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.
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.
Jim Nied, 66
You know how to make a million dollars in the bar business?” jokes Jim Nied, owner of Nied’s Hotel in Upper Lawrenceville. “Start with 2 million.”
Nied might not have made a lot of money working in the bar business, but over the course of 40 years (he first worked the bar when he was 14) he’s made a lot of memories. “I’m rich in friends and fellowship, and that’s by choice,” he says.
Nied’s family has a long history in the hospitality business. His grandfather, Thaddeus “Ted” Niedzinski, owned a bar in Homestead for decades until the city paid him $16,000 for the property in 1941 so it could expand land availability for steel mills. Nied’s grandmother rode the streetcars looking for a new location until she found an old bar on Butler Street called Dublin’s Hotel. The grandparents bought it and promptly sold it to Jim’s father, Paul, who then changed his last name to Nied to fit into the primarily Irish neighborhood. Paul Nied was a fixture at the bar for more than 70 years.
Jim Nied wasn’t supposed to join the family business — his brother Paul was. But after his brother died in a late-night automobile accident in the Strip District in 1976, Jim Nied, who was serving as Chief of Services at an Air Force base in Taipei, sensed it was time to come home. “My father used to write me letters all the time. When my brother died, those letters changed dramatically. They got very dark,” he says.
Instead of taking a position at the Air Force Academy, he took a position behind the bar … and never left. Neither have most of his employees — nearly the entire Nied’s Hotel staff has worked there for more than 30 years and there even is a second-generation employee working at Nied’s.
The neighborhood has changed over the years, testing business as factories and mills closed and a generation of residents left to live in the suburbs. Even when business was slow, Nied’s maintained a loyal following of regulars, many of whom now count their adult children and grandchildren as loyal customers, thanks to the affability of the father-son duo — and, perhaps, the establishment’s famous fish sandwich. The addition of a UPMC Children’s Hospital employee parking lot nearby two years ago meant a resurgence in early-morning business.
The post-shift nurses don’t party the same way the mill workers did back in the day — “Those guys would literally be falling off bar stools,” Nied says — but they do like to unwind, and they give Nied, who arrives before dawn and opens the bar at 7 a.m. every day except Sunday, a bit of extra business and new friends.
The throwback, neighborhood feel of the place also is a welcome respite in the high-cocktail era (Nied’s was named Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2017 Best Old-School Neighborhood Bar).
“We never rocked the boat. But also we never had the money to change anything,” he says.
Debbie Painter, 52
Loyalty defines Debbie Painter’s career. The longest-serving bartender at Tessaro’s in Bloomfield started working at the restaurant, famous for its hamburgers, in 1987 as a student at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I never thought I’d still be doing this all these years from then,” she says.
Painter went on a few job interviews after she graduated from Pitt, but all of those jobs would have meant taking a pay cut from her bartending gig. Plus, she says, the Harrington family (owners of Tessaro’s) treated their employees well, offering benefits such as paid time off and health care. It’s a relationship that’s lasted more than half of her life.
Her key to career success — which comes with a side dish of personal happiness — is a customer-forward approach. Bartending is an occupation that rewards hospitality, and Painter’s personality shines a little bit brighter than most. “They picked, out of all places they could go, to come to Tessaro’s. You should make them feel as welcome as possible,” she says.
One of the most important things she’s learned in more than three decades behind the bar is how to take a quick read of what her customers are looking for from their visit. Some, she says, want to be chatty and engage. Others want to be left alone. She tries to remember what regulars like to eat and drink. “It’s all about knowing what makes them feel comfortable in the space,” she says.
That warm feeling — plus, of course, the comfort of an establishment that specializes in hamburgers — kept Tessaro’s crowded even when other Pittsburgh restaurants and bars faltered.
Painter says her bartending style hasn’t changed much over the years because what she and the rest of the team are doing works for the establishment. That doesn’t mean that she hasn’t noticed a change in trends from something such as the popularity of various flavors of Schnapps in the 1990s to today’s bespoke cocktails, just that … “I’m not the person to do that.”
Loyalty to her career has, at times, created a sense of sacrifice as she’s missed pivotal events in her family life. “There’s a tradeoff in working nights. I missed a lot. My husband and son would do things in the evening, and I couldn’t do them with them. And, when we’d go places as a family, people wouldn’t know who I was because I was usually working,” she says.
Her dedication to work and Tessaro’s customers came full circle last year. Painter had to have surgery, something that’s kept her from work for several months. Inside the bar, customers tell the other bartenders, “Debbie always knows what I want,” a display of the tight bond she has with them. But it’s the outside display that’s even more touching, as many of those same regulars took to raising money, sending gift cards and even preparing meals for her family.
“People used to ask me, ‘What else do you do?’ That doesn’t happen as much now. Just because I work nights doesn’t mean it’s not my full-time job,” she says.
Fiona Simpson-Savoia, 57
For some bartenders, a career behind the stick can be as varied as the clientele they serve. “I’ve seen it all over the years,” says Fiona Simpson-Savoia. She’s bartended everywhere from a casual local in England to some of the most beloved institutions in Pittsburgh.
Savoia, 57, grew up in Coventry, England, and got her first bartending job at a local pub when she was 18. Her goal was straightforward: pour and serve beer to earn enough money for a trip to the United States.
Later, she worked as a flight attendant for Saudi Arabian Airlines — the alcohol-free flights were the only point in her career that she didn’t serve drinks. She moved to New York City in 1989, got a job serving drinks at a supper club and later met her now ex-husband, an Italian expat, Andrea Savoia. She moved to Pittsburgh in 2000 with Savoia, his brother Michele and sister-in-law Cindy. The families opened Dish Osteria, a much-beloved South Side institution, in 2000; Simpson-Savoia was the establishment’s first bartender. The intimate eatery, which closed in 2017, was the perfect size and delivered the right energy for Savoia to engage with what for her is the most beloved part of bartending — the people who come to the bar.
“I love the social part of it. You meet so many people, and you can learn so much chatting with them,” she says.
Savoia says that over the years she’s seen numerous first dates that turn into marriages and children.
In 2006, Savoia took her effusive energy to Casbah as well as to the Firehouse Lounge and its attached bar, Embury, widely credited as Pittsburgh’s prototypical modern cocktail spot. The shot-and-beer barkeep from a public house in central England now worked the rails at some of the hottest places in Pittsburgh.
Now settled as Casbah for over a decade, Savoia’s taken on the role of elder statesperson and inspiring leader. “I’ve trained so many bartenders at Casbah. It’s like Fi-Fi’s bartending school,” she says.
That in large part is because the dedicated lifelong learner hasn’t stopped training herself. Savoia keeps current with the latest trends in cocktails and spirits, while crafting perfect versions of the classics. “Mixology has become an artform. It’s much more creative now. I love it. I love all the flavors, and I love experimenting,” she says.
Her recent educational focus is wine, something that’s a draw for Casbah customers. Savoia now has certifications from the Court of Master Sommeliers (level one) and the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (level two) and plans to pursue future certifications from both professional organizations. “Quality of products, quality of knowledge. And the guests are getting into it more, too,” she says.
Savoia keeps physically active to stay ahead of the sometimes debilitating physical repercussions of a life working behind the bar; biking and yoga — “lots and lots of yoga” — help her stay fit in the physically demanding profession.
She says that even though she’s been at it since she was 18, people still bring up questions about “getting a proper job” or “what else do you do?” People who ask that, she says, are missing the point. “It’s one of the best jobs in the world. You can earn a lot of money, you have flexibility [with scheduling], you can taste wine and eat great food, you can be creative, and you get to chat with people all day.”