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.
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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.
Gus Aiello, 82
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, 53
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.