Flavor of Pittsburgh Food Tour a Tasty TreatOct 01, 2016 02:08PM ● By Erica Cebzanov
This was my first reporting assignment to require a uniform of loose-fitting clothing and a scheduled nap time afterward. I was fortunate enough to attend the Flavor of Pittsburgh Food Tour–a three-hour shuttled excursion featuring eight tastings at some of the city’s most iconic eateries. Organizer Pittsburgh Tours & More even accommodated my vegetarian diet.
“Welcome to Pittsburgh’s official carb tour,” joked guide Sarah Sims Erwin as our bus ventured from Station Square to Market Square.
We acquired caffeine boosts at our first stop, Nicholas Coffee & Tea Co., Pennsylvania’s oldest coffee roaster. The shop’s overflowing shelves, lined with coffee and tea canisters, candy, dried fruits and nuts, lent an old-time charm to the establishment.
After grabbing beverages, we viewed the vertical roasting equipment that four generations have operated since 1919. Fellow guest Lindsey Mesta, coffee roaster at Santa Barbara, California’s Good Land Organics, gave an impromptu presentation about the roasting process.
Next, Erwin delved into Market Square’s history as we walked to Prantl’s Bakery for burnt almond torte. The dessert, which The Huffington Post named the “greatest cake America has ever made,” is one of my favorites with its airy white cake, custard filling and rich buttercream frosting covered with sugared almonds.
With Mancini’s Bakery sharing the same building as Prantl’s, we didn’t walk far for our next tasting. Mancini’s adheres to most of the production techniques used since its 1926 origination. For instance, we watched an employee demonstrate the same trademark dough “twist” that James Mancini developed when launching his business. Fellow tour participant Michaelene Mesta described her pepperoni roll as “very crisp, very delicious and not overwhelming.” I ate a hearty rye breadstick with seeds.
Prior to loading onto the bus, we couldn’t pass up greeting the Fairmont Pittsburgh’s canine ambassador, Edie, in the hotel lobby. The 5-year-old boxer/Labrador retriever greets guests and accompanies them on walks.
On our way to the Strip District, Erwin, who also holds food industry positions, listed some of the city’s hottest dining destinations. Our driver chauffeured us to the original Primanti Bros. for sandwich quarters stacked high with tomatoes, lettuce, French fries, provolone and cole slaw on soft, thick white bread. The meat eaters ate “Pitts-burgers” containing beef patties. My sandwich’s gooey cheese and pillowy soft bread melted together to form a winning combination.
Our host Norman Teklinski noted that Jimmy Fallon, Rachael Ray and Billy Gardell have all visited the sandwich joint. “We’ve become very famous; thank God for the Travel Channel and The Food Network,” he laughed.
We let our food digest as we traveled to The Church Brew Works, located in St. John the Baptist Church, which was a Roman Catholic Church that opened in 1902 and catered to Lawrenceville’s Scots-Irish population. Starting in the 1950s, industrial decline began to decrease the area’s population and lessen parish membership, so the Bishop of Pittsburgh put the church under an act of suppression in 1993, and the venue reopened as a brewpub in 1996. Although I have visited Church Brew many times, I gleaned new information regarding the diocese’s views of the building, while taking in the stunning architecture over a meal of pierogis washed down with pilsners.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Kelly O’s haluski samples that we ate on the bus, because I’d previously decided that I disliked the Eastern European staple containing fried cabbage, butter and onions. “Much like an Italian red sauce—or any of those family, mom, or grandmom recipes—there are many different ways to make it,” Erwin said. Kelly O’s vegetarian haluski (the diner’s standard recipe includes bacon) was buttery comfort food with the cabbage giving it a slightly astringent edge.
For a completely different experience, we sampled bread dipped in unflavored balsamic vinegar and basil-infused olive oil at The Olive Tap, and then worked our way around the shop sampling oils and vinegars from steel tanks. According to Manager Michelle Drakulic, a dark chocolate balsamic vinegar, ideal over fruit, ice cream and even steak, is one of the store’s top sellers. Drakulic was kind enough to send us home with Tuscan herb dipping oil samples.
While some of us shopped at The Olive Tap, others made “unofficial” stops next door at the East End Brewing Company for beer.
I am still dreaming about the Pittsburgh Ice Cream Co.’s Salty Goat Caramel that I savored during our final stop. This ice cream counter inside Market Street Grocery utilizes grass-fed, local milk through Family Farms Creameries to prepare flavors by hand in small, five-gallon batches. The difference is evident in every rich spoonful.
Not only is all of the food good, but you’re doing good while dining because a portion of the Flavor of Pittsburgh tour proceeds benefits Strip District Neighbors. Thus far, Pittsburgh Tours & More, a Pittsburgh Transportation Group division, has donated more than $12,000 to nonprofits through its tour sales, according to Group Tours Director Tim Harden.
Tickets cost $80 with discounts for each additional ticket purchased.
For more information, visit www.pghtoursandmore.net.