If you have visited this space before, you probably know of my affection for my hometown of Pittsburgh. You may also know of my allegiance to an unassuming Italian grocery there called Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. — Penn Mac to its friends, which means everybody.
Why this fierce loyalty? Because Penn Mac is Pittsburgh foodie HEAVEN, that’s why. They got St. Peter right outside the ga–…door, that’s how I know. O.K., I’m not sure his name is Pete. And he’s the guy who puts the flowers outside. And he’s not always there. Look, just trust me.
All the Pittsburgh people reading this got up at the beginning of the last paragraph to get a beer. They already know this stuff. When they come back, they’ll nod their heads, because they understand that Penn Mac is one of the best places in the Strip District. Just northeast of downtown in the strip formed by Smallman Street, Penn Avenue and Liberty Avenue, gridded by the cross-streets from about 16th (where the bridge comes over) to about 23rd, the Strip was and remains one of the city’s key wholesale depots for produce, flowers, meats, fish, and other good stuff. Pittsburghers discovered decades ago that if you come down early an’ don’t act like a jag-off an’ ‘at, you too can find the best foods in the world.
Everyone has their favorite Strip places, and Penn Mac is mine. The big, wide wooden door, painted Tuscan red, opens onto worn hardwood floors and the smell of fresh-baked bread. Spices in everything from cups to casks await, along with barrels of bulk pistachios, almonds, and a thousand other goodies. Our pilgrimages here have infused my son with a sense of mission. While my wife and I debate about whether to head left to cheeses or right to pasta, he heads straight for the back and grabs the crustiest loaf of bread he can find. No point letting adult indecision freeze you out of the buon panna.
But Penn Mac is a no-rush place. So much to look at…we do head right eventually, where we can find the shapes of pasta we can’t get in Florida: campanelle, pappardelle, those little round things from Fusco with the rippled edges nobody seems to know the name of but they hold the sauce like a miser holds a penny.
And the Cheese Room…long, bright, glass-windowed onto Penn Avenue. They got cheeses in here you haven’t thought of yet. Cheeses from all over the world try to get here. It’s the Olympics of cheese. There’s an enormous, non-electronic, wax-penciled tote board with names and names and names and prices. Here, we discover the real reason Penn Mac is a no-rush place.
“You like that Munster? You’ll wanna try this.” This is one of the Cheese Ladies, and before we can react, she has slapped a couple blocks of cheese onto the wood counter and made with the knife, offering crumbles and slices for us to taste.
“Used to live here? Aw, that’s nice,” says Cheese Lady, and between bites of Welsh Cheddar and an Alsatian brie, she knows all about my parents, my time at Duquesne, what was wrong with the 1972 Pirates and hey, maybe I do need to eat more mozzarella. Down the counter, Meat Lady works with me on her pronunciation of mortadella (flip the R; say both Ls) and we have a good laugh. Her daughter is moving down Florida; where should she live? Slicing some Genoa salami, and “I wish she wouldn’t go, but y’know there are jobs down there, an’ whattaya yinz guys think, and how often you get to visit your folks anyway? Hey, I’m gonna put on an extra slice for your Dad, you tell him it’s special, huh?”
“You tell your daughter,” I say as I take the packages over the enameled white counter, “Florida is nice. But you do give something up.”
“Whassat, hon?” (Four minute aquaintance; I’m hon.)
“Conversations like this,” I say with a grin. “I haven’t lived in Pittsburgh for more than 20 years, and I still feel like there are no strangers around here.”
“‘Less you’re a Ravens fan, hon,” she says slyly. Big laughs all around.
“Got THAT right.”
“Greet Mum ‘n’ Dad.”
Foodie Heaven? Heaven heaven.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr
Photos by Adam Barr