurant in an industrial building near by. But what made Primanti’s an institution was the creation of its signature “meal-in-your-hand” sandwich. Legends vary, and no one is certain of the exact date, but according to the Primanti-followers, the sandwich as it is known today was created by Joe in a moment of inspiration sometime during the 1940s. And, it was needed.
Back then, the hundreds of truckers, boat crews and other laborers that worked on the Strip needed a quick and hearty meal before they hit the road or river once again. They had no time for a traditional sit-down meal where side dishes were plated separately next to the meat. Joe decided to shove all four food groups into one handheld calorie delivery system. And because the workers were on the go, the sandwich was wrapped in a big sheet of newspaper that was used to keep the sandwich from exploding all over the diner’s lap. It was an instant hit.
I ate my first Primanti sandwich as a lunch-time meal, but its also commonly consumed after a Pittsburgh-level night of drinking. Some love it, others look at it with fear like its a comfort food gone very, very wrong. But before you think less of this working class cuisine, know that National Television shows, newspaper critics, the book “1000 places to see before you Die“, the perennially successful Pittsburgh Penguin hockey team and even a former U.S. President have all declared Primanti’s a mandatory dietary event. And if that isn’t enough, renowned food critic James Beard’s Foundation Awards has named Primanti’s as one of “America’s Classic” restaurants.
Not having a Primanti when visiting Pittsburgh is as much of a sin has not eating gumbo when you visit New Orleans. Let’s be honest though, this sandwich ain’t gumbo or any other world class ethnic food. But it is a defining bite of Pittsburgh culture and a nearly century-old staple of the honest hard-working people that defined and built this town. So go to Primanti Brothers on the Strip and take a bite out of history.
- If Primanti is restaurant is full and very busy, you get what you get! If you’re use to customizing your orders because of your various food issues, make sure to go when the restaurant is not busy. At peak meal-times they’re making sandwiches at the speed of an industrial worker’s hunger. It’s pretty much going to come out just the way it says on the menu, and that’s just the way they roll. Should this occur, tip the service staff well anyway, and speak to your therapist later if you have a problem : )
- If you’re getting a sandwich for lunch, put an egg on it. If its for a late-night alcohol remedy, put an egg on it.
- Adding just a dab of whatever hot sauce they have and rubbing it around the top of the slaw adds just the right amount of flavor.
- Don’t mention a Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich anywhere around here. Trust me.
Premanti Brothers Address: 46 18th St, Pittsburgh, PA 15222
Rolands Seafood Grill
Rolands opened in the 1940’s and moved several times before landing at its current location at 1904 Penn Avenue. This is a very open and approachable bar / restaurant located near the center of the Strip, and although it is not renowned for any particular dish, locals frequent the place because of its solid neighborhood pub food and feel.
Sit at the downstairs bar near the Restaurant’s wide street-level entrance so you can feel the bustling vibe of Penn Ave., or lounge on the second story balcony and take in the Strip from above.
- Rolands has a full bar and a small but nice selection of local and national beers. I opted to have a pint of PITs local Iron City lager and Oysters on the half shell, a go-to item for Yinsers that shop the district regularly. It was a perfect pre-lunch appetizer.
Rolands Address: 1904 Penn Ave. Pittsburgh, Pa. 15222
Sunseri Jimmy & Nino‘s
If you want to get a blend of old-school Strip mojo, generation-proven Italian hospitality, quirky and comical shop owners and some legendary Strip bites, pop into the Sunseri Jimmy & Nino’s shop.
The Sunseri brothers are legendary amongst Strip merchants and workers. Multiple generations have made purchasing some of Sunseri’s special treats a family tradition. If you’re brave, you can order one of the insanely large pepperoni rolls. Hundreds of these half-loaf-sized rolls can be sold daily, and upwards of 900+ on special days of the year. The rolls move so fast the brothers regularly place a cart out in front of the shop to speed the delivery of this Italian comfort food from oven to your belly in just minutes. If you lucky on the timing, a small free sample may be available when you stop by.
Acknowledging the rolls are fantastic, my friends from Pittsburgh often opt for the other signature item, the delicious Dipping Peppers. You need to get these! This dish combines warm yet mellow peppers, portobello mushrooms, a dash of jalapeño peppers, prosciutto, and some other concoction the Sunseri’s refer to as …. ”mystery cheese”. Feel free to ask what that stuff is …… If Jimmy Sunseri has his way, his Dipping Peppers recipe will be revealed only after the location of the Holy Grail is discovered.
If you have the time, read this colorful article about the Sunseri’s produced by the students of the Duquesne University’s Media Department. This delightful piece perfectly captures the character of the place, and the wit of the characters that run it.
Jimmy & Nino’s Address: 1901 Penn Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15222
P&G Pamala’s Diner
Showing up early to the Strip? The sentinel of Pittsburgh breakfast joints is the charmingly retro P&G Pamala’s Diner. The talk of the town is their crepe-like “hotcakes” that come with a variety of fillings, all of which get high marks. However, a close second in the city’s opinion is a dish they call, California French Toast. People rave about it.
Note that P&G is a cash only place, and there is generally a wait, but the old-school coffee is a bit less expensive than other places and the cup is bottomless. Could that be one of the reasons this 1980’s founded youngster amongst the Strip’s older historic restaurants consistently ranks on the Top Five eateries list in the city? Drop in, drop a few greenbacks and you decide.
P&G Pamala’s Diner’s Address: 60 21st St., Pittsburgh, PA 15222
Shops and Street Vendors
The number of specialty shops and the ever changing array of street vendors are too numerous to list in full, but here are a three stops considered highlights of any Strip visit:
Pennsylvania Macaroni Company
The original member of the Sunseri family, and elder to Jimmy and Nino from the Pepperoni roll haven mentioned above, was one of the original founders of this Italian food specialty shop. Starting by making and selling homemade pasta, throughout the good and bad times, this humble store continually grew to become one of the premiere Italian specialty food operations in the country. Now selling hard to find Italian imported products as well as a variety of their signature handcrafted foods, shoppers can now order over 5,000 specialty products on-line to satisfy anyone’s inner Guido.
The cheese counter, olive bar and bakers selections are authentic and high quality too. When non-Italians make their way to the Strip because they will only buy and eat PennMac pasta, you know its a “must see and shop” location.
- FYI – The Locals call it “PennMac.”
- Traveling and can’t cook up Rigatoni like Grandma right now? Opt instead to grab a bag of Biscotti to nosh on with a cup of coffee while you stroll the Strip. Then, when you’re at home later, order on-line delivery of the homemade pasta for a holiday dinner.
PennMac 2010-12 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222
If you have ever been to a touristy waterfront in a major city, you have likely seen seafood markets that display what appear to be the local catch of the day. Problem is, if you hang out long enough, you begin to realize that locals are not really shopping there. These show places often service more as a historic homage to a long-gone fishing industry for tourist than they do for feeding the local population. Enter the real deal, …. Wholey’s Market.
Back in 1912, Robert Wholey opened a meat and produce operation outside of Pittsburgh. His teenage entrepreneurial son later opened a shop in downtown Pittsburgh and the rest is history.
This must visit Strip stalwart is the go-to place for locals that want the best fish, great variety and the best service in town. The jam packed shop has both dressed and live fish. A young family can get up close and personal, watch locals chatting with fish peddlers and buying their meal for that night, all without the cost of traveling to a quaint Greek or Italian fishing village in order to have a similar authentic experience.
And, kids of all ages love watching live trout swimming in the large display tanks too. If you aren’t buying fish, its worth just walking into Wholey’s to immerse yourself in an atmosphere that seems frozen in time from decades ago. Note that Wholey’s does sell some stables, water, treats, etc. near the side corner of the shop, so when you pop in do pick up a little something to lend support to this one-of-a-kind gem.
Wholey’s Market’s Address: 1711 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222
Strip Street Stands
The Strip reportedly got its name from the many street vendors that would bring their goods to the waterfront and lay their products out in rows, or “strips”. Many street vendors are still present today selling everything from shoes to popcorn to tea selections. Although you may rarely purchase from such vendors, there is one Pittsburgh-specialty item you should find, buy and try.
Anise Pizzelles / Gaulettes
Eggs, flower, sugar and about anything else you want can make an Italian Pizzelle or Belgium Gaulette type pastry. Pizzelles and Gaulettes are not like the more American-style round doughy cookies. There dough is pressed between two irons making them thin and flat (a Pizzelle) or thicker and flat (a Gaulette). Their waffle like markings often have symbols pressed into the pastry that tells you the flavor of the treat.
Whisky, rum, vanilla and brown sugar are just a few of the classic additives in some of these thinner crispy cookie-like things, but if you want a really Italian-Pittsburgh moment, go for the unique “Anise” Pizzelles.
The Anise plant originally was cultivated in the Middle east before becoming popular in Europe’s Southern Mediterranean region as a spice for candles and cooking. Not to be confused with the unrelated strong-tasing Star Anise fruit from Asia, this more gentle spice has a softly-sweet aromatic licorice taste which gives the Anise Pizzelles a perfect flavor for enjoying them with a morning coffee or as an after-meal digestive.
- Go on a hunt of vendor tables along the sidewalks to find freshly made Anise Pizzelles. You’ll find a dozen of them hand-wrapped in clear plastic and they are generally inexpensive. (See Photo above).
- Usually a table can conveniently be found near the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company.
- Hide them when you get home, they start to look good at all hours of the day. You may get hooked!
Strip Location and Parking tips:
- The Strip District runs between 11th and 33rd Streets and includes three main thoroughfares — Smallman St., Penn. Ave., and Liberty Ave., as well as various side streets.
- If you arrive in the morning, park on Smallman by the old loading docks. Parking is $5-8 during the week, and a few dollars on the weekends. Other lots in the middle of the Strip can run has high as $15 per day.
What to Bring
- Bring a layer, Pittsburgh weather changes throughout the day
- Rain poncho or other jacket (weather dependent)
- Sun screen
- Coverage hat
- A camera
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Good day trek shoes or better
- Cash, some places and parking lots take cash only
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