Creme de la Creme
Our 20 favorite bakery destinations for decadent, shameless indulgence.
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Photos by Heather Mull
Irresistibly fluffy éclairs, decadent frosted cupcakes, buttery French croissants and gooey rich chocolate brownies—these are just a few of the treats that our local bakeries do best. Our top 20 favorite destinations for indulgence range from homey neighborhood fixtures that opened in the 1920s to huge, brightly lit pastry emporiums. Try not to lick your iPad screen.
What’s especially noticeable is just how much the pastry talent has grown in Pittsburgh throughout the last decade: For proof, read our profiles of three top local pastry chefs. Excitement about the city’s great pastry scene continues to grow. For example, French native David Piquard, presently the master pastry chef at Paris 66 in the East End, will open an upscale patisserie later this year. An alumnus of the famous Parisian bakery Ladurée, Piquard has already earned a local following for his light-as-air French macarons, currently available for takeout. The city is also home to Orlando Santos, a name that probably sounds familiar to those who followed him as a contestant on Bravo’s popular show, Top Chef: Just Desserts. Even if you’re not a regular at the exclusive Duquesne Club, where he presides as executive pastry chef, you can still taste his work by ordering goods via his online shop (orlandoschocolatetreasures.com).
All in all, we think you’ll agree that when it comes to dessert, our choices in Pittsburgh are nothing short of sweet.
Party Cake Shop
Mt. Lebanon & Brookline
If it starts with a “C,” this bakery does it right—from coffee cake and challah to carrot-cake squares and cookies, these treats are some of the best. Progress through the alphabet to “D,” and there’s more to admire, like the very good doughnuts and Danishes. It’s thoughtful that many of the best desserts are sold by the individual portion; you can pick and choose to make sure everyone you love gets their favorite and don’t have to commit to a whole cake or pie. Selections change, so if you're set on small portions of something in particular—say, the burnt-almond torte cake, which the bakery excels at creating—call ahead.
706 Brookline Blvd., Brookline, 412/531-5322; 297 Beverly Road, Mt. Lebanon, 412/343-0101, partycakeshop.com
Bartram House Bakery
McMurray & Wexford
Divine sugar cookies that strike the perfect note of sweet vanilla; smooth yet tart key lime pie topped with a cloud of whipped cream; plain cheesecake that’s so decadent it makes us wonder why we ever refer to this dessert as “plain.” These are some of the treats that fill the cases at Bartram—along with homemade pies, cakes and cookies—in a display that’s downright spellbinding for any sugar lover. The glass and dark-wood interiors have the familiar polish of an upscale chain, yet the bakery is entirely family-owned—and the kitchen staff makes everything from scratch. Originally, there was a single shop, located in McMurray, but Bartram recently opened a second bakery in Wexford.
4120 Washington St., McMurray, 724/260-0702; 2000 Village Run Road, Wexford, 724/719-2442, bartramhousebakery.com
Vanilla Pastry Studio
It’s hard to take sides in the cupcake wars, but if pressed, we’d take up arms for this bakery’s red-velvet variety. Then again, everything at Vanilla is delicious, so what you choose just depends on your mood: Do you want the simple poundcake or a tropical mango-passionfruit-coconut? The insanely good buttercream frosting sets these desserts apart: To start, it’s made fresh daily. Only the best chocolate or fresh fruit is used—let’s just say April Gruver’s (see profile, below) strawberry buttercream-frosted cupcake could take down strawberry shortcake in a fight. But the cupcake bar isn’t the only feature of this pretty, bright, high-ceilinged shop—the tantalizing list of other treats includes whoopie pies, homemade cookies and chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons. You won’t leave empty-handed.
6014 Penn Circle South; 412/361-2306, vanillapastry.com
APRIL GRUVER » vanilla pastry studio
April Gruver can keep a secret. That much is obvious, considering the phone at Vanilla Pastry Studio was ringing off the hook before Big Ben’s wedding last summer, as people tried to get the scoop on exactly what types of cake she was creating for the event.
Other key things to know about Gruver: She sometimes describes herself as “the sugar fairy;” she hand-colors the white-chocolate sprinkles that adorn her desserts; and she makes one mean cupcake. This is what her shop is best known for—and with good reason: The buttercream frosting alone, made fresh daily with top-notch chocolate or fresh fruit, will make any sugar lover swoon. But let’s not forget her whoopie pies. Or poundcake.
Oh, and have we mentioned the lolly, which is one of her shop’s signature treats? Hard shells of rich milk, white or dark chocolate sit neatly on a lollipop stick and enrobe either rich custard (in flavors like chocolate-tangerine or chocolate-espresso) or decadent cheesecake (think key lime or salted-caramel).
She attributes her success in the pastry industry to her own love of eating.
“I only serve things that I would genuinely want to sit and eat," Gruver says. "That means that if something doesn’t work, I’m not afraid to throw it away. We’re very committed to quality.”
Her obsession with amazing flavor and gorgeous detail is partly a result of her great training. While attending culinary school in northern California, she began pursuing jobs in the pastry industry, eventually landing a two-year stint at California Café. From there, she went to work at Rover’s, a highly regarded French restaurant in Seattle. Following those experiences, she worked in kitchens from the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs to the Fairmont in Chicago, finally ending up in Pittsburgh.
After holding jobs as the executive pastry chef at the Duquesne Club and consulting for Six Penn Kitchen, she opened the first incarnation of Vanilla Pastry Studio in the city’s West End in 2006. Two years later, she moved to the East End, and that’s where you can visit today—and we bet you won’t leave without at least one cupcake in hand.
Sweet Tip: Around Valentine’s Day, stop in Vanilla Pastry Studio for treats like spicy chocolate fudge, passionfruit dessert and cupcakes adorned with “conversation” candy hearts made of fondant.