We spent five days in the Pittsburgh environs while Carol attended her NAEYC conference June 9 — 13, 2007. Due to the fact that it was the week of the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, we were obliged to stay in the sticks at the Pittsburgh Radisson Green Tree, in Pittsburgh’s Borough of Green Tree, about four miles from Downtown. This is about the eats Tuesday and Wednesday, our last two days.
Radisson River Restaurant Buffet
In the Radisson Green Tree, without a car, there are no choices. You do what’s in the hotel, or do without. I didn’t bother with the morning bus into Pittsburgh, nothing much to do there, and I wanted to write My US Open. But I did want breakfast, so I chanced their Breakfast Buffet. I perused the layout and, whoa! The scrambled eggs were fresh and hot, properly cooked, and had some cheese in them. The hash brown potatoes were little wedges fried with onions, hot and brown, the breakfast sausages saw a skillet and were browned, the pineapple and melon were fresh and hand cut and there were grapes, strawberries, blueberries and cottage cheese. Coffee and juice come with the buffet and they even had V8! And there was dry cereal and granola and yogurt and milk and cream for those who are into that. What’s got into them?
The 1889 Café, Southside Pittsburgh
By noon or so, I was thinking about lunch and thinking about Pittsburgh. Office buildings and civic buildings downtown, in the Golden Triangle, surround the hotels. Nobody lives there, as far as I can tell. That accounts for the lack of storefront shops and restaurants and general street activity. I equate that to the Financial District in San Francisco or Boston, but they have residential packed tight around them, so there is a lot more street activity.
I need to find a neighborhood center. When I inquired at the hotel about shopping, I was directed to this or that mall, but I got a sense that Southside was a neighborhood with a shopping street worth visiting, and Green Tree Center wasn’t. (If the crummy Radisson had had WiFi, I could have done some research myself.)
I ordered a taxi to Southside. The driver — of my brother Tom’s generation — had grown up in Pittsburgh, and like my brother Tom, loved to talk. He regaled me with stories of Southside and how Carson Street is the longest street in the country with original Victorian buildings. There are over a hundred bars, a beer distributor — the biggest one in Pittsburgh — has a contest, for charity, each year: If you have a drink in every bar on Carson Street, your charity wins whatever. No one has ever made it. Usually folks sell themselves for pledges of $5 per bar. He dropped me at 19th and Carson, the heart of Southside, and told me that any bus traveling west would take me downtown.
I was off. I walked east. It was another beautiful day in the 70’s with a few puffy clouds, but for me, better in the shade than the sun. Carson Street is more like lower Polk Street in San Francisco, from my Polk Gulch essay, than upper Polk, where I live. A lot of storefront bars and eats and shops, but no boutiques. I walked a few blocks and stopped in the shade of a tree at a restaurant with tables on the sidewalk. It was one of two such restaurants. A guy (my brother Tom’s generation) with close-cropped gray hair, wearing a white apron sat at one of the tables, an 8-year-old girl beside him. “You can sit inside or outside,” he said.
I asked if I could see a menu, and he shooed the girl inside to get one. I looked it over and it seemed okay, but nothing jumped out at me. “I’ve just started looking,” I said, “I want to look around.”
“There are lots of places on this street,” he said. “Check it out.”
I walked on. There were a lot of places, but not like that guy’s place. And not under a shade tree with the owner sitting there. I made my way back.
He wasn’t still out front, but I walked into The 1889 Café. Three booths to my right, two occupied. There were two small tables in the window, a bar on the left, with a couple of tables beyond it, high ceilings with a fan. A gray haired woman said, “Sit where you want.” I took the third booth.
The menu was fairly long, but simple. Since Primini Bros I was focusing on light fare, hold the potatoes and cheese, please. I settled on Pasta Pompeii, hot sausage with onion, green pepper and penne pasta in tomato sauce. Sam Adams draft.
The pasta came in a wide, shallow bowl. They didn’t offer cheese. The penne was tender and the sauce mild, kicked up by the hot sausage rounds — not Italian sausage — perhaps hot links or Louisiana hots. I liked that the peppers and sweet onions were discernable and the tiny cubes of tomato were fresh.
As I was about finished, the gentleman from the sidewalk table came over and asked, “Is everything okay?” I told him that I liked that the sauce was thin and mild. “Chef’s secret,” he said, “Tomato juice and balsamic.” He went back to the kitchen.
When I got up to pay the bill — this was the kind of place where they wrote your order on one of those green slips from a tear off pad — he approached me again. “Too much for lunch on a hot day,” I said, “but excellent. I liked that the tomatoes were fresh.”
This prompted him to recite the recipe, “Sauté the onions and peppers in olive oil — just a little, don’t kill â€˜em — add the sausage, pasta and sauce and the tomatoes, with some cumin and herbs if you have them. You could use garlic, but some of my customers don’t like it, so I don’t use it.” He said his wife and daughter would be visiting San Francisco on the 27th, she has family in Daly City. He said he’s lived in Pittsburgh all his life and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but when he first went to San Francisco a few years ago, he just wanted to stay, it’s so beautiful, “,but I couldn’t afford to buy a trash can there.”
I gave him my card and said I’d be writing about this lunch, “,look for it on my web site in a couple weeks. Gotta get going to the Andy Warhol Museum.”
He gave me his card and walked out with me. Demosthenes Kephalogianis. “The 1889 Café is for the year it was built,” he said, “it’s on the top of the faÃ§ade.” He lives upstairs.
I made Pasta Pompeii for myself when I got home. Here’s what I did:
1 fresh spring onion (1C)
1 cup diced green pepper
2 cloves thinly sliced garlic
1 or 2 Aidells Cajun sausage sliced in 3/8 inch rounds (used 1 1/2, snacked on the rest)
1/2 teaspoon cumin
herbs (used fresh thyme)
12 ounces tomato juice (started with one cup, but could have used more)
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3/4 cup diced tomato, peeled and seeded (used Cherokee purple)
salt and pepper
Start pasta water
Brown and slice sausages
Cook pasta while doing the rest
Saute onion, green pepper and garlic
Add cumin, thyme, tomato juice, vinegar and cook for a few minutes
Add tomato, salt and pepper
Add pasta and stir to combine, reserve 1/2 cup pasta water, just in case
The Ball Game
A block up the street from the Warhol Museum, toward PNC Park we found Finnegan’s Wake. I really really needed to sit down, and really really needed a beer. There was a nice breeze and shade, so we sat outside. At a little past five, folks were already streaming to the ballpark for the 7:05 game. I bought our tickets online a month or more ago for this game against the Texas Rangers, the first game back after a Pirates road trip.
The lovely Amanda brought us Pub Pickles (deep fried pickles, garnished with a single limp week-old leaf of lettuce), a Black & Tan and two gin and tonics.
As we munched and sipped, we asked people coming by in Pirates gear if our seats would be in sun or shade. Nobody knew. Not that it mattered; the sun would be going down.
The pickles weren’t very good, when you bit one; all the batter came off, leaving a skinny dark sodden half-pickle on the paper plate. They didn’t go far, so we ordered Celtic Nachos (multi-colored nachos heaped with chili and cheese and salsa). Don’t know why they’re called Celtic, they’re what you get at ballparks everywhere. But hey, this is an Irish bar. The bridge near the ballpark is closed to autos for the game. Ballpark is on the right.
Soon enough, we decided to stroll over to the ballpark. At the entrance, we were instructed to ride the escalators up, to the Promenade level, and then walk down to our seats. The guy said to get our food and drink before going to our seats, they are a long way down, and then it’s a long way back up.
At the Promenade level we scouted the food and stuff. Vendors with tubs of beer in plastic bottles on ice were grouped in the center of the promenade. Good news, they’ll be toting those tubs through the stands during the game. I got a Bud for starters.
Our seats were indeed way down, fourth row from the rail in left field where the stands jut back toward the field. Wicked screaming foul ball territory! The ballpark is nice, an HOK design in the vein of PacBell (now AT&T) in San Francisco and Cincinnati’s Riverfront. We could see the Pittsburgh skyline beyond the right field stands, but couldn’t see the river.
I had made a scorecard for this game with the Texas Rangers, and kept score during the first inning, but didn’t care enough about the game to continue. It was nice just being there on a Tuesday night in perfect weather for major league baseball.
The stands are not packed.
Around the fifth inning I climbed up and got me a Potato Pete Pierogie, basically a mashed potato ravioli, dressed with sweet onions and lots of sour cream. Pretty good, but hard to handle in a flimsy plastic container with a plastic fork. With that, I needed an ice-cold Yuengling beer — made in Pottsville PA. Pretty good beer… from America’s oldest brewery, dating from 1829.
There was quite a bit of action, as the Pirates took an early 5-0 lead, then 5-2, then 7-3. We left in the top of the ninth to find a taxi.
The game ended 7-5, witnessed by 21,275 souls.
Radisson River Restaurant Buffet
Same song, second verse,
Could get better, but it was about the same.
Radisson River Restaurant
Our only choice was to have lunch in the Radisson’s own River Restaurant. Buoyed by the good breakfasts, and with the disastrous arrival dinner well behind us, we were seated for lunch.
The menu looked promising. There were lots of salads — one of Carol’s colleagues had spoken highly of the Cobb Salad — a nice salad we could spend some time on would do the trick.
Sarah ordered the Cobb Salad, as did Carol; I ordered the Fresh Tuna Salad, “Seared fresh tuna on a salad of romaine lettuce.” Sarah said, “I thought that was canned tuna, a guy said, â€˜we just dump a can of tuna on some lettuce.'”
“That was at Finnegan’s Wake,” said Carol.
“Oh, then I’ll have the Tuna Salad,” said Sarah. The server, a disinterested woman in her fifth decade, looked at Sarah with a puzzled expression. “Change my order to Tuna Salad,” Sarah said slowly.
The server asked how we would like it cooked. “Seared and rare, but not cold inside,” I said. Sarah said the same.
I have had Fresh Tuna Salad in San Francisco, and memorably in Cincinnati: a not-too-thick piece of quality tuna, seared and placed atop dressed greens, usually romaine. It’s the simplest thing to make, but you have to have good tuna, and it has to be cooked properly.
A proper fresh tuna salad as served at Bella in Cincinnati
Our salads arrived. My expectations plummeted. The plates presented a very large, thick piece of tuna with a light orangeish dressing over everything. Sarah cut hers, and it seemed about medium rare. Mine was dead white inside. I can’t eat that. I called the server and asked her to take it back.
Bill Buford‘s book Heat — among others — describes what happens in the kitchen of a quality restaurant when a dish is sent back. The cook responsible makes every effort to make the replacement to the exact wishes of the patron, and the chef makes sure that is so. In my case, I got cook’s revenge; a seared outside but cold inside, hunk of bad tuna with tendons and other inedible flaws. How do I explain this to a disinterested server? I don’t. I eat and get it over with.
Farewell Radisson Green Tree. You will not be missed.
Pittsburgh Airport, Irish Grille
What’s up with all the Irish bars in Pittsburgh?
Having yet another two hours to kill, we figured it would be more interesting to sit in a bar than at the gate. After ordering a Black & Tan for me, water for Carol and Chardonnay for Sarah, we looked at the bar menu.
“Hey, they have Pierogies. Let’s see what they’re like outside the ballpark,” I said. They were much like the ones at the ballpark (probably out of the same box), but served on a plate, with strips of cabbage, diced onion and sour cream on the side. Those didn’t go far, so we got some potato skins stuffed with corned beef. They were pretty much what you’d expect of such a dish in such a place.
That took us through our wait period and stoked us for the long flight home.