A Year of Food Memories: Pittsburgh Dining in 2021
PM Dining Critic Hal B. Klein’s month-by-month reflection highlights his favorite bites of the past year.
Mired in frozen doldrums in January 2021, I dreamt of carefree culinary adventures such as the one I took with my pals Alex and Beth to Anthony’s Italiano in Donora in early 2020. I always do my best to find a way to be proactive rather than spend too much time mucked up about what I can’t do, and driving around to eat hyper-specific pizzas, even if it were mostly on solo missions, felt like a safe and scrumptious way to amuse myself while waiting for my coronavirus vaccination. It also presented an opportunity to learn about the Pittsburgh pizzaioli who have put their spin on our region’s pizza for the past 70 years. I returned to Donora for Anthony DiDonato’s pies, which feature a thin second crust between a lower layer of cheese and a saucy top. Next, I drove to Steubenville, Ohio, to DiCarlo’s, the birthplace of Ohio Valley-style pizza, and then to Pizza House in Ambridge for my favorite version of that permutation, which is a light and crunchy “grandma” style crust capped with a rainfall of room-temperature cheese. Out in Monessen is Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppee, where I found hefty sponge pies. I finished my pizza chase at Jioio’s, the polarizing Westmoreland County spot with the sweet, pastry-like crust. All of this allowed for long drives and tasty bites, and, eventually, Pittsburgh Magazine’s March cover story.
February 2021 is a blur. I longed for dining inside restaurants and gathering with friends outside of what we now were calling our pods as we approached a year of adjusting the rhythms and connections in our lives as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (shout-out to my dear pals for braving the cold all winter to gather for good times, and to Pat for scratch-made tonkotsu ramen that on a 23 degree night was the apex of our outdoor communal eats). This was a month for takeout and home cooking, and it yielded a preview of a few good things to come: stuntpig, the food truck and catering crew that’s one of my Best New Restaurants of 2021, was gearing up for an eventual June launch, and I had a yummy version of the smoked pork sandwich Mr. Pink. And Brandon Blumenfeld, the former chef of Scratch and Brick Shop, leaned into kreplach, those juicy Jewish dumplings, which were a perfect addition to homemade chicken soup and beet, dill and sour cream salad; Blumenfeld would officially launch his business, Little Tailor Dumplings, in July. February also meant the start of fish fry season. Some of the shine is lost when you’re eating on the trunk of a car rather than in basements and halls, but with crunchy, satisfying sandwiches such as those from Community Kitchen Pittsburgh and the Swissvale Fire Department, it was still a treat.
In March, I returned to dining indoors for a meal at Pusadee’s Garden, the spectacular reimagination of the Upper Lawrenceville favorite. I’m pretty sure this is the first time a restaurant made Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurants list before it made our Best New Restaurants list (the establishment was slated to open in December, so I cut it a little slack when preparing the former list). Then there was African Cuisine in Squirrel Hill; the Nigerian restaurant quickly became a favorite of mine and is a must-visit if you haven’t yet been. Hot on my list of places I anticipated visiting was the new version of Gaucho Parrilla Argentina. I wondered if one of my longtime favorites would be able to keep the magic and woodsmoke of its original Strip District location on its move to the old Six Penn Kitchen space Downtown — on the first visit in March, it sure did. Bonus: the restaurant now has a liquor license, too, and the Argentine wine list and bespoke cocktails were most excellent.
April is a month of transition in Pittsburgh; it might technically be spring, but a bounty of locally grown vegetables hasn’t yet arrived. There are ramps, and foraging and cooking with them (as well as the garlic mustard and stinging nettles found in our woodlands) is lovely, but April is still mostly bean, soup and stew season. The biggest blossom was Downtown, where gi-jin finally opened after several years of wondering what Richard DeShantz’s raw fish and sake bar would offer (answer: excellent nigiri and a terrific drinks list). Then, on an unseasonably warm day, I motored out to Hank’s Frozen Custard and Mexican Food in New Brighton for a chocolate cone and a nostalgic hard-shell taco. While we’re in the ice cream sphere: the first Moonlit Burgers pop-up happened outside Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream in Shadyside in April, and the umami-forward smashburger foretold excellence; its standalone location in Dormont, opened in November, is on my Best New Restaurants list.
The Bloomfield Saturday Market started its 2021 season in May. When I moved here in 2010, markets were pretty barren until mid-June. Now, our farmers are using high tunnels, greenhouses and other season extenders to make things sing earlier every year. 2021 was a good year for locally grown food, too — farmers sold heaps of produce to the public at our region’s farmers markets and kept restaurants stocked with an ever-changing bounty of quality ingredients. An early season highlight was cooking some of that produce over fire in the woods. I was enchanted by the new menu at Round Corner Cantina in Lawrenceville, where executive chef Julio Peraza, born in El Salvador and raised in Southern California, introduced a new menu centered around heirloom corn nixtamalized and ground in-house. May also brought the launch of Back To The Foodture in its new location in the South Side Works. Eddie and Angel Magwood moved their menu of enticing, exciting permutations of hamburgers and wings from Pitcairn and was one of 31 restaurants to earn a spot on my 2021 Best Restaurants list — the list ran in the June issue but debuted online in May.
My friend Bruce’s family visited Pittsburgh in June, and we gathered with a bunch of our pals for an epic meal at Sakura in Squirrel Hill. As much as any restaurant in Pittsburgh, Sakura holds a special place in my heart — it’s one of the places I go for big celebrations and a Lunar New Year dumpling-making party is an annual tradition full of delicious conviviality (let’s hope we can do it again in 2022). This was the first big indoor group meal with the whole crew since our March 2020 Chengdu Gourmet “I guess this is goodbye for now” banquet, and it was a joy to share the hand-pulled noodles, whole fish and more with Bruce’s family. Just a couple of doors down from Sakura on Forbes Avenue is Yue Bai Wei, and my first visit in June, highlighted by spicy smashed eggplants and savory Lion’s Head meatballs, set the tone for frequent meals at what would become one of my favorite new restaurants of the year. Speaking of setting the stage: I also had an utterly delightful breakfast wrap at Reed & Co. in Lawrenceville. It was so satisfying that it helped prompt both a breakfast sandwich round-up and a story about the best vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Pittsburgh.
If I had to pick a singular culinary experience I’d want everyone in Pittsburgh to enjoy, it’s gathering with a big group at the round table in the back of the Chengdu Gourmet dining room to eat copious amounts of Wei Zhu’s Sichuan cuisine. Chengdu Gourmet in Squirrel Hill was one of the later restaurants to open for indoor dining, and it sure felt great in July — during that blissful, fleeting time when everything felt kind of normal again — to leave Zhu’s restaurant overstuffed from food and friendship. I visited Jamison Farm in Latrobe for a beautiful midsummer dinner; a crew of chefs with long ties to the farm gathered for a cookout to celebrate the now semi-retired John and Sukey Jamison’s extraordinary lamb. The food cart Thyme Machine, a spin-off of Bitter Ends Food, started rolling in July, and those utterly cravable breakfast sandwiches are a top-notch addition to Pittsburgh’s small but steadily growing selection of mighty breakfast sandwiches.
Communal dining carried on apace in August. Fet Fisk, the best fisk, eased back into its biweekly pop-up series with a festive dinner at Pear and the Pickle in Troy Hill. I’ve long been a fan of Fet Fisk and appreciated the vaguely-Scandinavian-but-also-driven-by-our-region’s-farms takeaway meals and its farmers market stand, but the pop-ups are an exceptional experience and I was so happy to see them back in full-throttle action. I went down to McHenry, Maryland, for a lovely dinner at Wildom Farm. I met farmer/owner Julie Friend at the Lawrenceville farmers market, where she vends on Tuesdays throughout the season. I am smitten with her excellent pork and chicken; it was a treat to visit the regenerative farm and experience it all first hand. And in August, I had outstanding meals at two North Side restaurants that I later would highlight in my Pittsburgh Magazine October and November issue reviews — Fig & Ash and 40 North; both establishments continue to be among my favorites in town.
I had open-heart surgery in early September to repair a congenital heart condition. Let me tell you that recovering from surgery is made easier when you’re surrounded by a world of people who care about food just as much as you do. Friends rallied for a Meal Train, which was kicked off by a restorative soup from Celine Roberts, who also filled in for me with the What’s New column in September (and co-owns Nine O’Clock Wines in the Strip District). What followed was day after day of food therapeutic both in the nutrition those meals gave me and the succor of having someone cook for you with care (or a restaurant pick-up curated to what I craved). Food is emotional and food is evocative, and this was just what I needed. Although this column is a celebration of a year in food, here’s a little finger wag directed at UPMC — your medical care is outstanding, but you really ought to try a bit harder in the food you’re offering patients. It’s pretty awful.
Sure I was still sore from surgery the first week of October. Sure I was a little out of it. But nothing was going to stop me from reserving a table for the reopening of Dish Osteria and Bar on the South Side. There are very few spaces in Pittsburgh as evocative for me as Dish. And returning after an 18-month hiatus to a meal of grilled sardines, rigatoni alla scamorza and roasted quail was every bit as delightful as I’d hoped it would be. Speaking of things I missed because they hadn’t been around for a while, Dan and Sherri Leiphart decided to revive their Thin Man Sandwich Shop, which they closed in 2017, for a one-day pop-up at Black Radish Kitchen. As the weather cooled, I tucked into bowl after bowl of soup and wrote about seven of my favorites. I also had a spectacular omakase at Mola in East Liberty. That meal was one of several hands-in-the-air experiences I had at Mola in 2021, relishing every moment of chef/co-owner Alex Tang’s deeper exploration into the techniques of cutting, aging and seasoning fish.
In November, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the longevity of restaurants, and it prompted an idea for a story about Pittsburgh area restaurants that have stood the test of time and still are worth visiting. I plan on working on that project in more depth next year, but last month I visited two of them — Kiku, the 1980s-era Japanese restaurant in the mostly ghost town indoor mall at Station Square, and Hyeholde, the historic Moon restaurant that first served meals in 1938 and remains a bastion for fine dining in the region. At Oak Hill Post, I found a rekindled deep craving for hamburgers that hadn’t fully returned since reporting for my 2017 hamburger round-up and, later, a new appreciation for breakfast sandwiches made with biscuits; you’ll be able to read more about the modern Brookline diner in my February issue review.
Dial back to May to recall the mention of farmers extending the season — well, Jason “Joddo” Oddo of Bitter Ends Farm Co. rules the roost as our winter farmer, boosting his season of brassicas and other hearty vegetables beyond the first frosts. He’s the Count of Chicory, and his puntarelle salad at Spirit in Lawrenceville gave sustenance on a melancholy December night. On an unseasonably warm day, I borrowed my favorite dog, Quinn, and went for a hike at McConnells Mill in Lawrence County. Why did I choose to go there? Its proximity to Ladybird’s Luncheonette;I knew I wanted to crush a wicked tasty sandwich, a flaky savory hand pie and monstrous molasses cookie. I finished the year as I started … with pizza. OK. I’m always thinking about pizza, not just in January or December. But wow, Rockway Pizza keeps getting better, and it’s the local pizzeria that most echoes the pies of my childhood. I am so here for it.
I was asked last week if I have any predictions for next year. I don’t, other than to say it looks as if it’s going to be another curvy ride where we will have to do our best to roll with what happens. So, to echo something I’ve said a bunch in 2021: Be kind, be patient and treat others with respect. Try to support Pittsburgh-area restaurants and farms however you can and however you feel most comfortable.