Turkey Devonshire: Reviving a Classic Pittsburgh Sandwich
The once-famous sandwich originated here but now is largely forgotten. We dive into its history and argue that it's time for a revival.
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The Turkey Devonshire at Alexander’s Bistro in Bloomfield is prepared by creator Frank Blandi’s nephew, Alex Colaizzi.
I'd never heard of the Turkey Devonshire until I stumbled upon one at Joe’s Rusty Nail, a casual restaurant in Bellevue whose menu features the open-faced sandwich as a speciality of the house.
Even though the sauce leaned too heavily on gloopy cheese, I was entranced for some reason. For the rest of the day, I felt as if I should know more about what I’d eaten.
I tore through internet archives late into the night, learning about the history of the tartine — invented right here in Pittsburgh by Frank Blandi, a pivotal figure in the city’s dining history who opened the celebrated restaurants Pittsburgh Playhouse, Park Schenley and LeMont. Blandi debuted the Turkey Devonshire at the Stratford Club in Shadyside in 1934.
When it’s prepared right, the Turkey Devonshire is alluring and satiating, even if it’s debatable whether you can call it a sandwich (you have to eat it with a fork and knife). Sturdy toast points anchor it. Next comes crisp, smokey bacon; some variations call for two slices criss-crossed atop. The star of the show is sliced turkey breast, poached or roasted juicy on the bone. Perhaps there is tomato … but that’s controversial. It’s blanketed in a savory satin of chicken stock and hot milk thickened with roux and flavored with cheddar cheese. Sprinkle with Parmesan and paprika and broil until golden. Yum.
At its apex in the 1960s and 70s, the Devonshire was a staple of lunch- and late-night menus in Pittsburgh dining establishments. “It was a real restaurant treat. I’d go down to Poli’s with friends and have lunch. And my lunch was always a Turkey Devonshire,” says Providence Cicero. She’s now restaurant critic for the Seattle Times but was born and raised in Pittsburgh; her grandfather founded Poli’s, a landmark Squirrel Hill restaurant that opened in 1921 and closed in 2005.
“You know how they do the ‘who is better’ debate with the Squirrel Hill pizza places? They used to do that with the Devonshire,” says Ann Haigh, Pittsburgh Magazine’s dining critic from 1991-2005.
When people think “Pittsburgh” and “sandwich,” Primanti Brothers is the near-universal answer. With fries and slaw tucked right inside the bread, it served as a hand-held meal-in-one meant to feed truck drivers on the go. “That sandwich feeds into Pittsburgh lore better, which is why it stayed popular,” says Haigh.
But even our informal “official sandwich of Pittsburgh” has devolved from its origins. Once family-owned-and-operated, a corporation now stacks coleslaw and mealy French fries on generic lunchmeat piled so high on inferior bread it’s close to impossible to hold your sandwich with just one hand.
Then again, quality of ingredients weren’t what made the sandwiches sold at Primanti Brothers popular.
The Turkey Devonshire, however, sees diminishing returns the more processed it gets. But there’s reason to hope that this Pittsburgh original, now on life support at a scattering of restaurants and bars in the region, is ready for a revival.
Frank Blandi (center) at his Park Schenley restaurant, where the Turkey Devonshire had its heyday.
The basic story goes like this: Blandi, then 28, wanted to put a fancy turkey sandwich — roast turkey was still a bit of a luxury item in the 1930s — on his menu at the Stratford Club. He was inspired to name the dish “Devonshire” because a nearby street of upscale houses had that chic, British-sounding name.
Nobody knows exactly how it was created, but there is plenty of speculation. A lot of people, even in Pittsburgh, think he knocked off the Hot Brown, which was first served in 1926 and is different from the Devonshire only in that its sauce is made from Pecorino cheese, has nutmeg and doesn’t contain stock. Thousands of locals and tourists still flock to the Brown Hotel and other destinations in Louisville every year to devour the Hot Brown.
I haven’t found any evidence of Blandi or anyone who worked for him at the time having visited Louisville. Both the Devonshire and the Hot Brown are similar to Welsh rarebit, a 16th-century dish of savory cheese sauce poured over bread and cooked under a fire. That dish was all the rage at fancy clubs and hotel restaurants in the first quarter of the 20th century, meaning it’s quite likely the Devonshire and the Hot Brown were created independently.
Blandi’s grandson, John Byrnes, believes that Blandi created the dish as a teenager using ingredients in the family kitchen. But Blandi never talked about that in interviews. Plus, as Tim Ryan, Pittsburgh-born president of The Culinary Institute of America, points out, Blandi came from a family of Italian immigrants who probably didn’t cook with turkey and cheddar cheese sauce. Even if they did, home kitchens in the 1920s were primitive by today’s standards.
Ryan has been enthralled by the Turkey Devonshire going back more than 40 years; he used to make them as a young cook at Nino’s in Oakland. I asked him what he knew, and the next day he sent me what amounted to a five-page research paper.
Ryan believes Blandi might have been influenced by the 21 Club’s trendy chicken hash, a dish of diced chicken covered in Mornay sauce and then browned. “This dish would have allowed Frank to position The Stratford Club as Pittsburgh’s answer to the famous 21 Club in NYC,” he wrote.
Kim Ifft, Blandi’s grand-niece, helps run Alexander’s Italian Bistro in Bloomfield. She has a simpler theory. “My guess, if I were betting dollars to doughnuts, is that if we’ve all busted our hump by the end of the day, setting up, cooking, cleaning up for people, you’re hungry. It’s late at night. You’d say, ‘Cook, make us something.’ The cook is tired from working all night too, so he’s not at the peak of his creativity. Well, maybe there’s some leftover turkey. Maybe there’s some gravy. And you want to fancy it up. I can see how this gets better and better as you keep playing with it over time,” she says.
I like that one.