The table looks like a conference at the United Nations: an African-American man, a white woman, an Asian woman, an Orthodox Jew – black beard, black skull cap, ritual fringes hanging outside his trousers. Cell phones and laptops, they’re here, in Rolladin, Murray Avenue, Squirrel Hill, for a breakfast meeting. Here, because Rolladin is one of four kosher restaurants in Pittsburgh’s most Jewish neighborhood. Here because kosher food matters to the Jewish man -- and his colleagues respect that. Here because the bagels are hot, fresh, and fabulous; the Italian LavAzza coffee is incredibly seductive; and the chocolaty, Israeli-style pastries are scrumptious.
Here, offers Rabbi Yisroel Miller, spiritual leader of Squirrel Hill’s Congregation Poale Zedeck and vice president of the Pittsburgh Vaad Hakashrus, the non-profit agency that offers kosher supervision, “because as the heart of an urban neighborhood, Murray Avenue has a glorious mix of people -- and food is the anchor. Restaurants are a bridge between different ways of living.”
In the last two years, that bridge has significantly expanded as Squirrel Hill experienced an explosion of first-rate kosher restaurants. Adding significantly to the city’s drawing power, they put Pittsburgh on the culinary map.
Why? First, kosher (Hebrew for valid) food, prepared according to strict Jewish law, attracts more than Orthodox Jews. Generally, roughly 20% of people who regularly buy kosher food are Jews: others include Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans and vegetarians, the lactose intolerant, and so on, all of whom depend on kosher food’s strict purity and labeling standards. Second, many different types of food can be kosher, not merely heavy Eastern European fare. Third, for decades there were no kosher restaurants in Pittsburgh. Fourth, the restaurants, all on one Murray Avenue block, offer a wide variety of cuisine:
Pinati, (Hebrew for my corner), 2100 Murray Avenue, Mediterranean grille;
Susheli (a play on sushi sheli, sheli Hebrew for my), 2118 Murray Avenue, sushi, Pan-Asian;
Milky Way, 2120 Murray Avenue, vegetarian, pizza-salad;
Rolladin, 2121 Murray Avenue, breakfast, pastries, soup-and-sandwich.
Such choices are important, not only to those who eat kosher, but also to Squirrel Hill. In the city’s largest, and most ethnically diverse neighborhood, variety is indeed the spice of life. To the roughly 1,500 Pittsburghers who eat only kosher food, these restaurants are vital. But to many other customers who may not necessarily care about kosher food, and who for the most part aren’t Jewish, kosher doesn’t matter. What matters instead is that the food is fresh, tasty, and unique. “That’s why people come here,” offers Heli Shavit, Rolladin's Tel Aviv-born owner. “My customers’ attitude is, ‘the food here is so good, I don’t care if it’s kosher.’”
The trend began a half-dozen years ago when a man named Yariv Aharon, who, having operated Jerusalem pizza shops, opened Milky Way, bringing new standards to the Pittsburgh market – spicy Israeli recipes, Israeli cheeses, and an absolute insistence on fresh produce and made-to-order dishes – pizza to calzones, baked ziti to eggplant parmagian.
Moving back home in 2004, Aharon sold Milky Way to twentysomething Aaron Siebzener, who maintained Aharon’s standards while adding such treats as soft ice cream and a salad bar stocked with sun-dried tomatoes, sunflower seeds (an Israeli staple), and chick peas. “Vegetarian is a big asset,” Siebzener says who has since taken on partner Ari Gutman. “It appeals to the greater community. As such, we maintain a large menu to accommodate many tastes.”
Fueled by their own success, and sensing that the market was ready for something more upscale, the pair opened Susheli earlier this year. As intimate as Milky Way is raucous, Susheli seats 40 and features sushi and teriyaki salmon – plus Chinese, Japanese, and Thai dishes -- all hand-crafted by a master chef. “We’re always expanding our menus,” Siebzener says. “Every restaurant – every good restaurant – is always a work in progress.”
For Heli Shavit, progress means that after opening her original Rolladin four years ago as a bakery-with-tables, she assessed the popularity of her Israeli-style rogelach (rolled dough with chocolate filling), croissants, and killer pistachio pies, sensed the growth in the market, and set out to triple everything – space, menu, and business. Now, Rolladin boasts a spacious room full of tables, countertops, and big, comfy chairs – good for a quick bite or a long, lazy morning.
To capture the kosher breakfast market, she introduced Greek omelets (black olives and feta cheese) and Israeli shakshuka (spicey sunny-side-up eggs with tomatoes). Lunch specialties include fresh soups and grilled eggplant sandwiches (with muenster cheese and green olive paste). “Nobody has what we have,” she says proudly. “The community really likes us. I’m happy for that. For everybody.”
Up the block, and under the direction of Israeli owner Shimon Ohayon, Jerusalem-trained Pinati chef Judah Cowen serves Israeli-style lamb, beef, and chicken shish kabob, heavy on the cumin and tumeric, grilled to perfection; and shawarma, turkey slow-cooked the Mediterranean way. Add sandwiches on fresh pita or laffa, and fresh falafel -- and voila!, “it’s as if an Israeli restaurant landed on Murray Avenue,” Cowen says. “This is not an imitation. It’s straight from the Middle East.
“We don’t take short cuts,” he adds. “We don’t use mixes. We don’t use MSG. We make everything fresh. Ourselves. Here. People appreciate that.”
Glancing across the room, outfitted Moroccan-style with lanterns and ceiling stars, painted in muted Middle Eastern oranges and blues, Cowen sees a table of Orthodox Jews (men in skullcaps, women in long dresses) cheek to jowl with a table of Orientals (one man with multi-colored hair and multiple facial piercings), and a table of multi-racial (and multi-tattooed) couples. “I’m happy to see everybody here,” he says. “It makes for a nice atmosphere.”
Nearby, a lanky Irish-American marketing maven stretches his legs. His wife, a regal Hispanic attorney, mutters a few words to him in Spanish. They’ve just moved into the city and are looking to enjoy the rich multicultural life that Pittsburgh offers. Realizing they’ve left their amigos out of the conversation, they look up brightly. “This is wonderful,” they smile. “We’ll be back.”
Award-winning writer Abby Mendelson is the author of numerous books, including The Pittsburgh Steelers Official History and Pittsburgh: A Place in Time, a collection of neighborhood profiles available from The Local History Company. His last Pop City piece was on The Bridges of Pittsburgh.
Photos:Sushi bar at SusheliChef Judah Cowen at PinatiMilky Way
Heli Shavit at Rolladin
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene