Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Celebrating 5 Pittsburghers Who Built Careers Behind the Bar

Pittsburgh is a city that celebrates its neighborhood bars. In some of those spots, second- and third-generation regulars are pulling up their stools to be served by someone who started pouring drinks decades ago.



(page 1 of 2)


photos by Cory Morton

 

Pittsburgh is a city loyal to its neighborhood bars, the no frills, shot-and-beer establishments that draw business and energy from a base of regulars. Those patrons, some of whom are the second or third generations of a family to pull up a barstool, often are served by the same bartenders who poured beer for their parents and grandparents.

The bartenders who work those corner bars have earned the loyalty of their customers by being there night-in and night-out (and sometimes early mornings, too), ready with a story or an attentive ear  — or simply ready to pour the next round. There’s reward in camaraderie, and career bartenders can earn a decent living — but decades of physically and emotionally exhausting work often goes unrecognized. 

“A lot of times people think that this [job] is for people who are younger or that it’s a means until they find something better. But, for a lot of us, this is our career,” says Debbie Painter, a 30-year veteran of the bar at Tessaro’s in Bloomfield.

“Before Prohibition, people definitely respected bartenders as part of their community and thought of it as a real job. I’m not sure what happened to make people think it was a job that you did before you got a ‘real job,’” says Nicole Battle, President of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the United States Bartender’s Guild.

Still, Battle says, bartending is a physical career without a safety net, which leaves many bartenders working later into life than they’d prefer. “The people that have been doing this for so many years should have something set up for themselves,” she says. “How do we change that so that this will happen moving forward?”

Pittsburgh Magazine tips our hat to the numerous people working at bars throughout the region by saluting these five career bartenders.
 


Frank “Gus” Aiello may be the oldest person in Pittsburgh to begin a bartending career. The 82-year-old McKees Rocks native started working full-time behind the bar only five years ago — not by choice.

“I used to be really busy here. People were two, three deep. Now, I can’t afford to hire bartenders,” says Aiello.

Full-time bartender might be a relatively new addition to Aiello’s resume, but working at Rudy’s is old hat. Aiello enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school; aside from his time in the service, Rudy’s is the only place he’s ever worked.

He purchased Rudy’s Bar 48 years ago from “a guy named Rudy [Gerger].” After the passing of Gerger’s son, the bar owner became a mentor to a young Aiello, bonding through a shared passion for golf. Aiello still enjoys that hobby, hitting the links whenever he can, even though he doesn’t have as much leisure time as he used to.

He helped out when Rudy owned the bar, and, in 1977, purchased the establishment from Rudy’s widow. Aiello spent the next four decades making food, entertaining guests, pouring the occasional drink and keeping tabs on everyone who visited the bar.

“Half of the people were scared of me, half of them respected me, and that was the end of it,” he says. 

The boon time for McKees Rocks was a boon time for Rudy’s Bar, too. “People were here 7 in the morning, and the place was still packed at 4, 5 in the morning,” Aiello says. But the decline of heavy industry in the region, particularly the downsizing of nearby Pittsbugh and Lake Erie Railroad, accelerated the slow deterioration of Aiello’s customer base. 

Rudy’s draw has long been Aiello’s famous ham sandwiches, hand-carved from whole-roasted ham. He says he still sells a lot of those, but he doesn’t have enough regular customers to keep a full-time bar staff. 

He feels ship-shape from playing golf as well as from sipping on whiskey and sodas. But, unless things pick up in McKees Rocks, he says, “I’m not sure how much longer I can stay here.”
 


MJ Fontana has, of course, poured a lot of drinks in nearly a quarter century of bartending. However, it’s not the beer she’s served or the cocktails she’s made that make her career so rewarding; it’s the people that she’s met along the way. “It’s a hard schedule [as a bartender] to have any kind of social life. Most people are off on the weekends. So, this is where my friends are,” she says.

Fontana has been a fixture at Dee’s Cafe on East Carson Street for nearly 20 years, making regulars and newcomers feel welcome at the neighborhood bar. The bar might be one many on a mile-plus stretch of one of the densest concentrations of partying in the United States, but its history is storied. The establishment opened in 1955, once serving mill workers and their families. For a time, it was the only place in the neighborhood to get a drink on Sunday because it operates with a restaurant license; the dining room now is used as overflow and a gathering spot for regulars rather than as a place to go for casual meals. And, while Dee’s currently is best known for its monthly punk rock karaoke nights, there was a time when the bar instead hosted country music bands on Friday and Saturday nights. 

Lately, though, business has slowed down considerably. Friday nights once meant a packed bar, but Fontana says she’s noticed a draw to other neighborhoods, such as Lawrenceville. On top of that, she says, a 2017 Pittsburgh Parking Authority policy change that prompted an extension of metered parking hours until midnight on weekends as well as the removal of at least 35 on-street parking spots, has hurt business. “It used to be busy, busy, busy all the time. It’s never been this bad.”

Inconsistent business is distressing to professionals such as Fontana as they depend on tips for the majority of their income. “I started bartending for the money. I had kids, and it was the easiest thing I could do to raise them,” she says.

Fontana raised four children while working at Dee’s. Bartenders who also are parents often don’t get a lot of sleep. Even if you’re the last person working the night shift, Fontana says, “You still have to get the kids up in the morning and [also] go to softball and baseball games.”

A few years ago, as a way to spur business on slow nights, Fontana tried to introduce higher-end cocktails to the establishment’s upstairs bar, but mixology never took off at the shot-and-beer joint. And, even though she enjoys making modern cocktails from time to time, it’s alright with her that there is no bespoke cocktail menu at Dee’s. “This isn’t really the place for it,” she says.

What it is, instead, is a place where Fontana and the rest of the bar staff — several of Dee’s bartenders are longtime industry veterans — turn customers into chums. “We still get a lot of regulars. I’ve had some customers that have been coming here since I started.

They sit at the bar, and I know exactly what they want,” she says.
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

Highmark Stadium Struggles To Accommodate Music Fans

The Station Square venue could be a good place to see a concert. It's not there yet.

CMU Launches America’s First Degree in Artificial Intelligence

Starting this fall, undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon will have the option to earn a degree in one of the world’s fastest growing fields.

Hog Wild at Fallen Aspen Farm

Owners Jake Kristophel and Desiree Sirois are committed to compassionate animal husbandry at Fallen Aspen Farm.

This is Where ‘Pittsburgh's Paul Bunyan’ Would Have Lived

The living emblem of Pittsburgh steelwork, immortalized in a Braddock statue, has been reborn with a titular space in Bloomfield.

She's Helping Immigrants Make Pittsburgh their Home

An immigrant herself, Ellen Freeman is dedicated to making Pittsburgh more welcoming for foreign nationals.

Steel City Metal: Code Orange Comes Home

Recent Grammy nominees Code Orange bring a working-class attitude to heavy metal.

MultiStories: Gilded Glory – The Keenan Building

The first skyscraper on Liberty Avenue had 17 floors plus a top floor that was the subject of risqué rumors.

Here We Go? Steelers Have More Than a New England Issue This Time

At this time last year the Steelers perceived themselves, and rightfully so, as a team that was a mere win over the Patriots away from returning to the Super Bowl. This year, the focus is elsewhere.

Lorelei Will Open in the Former Livermore/Pines Space

The owners of Independent Brewing Company and Hidden Harbor plan to bring a beer hall and cafe to East Liberty.

New Venue Added to Pittsburgh's Cinema in the Park Series

See what's playing this summer in a Pittsburgh park near you.

The 400-Word Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

The Star Wars series experiments with telling an origin story, with mixed results.

What's a ‘Spark’ and Why Should Pittsburghers Care?

Sparks are relatively young — the concept for them first popped up in San Francisco in 2005. They’ve just recently appeared in other U.S. cities, including our neighbors on the other side of the state.

Third Place on 'American Idol,' First Place in the Steel City

Munhall high school student Gabby Barrett finished in third place last night on ABC’s reboot of “American Idol.”

From Milan to Pittsburgh: These are the Kitchen Concepts of the Future

Local interior designer Lauren Levant traveled to Italy for the influential Salon del Mobile show featuring the latest innovations in the furniture and design industry. With an emphasis on quality over quantity, these are the kitchen concepts she says will be making their way stateside.

Wine Classes Keep the Pre-Wedding Celebration Classy

Palate Partners School of Wine & Spirits offers a chance for brides- and grooms-to-be to explore libations before (or instead of) a night on the town.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


CMU Launches America’s First Degree in Artificial Intelligence

CMU Launches America’s First Degree in Artificial Intelligence

Starting this fall, undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon will have the option to earn a degree in one of the world’s fastest growing fields.

Comments

New Venue Added to Pittsburgh's Cinema in the Park Series

New Venue Added to Pittsburgh's Cinema in the Park Series

See what's playing this summer in a Pittsburgh park near you.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Lorelei Will Open in the Former Livermore/Pines Space

Lorelei Will Open in the Former Livermore/Pines Space

The owners of Independent Brewing Company and Hidden Harbor plan to bring a beer hall and cafe to East Liberty.

Comments

An Inclusive Community Breaks the Ramadan Fast at Salem's Market & Grill

An Inclusive Community Breaks the Ramadan Fast at Salem's Market & Grill

The Strip District restaurant draws a diverse community to its nightly ifṭār buffet.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best Places to Introduce Children to the Performing Arts

Best Places to Introduce Children to the Performing Arts

When you see a show at one of these organizations, you may enjoy it as much as the children.

Comments

The 4 Best Sports to Try This Spring in Pittsburgh

The 4 Best Sports to Try This Spring in Pittsburgh

Looking to switch up your physical activity now that it finally feels like spring? We found four sports you can play locally that you may never have considered.

Comments


Highmark Stadium Struggles To Accommodate Music Fans

Highmark Stadium Struggles To Accommodate Music Fans

The Station Square venue could be a good place to see a concert. It's not there yet.

Comments

Take a Tricky Trip To Mars at Escape Room 51

Take a Tricky Trip To Mars at Escape Room 51

The new escape room in Pleasant Hills is a great game for newer players.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Here We Go? Steelers Have More Than a New England Issue This Time

Here We Go? Steelers Have More Than a New England Issue This Time

At this time last year the Steelers perceived themselves, and rightfully so, as a team that was a mere win over the Patriots away from returning to the Super Bowl. This year, the focus is elsewhere.

Comments

Surprising Pirates Proving to be an Acquired Taste This Season

Surprising Pirates Proving to be an Acquired Taste This Season

For the time being, at least, fans continue to send owner Bob Nutting a message wrapped in apathy.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

The 400-Word Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

The Star Wars series experiments with telling an origin story, with mixed results.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

The 400-Word Review: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

The careful documentary is a valuable document of the pontiff's philosophy. As a film, there are issues.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Wine Classes Keep the Pre-Wedding Celebration Classy

Wine Classes Keep the Pre-Wedding Celebration Classy

Palate Partners School of Wine & Spirits offers a chance for brides- and grooms-to-be to explore libations before (or instead of) a night on the town.

Comments

He Recovers from Stroke to Officiate Granddaughter's Wedding

He Recovers from Stroke to Officiate Granddaughter's Wedding

It was always Ashley Watkins’ dream to have her grandfather perform her wedding ceremony — but a serious illness almost got in the way.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
From Milan to Pittsburgh: These are the Kitchen Concepts of the Future

From Milan to Pittsburgh: These are the Kitchen Concepts of the Future

Local interior designer Lauren Levant traveled to Italy for the influential Salon del Mobile show featuring the latest innovations in the furniture and design industry. With an emphasis on quality over quantity, these are the kitchen concepts she says will be making their way stateside.

Comments

Get Creative: Pittsburgh Podcast Inspires 'Girl Bosses'

Get Creative: Pittsburgh Podcast Inspires 'Girl Bosses'

Thinking about starting a creative business but don't know where to start? From photography to interior design, Gamechangers, the new podcast from local textile designer Savannah Hayes, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the design industry from the female perspective.

Comments