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The Best of Bloomfield

Where can you nosh on homemade pierogies and pastachiotti, savor one of the country’s best burgers and pick up an anarchist pamphlet? If you guessed Bloomfield, you’re right on the money, and smack dab in the middle of the city’s riches.

Home to some 15,000 residents and nestled conveniently within several key corridors and neighboring areas—including Friendship, Shadyside and Lawrenceville—bustling little nabe Bloomfield is also just a hop, skip and a jump—or better yet a bike ride away—from the Strip District, Polish Hill and East Liberty.

Dubbed “Pittsburgh’s Little Italy”, with roots spanning five generations and counting, Bloomfield’s strong ethnic and family pride runs deep in this close-knit community. But before you start channeling Tony Soprano and Tony Spolatro, take another look. Bloomfield’s historic mix also includes German and Polish ancestries, and descendants from all groups still  the neighborhood its unique character. “We play up Little Italy, but there's something for everyone,” says Karla Owens, with the 60-year-old Bloomfield Business Association. “There’s a real warmth here.”

Life on Liberty
Bordered by 40th St. and Baum Blvd., Bloomfield’s thriving Liberty Ave. commercial district anchors the community with a mix of old school charm and urban eclecticism. Within blocks, you can fire up your laptop and people watch at a trendy coffeehouse, pick up the latest Arcade Fire album, attend a gallery opening, and sample scrumptious gelato.

Surrounding the neighborhood’s vibrant business district live some 38,000 residents. “It’s very walkable. Residents live right behind the business district and rely on it. You don’t get that in many city neighborhoods,” adds Owens. “You see hospital workers in scrubs, old ladies in walkers, hip young college crowds and professionals in suits.”

From cappuccino to Catholic chochkes, foccacio to fine silver, there’s something for every shopper. On the avenue, century-old family businesses like Hoffmann Real Estate and Bloomfield Drugstore coexist alongside new restaurants like Sausalido and contemporary art galleries like BoxHeart.

For imported Italian ceramics, check out Merante Gifts, specializing in fine gifts and Italian-style wedding favors – many embellished with traditional almonds. A Bloomfield shopping destination for 25 years, Merante’s also offers cooking classes. “Moving to Bloomfield was the best decision we ever made,” says Maria Merante, whose father opened Oakland’s first grocery store in 1950. “We have so many different types of people here now. I love my little old Italian ladies, but I also love the mix with the Thai and Chinese restaurants.”

For fine women’s fashions, head to Allure, perched in a sun-drenched turn-of-the century space at the corner of Cedarville. “Liberty Avenue through Bloomfield is one of Pittsburgh’s main corridors. It’s still relatively inexpensive and so convenient to everything,” says owner Ellen Levick, who outfits customers from around the world, including many hospital staff and visitors. Levick, who recently trekked to Thailand to seek out silk fashions and silver jewelry, also rents apartments to doctors from Africa and China.

At all hours, people pour out of, lounge in front of and surf the web inside fave Bloomfield coffeehouse Crazy Mocha. “It’s our most diverse store. It’s a true coffeehouse, where anybody can sit next to someone and feel comfortable,” says Zeff, who brought his java dynasty to Bloomfield in 2001. A second office for many,  patrons love the shop’s hardwood floors, tin ceiling and lived-in cozy vibe. In the back of the coffeehouse, tiny but mighty video store Dreaming Ant is a magnet for fans of indie flicks, political documentaries, obscure TV shows, and off-beat Hollywood titles.

Music fanatics congregate across the street at Paul's CDs, which carries thousands of jazz, folk, blues, and alternative rock titles. Also features are vinyl LPs and 45s, music DVDs and fanzines. Owner Paul Olszewski, who sells loads of Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams CDs, starting noticing Bloomfield’s influx of younger residents four years ago.

Channel your inner anarchist and delve into social justice at The Big Idea InfoShop, tucked away at 504 Millvale Ave. The volunteer-run collective stocks new and used books, pins and patches and calendars and tees. Popular titles include Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and vegan cookbooks.

Pittsburgh’s music scene is alive and kicking at popular gathering spot The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, while pubcrawlers flock to Silkie’s, Lot 17, Nico's, and the Pleasure Bar and Restaurant. Local developer Marcia Deaktor transformed Bloomfield’s once-popular Plaza Theater into a retail property that houses Starbucks and WG Grinders.

Church and Community
Immaculate Conception Church and Saint Joseph Parish anchors Bloomfield architecturally and spiritually. Counting 2,000 families among its congregation, the church also hosts community meetings, serves meals to the homeless and assists elderly residents.

If you spend one weekend in the lively little nabe, make it Little Italy Days in late September, when more than 20,000 people congregate in Bloomfield for a three-day Italian heritage bash, complete with bocce, canoli and Peroni, that culminates with a dazzling procession of the Madonna della Civita statue.

Also popular are Bloomfield’s annual Halloween and Columbus Day parades, farmer’s market and St. Joseph Fair. By day, school children stroll though the welcoming business district alongside long-time elderly residents, while at night, restaurants and pubs are aglow with locals and tourists alike.

Not to Mention the Food

Any conversation about Bloomfield will inevitably involve food. Whether you’re grabbing a slice on the go, stocking up on homemade pasta or craving upscale bistro fare, Bloomfield’s got your gastronomical needs covered. The district’s wide sidewalks are perfect for al fresco dining and second- and third-generation spots like Lombardozzi's and Del's complement new Thai, Chinese and American eateries. Note: Thai Gourmet, a favorite among locals and a destination for others including the Pop City editor, is not to be missed.

Homemade sweet sausage and pizelles are specialties at Donatelli’s, which opened in 1932. Serving up popular “red and white Polish platters,” pierogies and a slew of micro brews, the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern is a nightlife magnet. Known for its colorful murals of Polish leaders and convenient location at the base of the bridge, the club features live bands and DJs and a new deck.

At the corner of Liberty and Pearl, the scent of fire-grilled food  and java will leave you light-headed. At Pittsburgh institution Tessaro’s, first opened in 1980, those lucky to snag a table or bar seat line up for one of their famed steaks or what Playboy Magazine calls one of America’s best burgers. If carnivorous you are, try Tessaro’s popular bacon blue cheese burger or sautéed mushroom variety. “Whether it’s Pittsburgh rare or hockey puck burnt, the hamburger is an American icon. We’ve had people get engaged here and now their kids are graduating from college,” says proprietor Kelly Harrington, who's been running Tessaro’s since 1985. Harrington may call it luck, but he gets it right by having Bloomfield butcher Dominick Piccola grind fresh beef every morning.

For classic diner fare, nothing tops 24-hour hang-out Ritter's Diner, which has served up omelets and hotcakes since 1975. And it's always hard to resist Rocky's, with it's colorful outdoor menu signs.

With 14 varieties of ravioli made by hand by Gloria Mezzotta, Bloomfield staple Groceria Italiana—opened 46 years ago—is your one-stop shop for homemade pasta, sausage and oh-so-decadent ricotta-filled sfogliatelli. Italian breads are to die for at Sanchioli Brothers Bakery, run by siblings Alex and John, who stock Morton’s Steakhouse with its legendary egg and onion bread. And for dessert? Why, it's got to be Grasso Roberto, Pittsburgh's only place for traditional European spaghetti ice cream.

After lunch, duck into Dan Cercone, one of Pittsburgh’s last remaining old-school barbershops. Run by Cercone’s grandson Dennis Scullion, who first worked as a shoeshine boy in the throwback shop, Dan Cercone features a traditional barber pole and colorful restored façade. Voted 2008’s "Best Old School Barber" by Pittsburgh Magazine, the shop draws old-timers and youngsters who request the popular tapered cut.

History in the Remaking
Bloomfield figured prominently in George Washington’s Revolutionary War-era accounts of traveling from Liberty Village along “the high ground through a field of many blooms.” A farming community that supplied the city during the 1800s, Bloomfield was founded by John Conrad Winebiddle, who sold land to fellow German immigrants like Woolslayer, Baum and Campbell—names still seen on the area’s street signs and buildings.

After WWI, the railroad and steel industries attracted immigrant laborers— including a large Italian influx—to Bloomfield. Once home to David L. Lawrence, Bloomfield’s narrow tree-lined side streets contain restored Edwardian and Victorian homes as well as working-class brick rowhouses.
With new medical offices, major mixed-use developments, a senior low-rise, and nearby Children’s Hospital in the works, Bloomfield is positioned to add new destination real estate to its cozy small-town pulse.

Writer and Bloomfield resident Cynthia Yogmas, a library and information sciences student at Pitt, chronicles the neighborhood’s nightlife, hidden gems and up-and-coming trends at her lively blog.

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Jennifer Baron is development news and Pop Filter editor for Pop City. She is currently finishing work on a new book with the Pittsburgh Signs Project.

Bloomfield portal; ice cream at Grasso Roberto; Nicole Capozzi, owner, Boxheart; fashions at Allure; Pauls' CDs; St. Josephs Church; customers at the Bloomfield Sandwich Shop; Gloria Mezzotta at Groceria Italiana; patrons at Lot 17.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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