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 Module Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

The 400-Word Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The animated wing of Spider-Man's movie world proves to be a groundbreaking step in animation.

New Venue To Serve as Downtown's Home for Magic

The intimate venue will offer close-up, "parlour" magic shows for small audiences beginning in February.

Watch: Rocky Bleier's “Heart Ripped Out” by Steelers

In a blunt public assessment, unusual from a former player, Bleier opens his video by declaring that he's “done” with the Steelers. Then he takes aim at the kicker and the coaching staff.

Historic Larimer Schoolhouse Will Graduate to Apartment Complex

Federal funds will be used to turn to the vacant Romanesque-style building into 35 mixed-income apartments.

First Look: Seasons in Etna

David Bulman’s hyper-local, 12-seat restaurant has the potential to become a dining destination.

Pittsburgh Rings, Sings and Dances into the New Year

“Highmark’s First Night Pittsburgh” features 100 performances for kids of all ages and, of course, fireworks for everyone.

The 400-Word Review: At Eternity's Gate

It's a fair Vincent Van Gogh biopic, but fails to make a strong impression.

When I Realized the True Meaning of the Army-Navy Game

As Army veteran and Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva sees it, Army-Navy is football at its core in a setting that transcends the sport.​

Apteka and Whitfield Team Up for a Vegan Christmas Meal

The latest installment of Bethany Zozula's Sharing Knives dinner series brings Apteak co-owners Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski in for an Eastern European feast.

At Jergel's, It's Beers and Grub Near Some Rock and Roll

The Warrendale venue makes seeing a show feel like an easygoing night out.

The Mon Wharf Switchback Paves a Route to the River

The new ramp to the Monongahela River provides a way for bikers and walkers to access the riverfront.

Overseas Adventures Lead to Pittsburgh Weddings

These couples made the trip that would take them from dating to engaged.

Hungry for Something Good, Pittsburgh? Where We're Eating in December.

We're celebrating a decade of Dinette, tempted by hot pitas at Pitaland and digging the (not so) secret sauce at Salem's Market & Grill.

I Made It! Market Can Simplify Your Holiday Shopping

More than 90 local handicraft artists will come together for a one-day event to save you from a panic-induced Christmas Eve shopping trip.

Have a Stout or an IPA, with a Shot of Space

Pittsburgh’s astronomers head to the taps to discuss everything from planetary movement to asteroids to — yes — the possibility of alien life, much to the delight of conspiracy theorists and space fanatics alike.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


New Venue To Serve as Downtown's Home for Magic

New Venue To Serve as Downtown's Home for Magic

The intimate venue will offer close-up, "parlour" magic shows for small audiences beginning in February.

Comments

Watch: Rocky Bleier's “Heart Ripped Out” by Steelers

Watch: Rocky Bleier's “Heart Ripped Out” by Steelers

In a blunt public assessment, unusual from a former player, Bleier opens his video by declaring that he's “done” with the Steelers. Then he takes aim at the kicker and the coaching staff.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
First Look: Seasons in Etna

First Look: Seasons in Etna

David Bulman’s hyper-local, 12-seat restaurant has the potential to become a dining destination.

Comments

Apteka and Whitfield Team Up for a Vegan Christmas Meal

Apteka and Whitfield Team Up for a Vegan Christmas Meal

The latest installment of Bethany Zozula's Sharing Knives dinner series brings Apteak co-owners Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski in for an Eastern European feast.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Fitness: Five Great Trails to Run in the Fall in Pittsburgh

Fitness: Five Great Trails to Run in the Fall in Pittsburgh

Don’t resign yourself to the gym treadmills just yet – fall is one of the best times of the year to get outside and pound the pavement, surrounded by falling leaves and the possibility of grabbing a hot latte on the way home.

Comments

Love Sourdough? Find the Best There Is at These Five Bake Shops

Love Sourdough? Find the Best There Is at These Five Bake Shops

We dove into the local artisan bread scene to find the best places that bake naturally leavened bread in Pittsburgh.

Comments


At Jergel's, It's Beers and Grub Near Some Rock and Roll

At Jergel's, It's Beers and Grub Near Some Rock and Roll

The Warrendale venue makes seeing a show feel like an easygoing night out.

Comments

Five Essential December Events in Pittsburgh

Five Essential December Events in Pittsburgh

A creepy Christmas, Cleveland comics and more December happenings.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
When I Realized the True Meaning of the Army-Navy Game

When I Realized the True Meaning of the Army-Navy Game

As Army veteran and Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva sees it, Army-Navy is football at its core in a setting that transcends the sport.​

Comments

Trust in Roethlisberger Remains Steelers’ Best Option

Trust in Roethlisberger Remains Steelers’ Best Option

We’re about to find out if that late-game meltdown in Denver last week was an aberration or a revelation.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The 400-Word Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The animated wing of Spider-Man's movie world proves to be a groundbreaking step in animation.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: At Eternity's Gate

The 400-Word Review: At Eternity's Gate

It's a fair Vincent Van Gogh biopic, but fails to make a strong impression.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Overseas Adventures Lead to Pittsburgh Weddings

Overseas Adventures Lead to Pittsburgh Weddings

These couples made the trip that would take them from dating to engaged.

Comments

On Theme Weddings with Style

On Theme Weddings with Style

These brides went beyond a color scheme for their wedding day to work in an entire theme.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Historic Larimer Schoolhouse Will Graduate to Apartment Complex

Historic Larimer Schoolhouse Will Graduate to Apartment Complex

Federal funds will be used to turn to the vacant Romanesque-style building into 35 mixed-income apartments.

Comments

Allegheny County Could Pay You to Convert Your Wood Burning Fireplace

Allegheny County Could Pay You to Convert Your Wood Burning Fireplace

In the hopes of reducing air pollution and improving indoor air quality — particularly for those with asthma — the county health department is conducting a program to convert open-hearth fireplaces into vented gas-burning appliances.

Comments