Travel: Lisa and John Are Eating in…Pittsburgh

Introducing…the very first of our travel series! As we mentioned on our Friday post, we were off to the fair city of Pittsburgh to witness the wedding of some good friends of ours, Keith and Jen.

First off, this is a very cool couple, so it wasn’t going to be a boring cookie-cutter event. As we expected, we had a blast: the rehearsal dinner was at PNC Park to witness the Pirates get destroyed by the Astros. The wedding on the following day was a classy, black tie affair at the Heinz History Center, with the world’s coolest chuppa (a Jewish wedding canopy representing a home without walls, so family and friends are always free to enter):…good food, the opportunity to witness fireworks from the reception room balcony (they had a view of the Pirates ballpark, lucky ducks), a table full of candy to load up on and take home as favors, but best of all: two really happy people crazy in love.

The groom….
Wish we had a closer picture of the bride, she was gorgeous….

Now, these two are also part of our “food friends” circle. This means that they get as excited about food as we do. Therefore, I don’t think they’ll be insulted if we move on to our food adventures for that weekend, and leave them to decompress on a tropical honeymoon isle in peace.

It was almost a honeymoon for John and I; we haven’t been on a weekend jaunt (or anywhere beyond New Jersey for that matter) away from the kids for almost 2 years. Being that we were also giddy and loopy over this fact, we’d asked two other special “food friends” of ours who were also heading out to the wedding, Jason and Beth, to chaperon us and rein us in. And being this was going to be a long 7 hour ride through Pennsylvania, we decided in advance to make it worth our while-lunch absolutely had to be in Amish country.

We decided to meet up at Plain and Fancy Farm , to tackle some serious farm-to-table dining. This farm restaurant embodies the original locavore concept; far from trendy, they’ve been doing this for over 50 years. We’re sorry to say we didn’t take a single picture of the meal.We were just so happy to have a break from everything, free to catch up (uninterrupted) with good friends and, well…. we just forgot. But we do remember every last bite. Wanting to try a bit of everything, we went with the basic “Amish Ffeast”: that means we sat at a long table with other people and our waiter just kept bringing us plates and plates of food to share, family style. Oh yeah! I recall visions of mashed potatoes with gravy, buttered noodles, iced raisin bread, “chow chow”(a delightful combination of fresh cauliflower and carrots, gently pickled in a vinaigrette), sauteed fresh green and wax beans, sweet, sweet corn, pork sausage… but there were two things that stood out for us. The perfectly-done, medium rare roast beef, and the buttermilk fried chicken. Ah, this chicken! Sure it had this amazing, tasty, crispy crust, that’s a no-brainer. But the inside was juicy and flavorful, without being overly-salted in order to be so. This was obviously a farm-raised bird, not supermarket fare. We all made the decision that we would commit bigamy and marry the chicken, we loved it so much. It’s the kind of chicken that if you had to wake up next to chicken every morning, this would be it. My heart still flutters at the mention of it…

We would, however, skip a few few things. There was “chicken pot pie” (or was it “chicken and dumplings”?), which was obviously fresh and homemade, but greasy and flavorless. As for dessert, the homemade vanilla ice cream was pretty good, but, sadly, skip the pies. The apple crumb was just “eh” and the much-touted shoofly pie (molasses pie) was sweet but missing the essential richness and moist texture that usually makes it so good.

That night, at the Pirates Ballpark, we decided to kill two birds with one stone. After that afternoon’s feast we didn’t want to eat too much, so when we saw a Primanti Brothers there, we thought sharing one of the famous sammitches would be a good idea. Now, if you happen to find yourself in Pittsburgh, everyone is going to tell you that this is the must-have delicacy of the city. It’s an institution. What is it? Generally it’s sandwich meat topped with coleslaw and hand cut fries between 2 gargantuan slices of white bread. The version we had was the “Pittsburger”-not a burger but a “cheesesteak” (without the cheese).

Photo from

Our thoughts? Skip it. It was packed with volume, but lacked any flavor whatsoever. Flavorless coleslaw, flavorless soggy fries (even though they were fresh cut, a shame), even flavorless meat. Not terrible, but not anything, either. The counter person who took our order was usually snippy as well- odd, since almost everyone I encountered in Pittsburgh was really friendly, especially for a major city.

But the next day at lunchtime, we found an institution all of Pittsburgh should be screaming from the top of their lungs about: Wholey’s Seafood.
From our pre-trip research, we knew that Lidia Bastianich had a restaurant here (only a few blocks from the hotel!), and, as she’s the real deal, we were considering it…
…but this pesky unemployment thing made this beyond our budget for the weekend, even with the lower cost of living in this city. Grrr. We heard nothing but good things about it from those who ate there that weekend. But there was no reason to despair, as we were traveling with Jason and Beth. They had gotten themselves up and out a bit earlier (we decided to revel in the fact that no one was jumping on our heads, getting us out of bed at an ungodly hour), and explored the options for us. And they soon called to tell us of the wonders of a $5 fish sandwich….

As we strolled down Penn Avenue to meet up with them, we first encountered this gentleman, cooking some ocean delicacies amongst the sidewalk crowds of the Saturday street market:
We met our comrades outside of the entrance, where Jason began to describe a ridiculously huge, crispy, beautiful fish sandwich and hush puppies to die for. What we didn’t realize is that the crazy guy with the microphone (who was trying to entice children with a stuffed animal that was supposed to be a “Canadian Sea Monster”) was none other than the owner, Robert Wholey (pronounced “Wooly”). Before we knew it, Robert was proclaiming “Jason is the greatest” into the mic, and asking him to work for him.
After, we went inside to the counter to place our order. First there was a tough decision-traditional cod or whiting?
Being who we are, we went with one of each. But then there was another decision- what kind of bread?
Our advice: go with the “mancini” (a potato roll sort of thing). Then, we carried our trays out of the fish market area to the dining room upstairs for the moment of truth.
I kid you not, dear readers, when I say that the above is the greatest fish sandwich in the world. Mr. Wholey says he has “dedicated his life to whiting”, and it’s obvious. Don’t think of the horrible frozen stuff you might have had because it’s hard to get-think juicy, plump and pure. So crispy, so good. And much, much too big for the roll. Now here’s the cod:

Almost as good, but without the staying power of crispness that the whiting has. We were officially in fish heaven. But if that weren’t enough, there were hush puppies:

Beth took this beautiful shot of food porn. Perfect hush puppies: crispy on the outside, fluffy and seasoned with herbs on the inside. And here’s Jason practicing his new job as the Wholey’s hush puppy ambassador:
John tucking in to the goodness…

The love of a girl and her sandwich…

Do they even need to tell us?…

The following day at breakfast, we encountered Gretchen, a new friend of ours from the wedding who had also experienced the beauty that is Wholey’s-but pointed out we missed a whole other side, which included singing meat (huh?). Deciding to fill up before the road (who wants lousy rest stop food anyway?), we needed to investigate this claim and grab another fish sandwich. So back we went, this time adding a crab cake, sushi, lobster rolls, and crab and lobster bisque to our repertoire. The sushi was perfect. The crab cake was very good, though not the very best I’ve had. The lobster rolls were more of an excellent lobster salad (the small chunks of fresh lobster were mixed with herbs and celery, instead of just lobster and mayo), albeit on the correct, split soft roll. And the bisque was excellent. But nothing, nothing could compare to our lovely whiting sandwich. Sigh.

After chowing down again, we explored further- it turned out our beloved fish place is a whole wonderland, not just of seafood and sushi, but an entire market with an extensive meat section and traditional butcher, produce, and yes, even a counter for fudge. And giant pigs.

Also, our friend was right. Singing meat.

Nuff said.



One thought on “Travel: Lisa and John Are Eating in…Pittsburgh

  1. Awesome post! Last time I was in Pittsburg I wasn't as enlightened about local food, and went with the main, touristy stuff. No more! Next time I'm printing out a copy of this blog and having some of the wonderful stuff you recommended. Have fun, and keep eating!

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