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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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The updated guide to the Strip District

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Welcome to Pittsburgh's most unique and most visited neighborhood –the Strip District – now with the Pittsburgh Public market and more than ever, a place people call home.
 
There’s nothing like the Strip District. With its ethnic grocers, street side grills, sidewalk merchants and chockablock mostly independent shops, it's a scene 7 days a week and the darling of national TV shows when they come to film.            
 
A neighborhood doesn’t get more authentic than this: long blocks of stores, some with old wooden screen doors that still bang shut, hand-lettered signs announcing produce and everywhere, tantalizing smells--of aged cheese, fresh roasted coffee, freshly-popped kettle corn and spicy tacos.

Once the home of wholesalers working out of massive brick warehouses, today the Strip is still functional but also fun and quirky, 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 the place: from the renowned Parma Sausage and Wholey Seafood Market to Lucy's food cart and specialty foods from around the world. It’s typically the best and freshest food available at the lowest prices. And now the Pittsburgh Public Market with its 40 vendors in one location,  offers more options, from growlers at East End Brewing to pates, terrines and more at Crested Duck Charcuterie. Check the website for days and hours.

At night, the Strip’s dozen or so dance clubs and bars throw open their doors and 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. Brewed one cup at time and priced around $4 a cup, this is coffee for the those who truly appreciate it. But it's one of four coffee shops in Strip, including Fortune's Coffee with its roasting machine and fresh-roasted selections.  Better yet, check out what Pop City says in the story about coffee shops raising the bar in Pittsburgh.  Leaf and Bean is another option, but only if you love cigars (or don't mind the smoke).

For great biscotti that was cited in Gourmet Magazine, head for Enrico Biscotti Company nearby in the heart of Penn Avenue. Once known as 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.  It's also about to become known as the first urban winery in the city, Carlos Garage. They crush the grapes and make the wine right in the basement. Try it at their First Friday dinners (reservation necessary).

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 cheese section with its wide selection where Carol will be sure to call you "dearheart".  At the deli they might tease then tell you they’re “jerking your chain.” 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 it closes at 3. Always packed, 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” but they seem to have mellowed.

On the same side of Penn, you'll find Jimmy and Nino's, another institution, now in a new location.  The building they vacated across the street is being renovated. Stay tuned to Pop City to find out more.
 
One of the busiest shops in the Strip is Lotus Foods with its 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 WFH Oriental Food Market at 23rd and Penn which boasts “City Lung,” one of the Sprout Fund's public murals and the first to feature an East Asian theme.
 
Vietnamese-born Lucy Sheets cooks up kabobs on her sidewalk grill in her new location at the Firehouse which is soon to open as Bar Marcos. Fans swear by the French bread sandwiches laden with meat, sticky sweet sauce and spicy vegetables as the best eats in the Strip.
 
Another popular street food attraction is the taco stand outside Reyna’s. In early 2012 expect to see a new restaurant in the basement featuring tacos and more year-round.
 
Also on Penn, try the century-old Stamooli’s for Greek or Labad’s for Mideastern, (and oustanding gyros) or S & D Polish Deli for polish specialties and pierogis. There's even an entire store, Penzey’s, devoted to spices. Nearby, Prestogeorge’s Fine Foods, is another must-stop for locals for coffee, fresh pasta and much more. For speciality cuts of meat, go to the 50-year-old Strip District Meats.
 
Seafood is the draw
If it’s any indication how fresh the produce is at Wholey's, the on-site sushi chef uses tuna, yellowtail and salmon straight from the ice-packed samples on display. Wholey’s is a locally-owned supermarket and wholesale company, where the aisles are packed with discerning shoppers.

While all of Wholey’s products are known for their quality – and the prices on produce range from reasonable to bargain-cheap – the store’s specialty is its seafood. Aquariums brimming with lobster await and bins offer regular specials on frozen blocks of fish fillets, including shrimp, swordfish and shark.
 
The Strip boasts another outstanding seafood store in Benkovitz Seafood 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 favorite on the block, the colorful and lively Penn Avenue Fish Company, where guests can sit down to grilled swordfish with barbeque sauce or fish tacos (yummy) or seafood salads –or take out fresh catch, head and fins intact. Free wi-fi here, too.

For a more diverse chophouse experience, try Cioppino, a Tuscan-inspired steak and seafood place across from the Cork Factory, with a cigar bar attached. Next door there's the more casual Osteria, one of the best-kept secrets in the Strip with outstanding Italian food (try the gnocchi). 

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.

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.

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. The selection is outstanding and the atmosphere is upbeat and fun.

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.
 
Chicken Latino on 21st St. offers authentic South American treats like the Peruvian Pollo a la Brasa. It's inexpensive, fun and delicious. For a different kind of meal, try Pho Van, a more recent addition to Penn Avenue.

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're partial to the minestrone soup but everything from pasta to pizza is great here.

Want to learn Irish dancing while you dine? Try Mullaney’s Harp and Fiddle, an old Irish pub with good food and fun atmosphere.

Dessert? Glad you asked. Mon Aimee Chocolate 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.
 
If you want to walk it off, The Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh History Center on Smallman is in a huge old historic (of course) building with a recently added sports museum to draw even more visitors. It’s the largest history museum in PA and well worth a visit.
 
Art lovers are drawn to the equally fabulous Society for Contemporary Craft flanking the other end of Smallman for its showcase of exquisite art in clay, fiber, glass and more, including a stunning gift shop.

The Pittsburgh Opera moved to the Strip, buying the former Westinghouse Air Brake Building at 2425 Liberty. (Check out their brown bag lunches and free performance schedule). With 42,000 square feet of space, they just welcomed Attack Theatre as a tenant. And of course, further down Penn is the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater.

But wait, there's more.

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 (reopening under a new name soon.). Want exotic mushrooms you can't find elsewhere? This is the place. The vendors are passionate about their food and you can usually sample their great cooking.

Shop. Shaup. Shop.
The Strip has a good selection of fun and different places to shop, such as the eclectic and stylish 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—of fabric of all kinds at the overflowing Gene Sane’s 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. Collage is aptly named for its assortment of collectibles and across the street, Roxanne’s Dried Florals is a hot spot for beautiful dried florals and unique items (we love their pillows). 
 
In the Kitchen is worth exploring for its cookware, along with its online newsletter which has its legion of fans.
 
For fine wine, try the one and only Dreadnought Wine where you can order from a wide selection of wines that you can’t get locally. Their wine classes are superb.
 
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 along with handcrafted (or not) jewelry. Sports merchandise rules: on Steeler game days it's a sea of black and gold but they feature Penguins and Pirates gear, too.

Because the Strip is such an elongated neighborhood with discoveries in every niche and corner, newcomers will benefit from maps available on the Neighbors in the Strip website or from numerous businesses in the Strip, including the Public Market.

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. Saloon in the Strip, Altar Bar and 31st St. Pub are for post-collegiate partygoers.  For a more casual bar scene, try the Beer Hive.
 
For the under 21 crowd there’s Club Zoo, with its voluminous dance floor with galactic lighting effects and foam parties and now there's the new Cruz Bar, a gay bar with dance floor. Further up the street is the more upscale Savoy.
 
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  has introduced hundreds of new residents to the area with its high ceilings, knockout views and brick walls.
 
More recently, The Otto Milk condos have emerged from old, dilapidated series of buildings. The new modern version is nearly sold out at 25th and Smallman. But more riverfront units are in the planning stage and the developers of the Cork Factory will soon be breaking ground on a new building diagonally across the street.

Parking in this entertainment district can be as cheap as $6 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 where spaces are almost always available (and a new grocer is expected to announce its plans soon).

If you’re new to the Strip, or want to see a different side of it, contact Neighbors in the Strip for more information. 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. Ask for Becky or Cindy. They're two of the reasons this neighborhood is known throughout the world as one of the best in Pittsburgh or anywhere.

Captions: 21st St Coffee; La Prima; de Luca's; Lucy Sheets; Stamoolis; Wholey's; Lidia's; Jae Yong Kim at SCC; Cork Factory.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
 
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