You can’t take a trip to Pittsburgh without trying one of the legendary sandwiches from a Steel City institution: Primanti Brothers. While it’s now a chain, you really can’t beat the atmosphere at the original, and as a bonus, you’ll find the first Primanti Brothers Restaurant in the middle of one of the ‘burgh’s hip neighborhoods: the Strip District. So why not combine lunch with a little sightseeing?
The Strip district of Pittsburgh is located northeast of downtown Pittsburgh, along the Allegheny River. Most of the action centers around Smallman Street and Penn Avenue. You’ll find Primanti Brothers wedged between Smallman and Penn, on 18th Street (it’s practically an alley). Primanti Brothers does have a tiny parking lot, but most likely you’ll need to pay for parking. Numerous paid spots are available along Smallman Street.
Let’s start with that sandwich. I was pretty hungry when I got off the plane in Pittsburgh, and I was determined to make Primanti Brothers my first meal. That took some effort — because I had to rent a car, check into a hotel, then drive downtown and find the place. Oh, and driving around Pittsburgh is a real challenge. It seems like every intersection allows you to go about seven different directions, and half of them are over a hill or around a sharp curve. When your GPS says turn left, that doesn’t narrow it down much.
I took a lot of wrong turns and ended up taking a tour of most of downtown Pittsburgh before I finally made my way into the Strip District. Then, I tried to find a free parking spot for a while, before giving up and paying for parking. I was getting hangry. But there was a cure.
Primanti Brothers has the down-to-earth appeal that you’d expect from a local tradition. I doubt it has changed much since it opened in 1933. Back then, it catered to the late-night, early-morning workers at the fruit and vegetable depot on Smallman Street (that big building you’ll probably park in front of). It also developed quite a devotion from the 2 a.m. crowd, who needed food after the bars closed.
There are lots of options on that menu board, but the basic sandwich is pretty simple. It’s whatever kind of meat you want, cooked on a grill, then heaped on a slice of Italian bread. Cole Slaw is added, then a handful of hand-cut french fries. Another slice of bread goes on top, and it all gets smashed together.
A Primanti Brothers Sandwich
I’ve heard it said that you either love this sandwich, or you hate it. I guess I’m the exception to the rule. I liked it, but I wasn’t wild about it. I’d probably order another one if I had the chance. It was a good sandwich. But I don’t have strong enough feelings to fall into either category.
With a full stomach, and my hangriness quickly fading, I decided to take a walk around the Strip, to see what all the buzz was about.
It was a very busy day, the day that I visited. Vendors had set-up shops along the sidewalk — most of which were selling Steelers gear. It was just a few hours before a Steelers game across town, so I’m guessing that explains the high demand for black and gold.
Just like Primanti Brothers, the Strip District remains authentic, with plenty of old buildings and some ghost signs towering over the streets.
You’ll also find some newer street art, adding to the funky vibe in the Strip.
Smallman Street is flanked by big warehouses (the aforementioned fruit and veggie depot is on the left), and Saint Stanislaus Church stands in the distance, at a curve in the road. It was built in 1891 by Polish immigrants.
Here’s a look at the drive into Pittsburgh, around downtown, and into the Strip District:
The Bottom Line
Check out Pittsburgh’s Strip District for a look at an authentic, turn-of-the-20th century ‘burgh neighborhood. And while you’re there, try a sandwich at Primanti Brothers, and decide whether it’s the best thing ever, absolutely awful, or just okay.