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Strip District

The Updated Visitors' Guide to the Strip District

Every neighborhood has its own unique vibe but there’s nothing like the Strip District anywhere in town—or perhaps the the entire world. Arrive on a bustling Saturday and see why it’s one of the biggest draws in Pittsburgh, with its ethnic grocers, street grills, sidewalk merchants and string of small shops. A neighborhood doesn’t get more authentic than this: long blocks of side by side stores with old wooden screen doors that still bang shut, hand-lettered signs on produce and everywhere, tantalizing smells--of aged cheese, fresh roasted coffee, or just-popped kettle corn.

Once the sole home of wholesalers working out of massive brick warehouses, today the Strip is still functional but also fun and funky, a blend of old and new known for its nightlife as well as its fab food. Not to mention its cast of characters, from the shop owners who hail from Italy or Korea or China to the truckers who still eat their French fry-laden Primanti sandwiches with one hand, the other on the wheel.

If you want food, this is your mecca: from the renowned Parma Sausage and Benkovitz seafood to specialty foods from around the world. It’s typically the best food available at the lowest prices.

At night, after the shops have closed their doors and the folding tables have been packed away, the Strip’s dozen dance clubs and bars throw open their doors and begin admitting thousands of guests. By 10 p.m., the streets swarm with a young crowd for a whole different vibe.

Hello, dearheart!
Start your tour of the Strip with coffee at one of two places: the old time, legendary La Prima Espresso Coffee Company where shop owners and members of the Italian American Society gather for a steaming cup of espresso or cappuccino. Here they read the newspaper—in Italian. You can’t beat this rich dark coffee, but you can take it home with you by the pound. Next door at Colangelo’s, which replaced the late Il Piccolo Forno, grab an almond mele, authentic pizza or other Italian specialty to go with it.

Or try  21st St. Coffee and Tea for arguably the best coffee in town. With its impressive Clover machine and inteligentsia beans,  they serve up a cup of coffee one cup at a time. Check out what the bloggers say. Better yet, check out what Pop City says in the story about coffee shops raising the bar in Pittsburgh.

For great biscotti that was cited in Gourmet Magazine, head for Enrico’s Biscotti Company nearby in the heart of Penn Avenue. This was the location for the filming of the indie hit, The Bread My Sweet, a winning movie which pays homage to the Strip and its people. Don't miss the delicious lunches in the charming old space through the courtyard.

Another standout classic in an area full of them is the more than a century-old Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, known as Penn Mac to the legion of local fans. Stock up on Italian goods here, from olive oils to imported San Marzano tomatoes, and don’t skip the super cheese section where Carol will be sure to call you "dearheart". At the deli they might tease then tell you they’re “jerking your chains” It’s a Pittsburgh thing. Hey, this is the Strip! You get some attitude with your bargain groceries.

Don’t believe it? Try DeLuca’s across the street for breakfast or lunch. Always crowded, never changed, this old style diner with its traditional interior clad in stainless steel, was once known for its gruff but somehow appealing servers. They’ll still call you “hon”.

One of the busiest shops in the Strip is Lotus Foods, a hub of all-Asian cooking products, prepared foods and produce. Aside from Lotus’s extraordinary range of teas and noodle packages, you’ll find plenty of ginseng roots, bunches of bean sprouts and fresh tofu—for less than a dollar. Operated by first-generation Asian-Americans, Lotus has the feel of a Chinatown grocery. For more Asian food, try the aptly named Asian Food. Finally, there’s AFH Oriental Food Market, which is somewhat most distant from the main business district (23rd and Penn) but it also boasts “Asian Valley,” one of the Sprout Fund’s public murals and the first to feature an East Asian theme. Among the three, you're sure to find what you want.

Ethnic grocers abound: from My Ngoc, where Vietnamese-born Lucy Sheets cooks up kabobs on her sidewalk grill (people swear the French bread sandwiches laden with meat, sticky sweet sauce and spicy vegetables are the best eating in the Strip) to Reyna’s for anything Mexican, Sunseri and Penn Mac for Italian, Stamooli’s for Greek, Labad’s for Mideastern, and Euro Greetings for  Eastern European stock (such as pierogis). There’s even an entire store, Penzey’s, devoted to spices and nearby, Prestogeorge’s Fine Foods, another must-stop for locals.

A new natural foods store, Right by Nature, just opened in the Cork Factory retail complex. With 22,000 square feet you'll find a good selection of natural foods as well as a bakery cafe with homemade baked goods made from scratch and healthy, delicious prepared food.

Seafood is the draw
If it’s any indication how fresh the produce is at Wholey’s Market, the on-site sushi chef uses tuna, yellowtail and salmon straight from the ice-packed samples on display. Wholey’s is an all-local supermarket and wholesale company, where the aisles are always packed with discerning shoppers.

While all of Wholey’s products are high-quality – and the prices on produce range from reasonable to bargain-cheap – the store’s specialty is its seafood. Aquariums brimming with lobster await the forceps of a daring crustaceophite. Special bins offer regular specials on frozen blocks of fish fillets, including swordfish and shark.

For fans of aquatic cuisine, perusing the Wholey’s stock is like taking a stroll along a Nantucket wharf, sizing up just the right oysters for backyard steaming.

The Strip boasts another outstanding seafood store in Benkovitz on Smallman St where you’ll find another sushi chef, a pool of live lobsters, mouth-watering prepared food and a long line at lunchtime of fans craving their famous fish sandwiches, fried or broiled. And there’s also the new biz on the block, The Penn Avenue Fish Company, where guests can sit down to grilled swordfish with barbeque sauce or fish tacos (yummy) or just walk out with a whole, fresh catch, head and fins intact.

For a more diverse chophouse experience, you may revel in Cioppino’s, the brand-new meat-seafood market with a cigar bar attached. Plus there’s the 50-year-old Strip District Meats, which abounds with specialty cuts.

Besides the produce found in stores throughout the Strip, you can sample the region’s organic farms at the outdoor Farmers@Firehouse farmers market every Saturday, May through November, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m, located in the parking lot next to the Firehouse Lounge. Want exotic mushrooms you can't find elsewhere? Go here. The vendors are passionate about their food and some days you can sample their great cooking.

Shop. Shaup. Shop.
The Strip is the start of the 16:62 Design Zone, a consortium of artists, craftsmen, and design stores—such as the eclectic and exciting Hot Haute Hot for hip, global furnishings and antiques, lamps, and fun stuff—or further east--Artistry on Smallman for genuine Mexican furnishings and crafts.

At Art of Steel you’ll find metal-worked sculpture and crafts. And you can buys yards—or bolts—at one end of Penn the overflowing Gene Sane’s on the other where the service is as good as the selection.

In between, Penn Avenue Pottery offers handcrafted clay goods while Mahla & Co. Antiques has whole floors of good browsing for old stuff. Check out Zerrer’s for antiques in its new location at 2703 Penn Avenue. Collage is aptly named for its assortment of collectibles and across the street, Roxanne’s Dried Florals is a hot spot for florals.

In the mood for fine wine? The one and only Palate Partners lets you order from a wide selection of wines that you can’t get locally. Another coffee option is the aromatic Fortune’s Coffee Roastery—with a tempting selection of coffee, tea and such in an irresistible old-time shop. For any kind of cookware, make it to In the Kitchen where the friendly staff take kindly to questions. Throughout the Strip you’ll enjoy talking to the folks behind the counters. It’s part of the Strip experience. So is this: street vendors plying t-shirts, sneakers, sunglasses, socks—anything from handmade soap to homemade fudge and goods from south of the border. During the football season, Steeler stuff reigns in a sea of black and gold.

Want some fries with that?
When the Strip was featured in National Geographic’s “Zip USA” column, the magazine featured a giant photograph of the signature Primanti’s sandwich, stacked high with its famous slaw, French fries and meat between slabs of thick Italian breads. The meal of a sandwich was created back in 1933 for truckers who could eat it on the run. Although the legendary restaurant has spawned several other locations in town, the original, iconic Primanti Brothers is right here, with bar, open 24-hours. There’s no place like it here or anywhere.

When it comes to restaurants, the choices are plentiful: The popular Pamela’s branch is retro-colorful with lines out the door for breakfast on weekends. Long-timer Roland’s a seafood grill expanded with a bar addition and garage style window doors that open onto the street. The summertime draw is the second-story deck overlooking Penn, a fun setting for the biggest fried fish sandwich imaginable.

For sandwiches that some patrons have dubbed “life-changing”, head to Café Raymond. And for a treat of an Italian lunch, try the small, sweet Café on the Strip with its lush Italian music and lit Christmas tree year-round. (We love their soup.)

When it comes to fine Italian dining, Lidia’s Pittsburgh packs them in. Owned by the famous Lidia Bastanovich, the sophisticated and beautiful décor alone is worth the trip (Check out the stunning grappa bottle chandeliers). Sushi? Can’t miss with Sushi Kim on Penn at 12th.
On Smallman, Kaya is exceptional, a narrow and bright space with spicy Island food and a vegetarian night that packs them in. It’s one of two Big Burrito offerings with the noteworthy Eleven (on, uh, 11th) as the other. More upscale, with a good wine selection, Eleven is known as one of the top restaurants in town. Want to learn Irish dancing while you dine? Try Mullaney’s Harp and Fiddle, an old Irish pub with good food and fun atmosphere. Just opened at 2107 Penn is La Prima Espresso's newest venture, Crepes Napoleon and Josephine.

If you smoke cigars, the festive and tropical Leaf and Bean, on 21st is your place for coffee. Few coffee shops are as festive and colorful—or smoky--as this one.

Dessert? Glad you asked. Mon Aimee Chocolat has a superb selection of chocolate from around the world and it’s a blast to browse. (Try to not buy something.) Make sure to hit the hot chocolate bar and while you’re back there, sample the gelato. Or head further up the street to the 1920’s era Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor, an old-fashioned treat of a place for sodas, floats, penny candy and thick shakes.

Need to walk off the feast of food? The Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, in a huge old historic (of course) building, recently added a sports museum to draw even more visitors. It’s the largest history museum in PA and definitely worth a visit. Art lovers are drawn to the Society for Contemporary Crafts flanking the other end of Smallman for its showcase of exquisite art in clay, fiber, glass and more, including a stunning gift shop.

This past year, the Pittsburgh Opera moved to the Strip, buying the former Westinghouse Air Brake Building at 2425 Liberty. With 42,000 square feet of space they're expanding programming and enlivening the neighb. Check out their Brown Bag Opera events on Saturdays.

The New Kids on the Block
Because the Strip is such an elongated neighborhood with a hundred tiny niches, newcomers will benefit from Strictly Strip Tours (maps and itineraries available on the Neighbors in the Strip website). You may notice a great number of new (and many young) entrepreneurs breaking into the Strip scene: Big Mama’s House of Soul has won national accolades for its lip-smacking barbeque. Chicken Latino offers authentic South American treats like the Peruvian Pollo a la Brasa. And if, after picking up a tin of Real Wisconsin Cheddar popcorn at the Pittsburgh Popcorn Company, you’re feeling a little weighty, swing by Uptown Fitness Studio, where treadmills and free-weights await.

Rock and Roll All Night
The Strip offers something for everyone after dark—from bars such as the hip and upscale Eleven and the down-home Mullaney’s Harp and Fiddle to the newest club.  The after-work crowd flocks to The Firehouse Lounge on the second floor of the wonderful old fire house building, relaxing on low-slung built-in sofas in the long room with tall picture windows and painted murals. Head for the deck in good weather. Saloon in the Strip will well-serve post-collegiate partygoers. For the under 21 crowd there’s Club Zoo, with its voluminous dance floor with galactic lighting effects and foam parties.

While the Strip’s popularity wanes slightly during the winter months, the weekends are busy year-round and likely to get busier as the Cork Factory Lofts continues to rent hundreds of units. With high ceilings, knockout views and brick walls, the apartments are something to behold. There's more as Otto Milk Company condos undergo renovation at 25th and Smallman, transforming a blighted building into cool loft spaces.

Parking in this entertainment district can be as cheap as $5 in the small street lots. Street parking is difficult even during the day and Smallman Street and Penn Avenue are generally congested with (one-way) slow-moving traffic. Don't forget the new parking garage across from the Cork Factory.

If you’re new to the Strip, or want to see a different side of it, contact Neighbors in the Strip for Strictly Strip tours. There’s a great deal to know—the history is fascinating—and it will give you an even greater appreciation of our area's coolest and most unique neighborhood.

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Captions:  Big Mama; 21st Street Coffee; Crepes at La Prima; DeLuca's; Lucy Sheets; olives at Stamooli's; Wholey's; Steelers country; Pamela's Diner; Lidia's Pittsburgh; Leaf and Bean; Contemporary Crafts; Cork Factory.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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