I’ll Have a Couple of Those Original Oysters

Come downtown for a beer, some seafood and a special celebration this month at the Original Oyster House.

Lou Grippo has owned the Original Oyster House since 1970.

Photo by Rick Sebak

I know the breaded oysters at Market Square’s Original Oyster House are balls of deep-fried dough with a single, lonely oyster hiding somewhere inside. But I think they’re delicious.

According to Lou Grippo, who’s owned the establishment since 1970, these unusual oysters were probably the invention of Mary Americus, the wife of Louis Americus, who owned the bar and restaurant from 1916 until he sold it to Grippo. Mary apparently didn’t like oysters but thought they, like anything else, might be more palatable if they were breaded and then deep-fried.

So, wrapped in a dense dough, these mollusks have become peculiarly Pittsburgh food. I don’t think there’s anywhere else where oysters are served in such a manner.

Grippo will tell you that Mary also came up with the recipe for the light breading, which is still used on the codfish in the bar’s very popular fish sandwiches. In fact, Grippo thinks the Americuses are probably the people who introduced fish sandwiches to Pittsburghers sometime in the early 20th century.

Most historians around here acknowledge that the Original Oyster House is the oldest extant restaurant in our city. It opened in 1870 on a nearby corner of Fifth Avenue. Then, it moved into its current space in 1871, a spot that previously was the home of the Bear Tavern, which opened in 1827.

During his 40 years at the Original Oyster House, Grippo admits to adding several new menu items. There’s a more lightly breaded, fried oyster, based on a recipe from Florida. There’s improved clam chowder (really excellent), thanks to a chef in New England.

Grippo also put fried shrimp, clam strips and calamari on the menu—all at remarkably reasonable prices. He’s got “Pittsburgh fries” now, too—a great spiral potato chip discovered at a balloon race near Albuquerque, N.M. But the barroom itself, known as the historic spot for eating and gathering, hasn’t changed much at all.

“People won’t let me change anything,” says Grippo. “I was measuring for a new baseboard heating system, and several people got very serious and said, ‘You can’t get rid of these old radiators; they make the place.’” So they’re still there, along with the old white-tile walls, many panoramic photos of Miss America contestants, celebrity pictures and the giant smoky poster of Rocky Marciano hanging above the bar. This is a classic Pittsburgh interior space that’s unquestionably worth preserving. And it’s still alive!

So on Tues., Oct. 12, everybody can celebrate 140 years of a great, old bar. Grippo’s nephew, Rick Faust, is currently the manager, and he wants everybody to visit on that day. “We’re going to have a big birthday cake,” he says. “And there’s a free piece for everybody who comes and eats here that day.” Sounds like a good reason to stop for a couple of breaded oysters.

Public-TV producer Rick Sebak featured the Original Oyster House in two programs in WQED’s Pittsburgh History Series: “Downtown Pittsburgh” and “Pittsburgh A to Z.” Starting Nov. 3, Rick will have a new weekly program titled “It’s Pittsburgh and A Lot of Other Stuff,” on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.

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