Creme de la Creme
Our 20 favorite bakery destinations for decadent, shameless indulgence.
Photos by Heather Mull
Irresistibly fluffy éclairs, decadent frosted cupcakes, buttery French croissants and gooey rich chocolate brownies—these are just a few of the treats that our local bakeries do best. Our top 20 favorite destinations for indulgence range from homey neighborhood fixtures that opened in the 1920s to huge, brightly lit pastry emporiums. Try not to lick your iPad screen.
What’s especially noticeable is just how much the pastry talent has grown in Pittsburgh throughout the last decade: For proof, read our profiles of three top local pastry chefs. Excitement about the city’s great pastry scene continues to grow. For example, French native David Piquard, presently the master pastry chef at Paris 66 in the East End, will open an upscale patisserie later this year. An alumnus of the famous Parisian bakery Ladurée, Piquard has already earned a local following for his light-as-air French macarons, currently available for takeout. The city is also home to Orlando Santos, a name that probably sounds familiar to those who followed him as a contestant on Bravo’s popular show, Top Chef: Just Desserts. Even if you’re not a regular at the exclusive Duquesne Club, where he presides as executive pastry chef, you can still taste his work by ordering goods via his online shop (orlandoschocolatetreasures.com).
All in all, we think you’ll agree that when it comes to dessert, our choices in Pittsburgh are nothing short of sweet.
Party Cake Shop
Mt. Lebanon & Brookline
If it starts with a “C,” this bakery does it right—from coffee cake and challah to carrot-cake squares and cookies, these treats are some of the best. Progress through the alphabet to “D,” and there’s more to admire, like the very good doughnuts and Danishes. It’s thoughtful that many of the best desserts are sold by the individual portion; you can pick and choose to make sure everyone you love gets their favorite and don’t have to commit to a whole cake or pie. Selections change, so if you're set on small portions of something in particular—say, the burnt-almond torte cake, which the bakery excels at creating—call ahead.
706 Brookline Blvd., Brookline, 412/531-5322; 297 Beverly Road, Mt. Lebanon, 412/343-0101, partycakeshop.com
Bartram House Bakery
McMurray & Wexford
Divine sugar cookies that strike the perfect note of sweet vanilla; smooth yet tart key lime pie topped with a cloud of whipped cream; plain cheesecake that’s so decadent it makes us wonder why we ever refer to this dessert as “plain.” These are some of the treats that fill the cases at Bartram—along with homemade pies, cakes and cookies—in a display that’s downright spellbinding for any sugar lover. The glass and dark-wood interiors have the familiar polish of an upscale chain, yet the bakery is entirely family-owned—and the kitchen staff makes everything from scratch. Originally, there was a single shop, located in McMurray, but Bartram recently opened a second bakery in Wexford.
4120 Washington St., McMurray, 724/260-0702; 2000 Village Run Road, Wexford, 724/719-2442, bartramhousebakery.com
Vanilla Pastry Studio
It’s hard to take sides in the cupcake wars, but if pressed, we’d take up arms for this bakery’s red-velvet variety. Then again, everything at Vanilla is delicious, so what you choose just depends on your mood: Do you want the simple poundcake or a tropical mango-passionfruit-coconut? The insanely good buttercream frosting sets these desserts apart: To start, it’s made fresh daily. Only the best chocolate or fresh fruit is used—let’s just say April Gruver’s (see profile, below) strawberry buttercream-frosted cupcake could take down strawberry shortcake in a fight. But the cupcake bar isn’t the only feature of this pretty, bright, high-ceilinged shop—the tantalizing list of other treats includes whoopie pies, homemade cookies and chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons. You won’t leave empty-handed.
6014 Penn Circle South; 412/361-2306, vanillapastry.com
APRIL GRUVER » vanilla pastry studio
April Gruver can keep a secret. That much is obvious, considering the phone at Vanilla Pastry Studio was ringing off the hook before Big Ben’s wedding last summer, as people tried to get the scoop on exactly what types of cake she was creating for the event.
Other key things to know about Gruver: She sometimes describes herself as “the sugar fairy;” she hand-colors the white-chocolate sprinkles that adorn her desserts; and she makes one mean cupcake. This is what her shop is best known for—and with good reason: The buttercream frosting alone, made fresh daily with top-notch chocolate or fresh fruit, will make any sugar lover swoon. But let’s not forget her whoopie pies. Or poundcake.
Oh, and have we mentioned the lolly, which is one of her shop’s signature treats? Hard shells of rich milk, white or dark chocolate sit neatly on a lollipop stick and enrobe either rich custard (in flavors like chocolate-tangerine or chocolate-espresso) or decadent cheesecake (think key lime or salted-caramel).
She attributes her success in the pastry industry to her own love of eating.
“I only serve things that I would genuinely want to sit and eat," Gruver says. "That means that if something doesn’t work, I’m not afraid to throw it away. We’re very committed to quality.”
Her obsession with amazing flavor and gorgeous detail is partly a result of her great training. While attending culinary school in northern California, she began pursuing jobs in the pastry industry, eventually landing a two-year stint at California Café. From there, she went to work at Rover’s, a highly regarded French restaurant in Seattle. Following those experiences, she worked in kitchens from the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs to the Fairmont in Chicago, finally ending up in Pittsburgh.
After holding jobs as the executive pastry chef at the Duquesne Club and consulting for Six Penn Kitchen, she opened the first incarnation of Vanilla Pastry Studio in the city’s West End in 2006. Two years later, she moved to the East End, and that’s where you can visit today—and we bet you won’t leave without at least one cupcake in hand.
Sweet Tip: Around Valentine’s Day, stop in Vanilla Pastry Studio for treats like spicy chocolate fudge, passionfruit dessert and cupcakes adorned with “conversation” candy hearts made of fondant.
Jean Marc Chatelier’s French Bakery
Simply put, Jean Marc Chatelier knows his way around a croissant. Just as in Paris, his version is airy and densely filled with buttery layers—meltingly rich inside and crisp on the exterior. This magic act is hard to pull off, so don’t stop yourself from indulging—the only question is whether you prefer plain, chocolate, almond cream or any of the other delicious varieties. The bakery’s Millvale location places it squarely outside the city’s predictable “foodie zones,” but rest assured that this small, unassuming shop is worth the trip. Don’t leave without considering the other French classics, like crumbly yet silky macarons or rich brioche — just the thing with a cup of strong coffee.
213 North Ave.; 412/821-8533, jeanmarcchatellier.com
A slice of this bakery’s rich yellow cake with decadent chocolate buttercream frosting is a birthday wish come true for a whole lot of folks in the ’Burgh. Place your order a day in advance for some of the bakery’s famous specialty items, including a decadent German chocolate cake made with butterscotch, coconut and toasted pecans. There are also doughnuts (made fresh daily), cupcakes and cookies that take every form imaginable—from chocolate drops to pecan tassies.
5200 Brightwood Road, 412/835-6658, bethelbakery.com
Paddy Cake Bakery
In a city with lots of great old-fashioned city bakeries, this Bloomfield destination might take the cake—sorry, we mean, the doughnut. Take your number and name your favorite. Light and airy raised doughnuts glazed with sugar or cinnamon sugar twists; delicious cake doughnuts with crispy exteriors coated with frosting and sprinkles or rolled in cinnamon sugar. There’s nothing new-fangled about the what-you-expect classic bakery offerings here—from cake to cookies and everything in between—but that’s the charm.
4763 Liberty Ave.; 412/621-4477, paddycakebakery.org
A delicious raspberry-filled bear claw and a hot cup of coffee is a great way to start the weekend. Unless you’d rather dive into a maple sweet roll, flecked with plump raisins and fragrant with cinnamon. Or slices of sweet-dough coffee cake with gooey yet crunchy nut filling. What about skipping these well-played favorites and going straight for the sugar with a “long john” frosted doughnut? Whatever your choice, anyone who lives for sweet morning treats will find this old-fashioned bakery to be a dreamy destination on a Saturday morning. It’s tough to leave this homey Beaver spot without a pastry box stuffed with treats. As you’d expect, it’s the best destination in this neck of the woods for cakes, including a memorable version of a toasted-almond torte.
664 Third St., 724/774-2324, kbakery.com
SHELBY ORTZ » eleven
Shelby Ortz, the pastry chef who creates the beautiful and downright delicious plated treats at Eleven, sounds a little like a yoga instructor when she talks about creating a great dessert. “There’s a lot you have to balance,” she says.
Ortz ticks off a list that includes things like achieving the perfect contrast between the crunchy and silky-smooth elements, and staying aware of how temperature affects flavor—for example, knowing how chilling will cut back on a dish's richness. Given all this, is it any wonder that creating a home-run dessert could take days?
Ortz’s own tastes run toward unique and sophisticated, rather than tooth-achingly sweet. The proof of her expertise is in the pudding—rather, the Meyer lemon pudding cake. One taste of this recent creation shows off the way she builds layers of flavor and texture: The dish pairs a smooth, lemon-y cake with fresh, tart pomegranate seeds; crunchy candied macadamia nuts; icy-cold coconut granita; and sweetly subtle hibiscus syrup. It’s not the kind of dish most of us whip up on a weeknight at home, but then again, not all of us have Ortz’s chops.
A native of Beavercreek, Ohio, she came to western Pennsylvania to attend the Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s culinary program and was immediately drawn to pastry. After graduating, she landed a job at Soba in 2008, where desserts like her frozen milk-chocolate bar served with caramel popcorn, caramelized banana and three-milk chocolate sauce earned accolades. Last summer, she took the head pastry chef position at Eleven—and she seems to be having fun.
“Experimentation is required in this job,” she says, pointing to a renewed interest she has in caramel sauce, to which she might add hazelnuts, Marsala (the Marsala caramel is paired with cannoli at Eleven) or even a ginger infusion.
“But as much as I like to be adventurous," she says, "I’m also old-fashioned and go for simple ingredients like butter, sugar, eggs, fresh fruit and good chocolate.” Sounds like the perfect balance.
Sweet Tip: To sample Shelby Ortz’s decadent morning pastries, check out the Sunday brunch at Eleven. Chocolate lovers will want to visit around Valentine’s Day to sample a special chocolate dessert she creates for the holiday.
Dormont & Mt. Lebanon
Some baked goods look cute and delicious when they’re very, very small—think petit fours or miniature cupcakes. But when it comes to cinnamon buns? The bigger and swirlier, the better! Fortunately, this bakery, a fixture on Potomac Avenue since 1927, agrees. And its huge cinnamon buns are to die for. More great morning treats include the bear claws, danishes, maple strips and fruit kuchen. The delicious brownies (plain or with nuts) are also hugely popular and have been a specialty since the bakery’s early days. A huge array of cakes—everything from jelly rolls and rum cakes to angel food or “cupcake” cakes—round out the tempting offerings.
1419 Potomac Ave., Dormont, 412/531-5066; 689 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon, 412/531-5067, potomacbakery.weebly.com
Brookline & Pleasant Hills
The oh-so-good cannoli at this bakery hits all the right sweet, creamy notes. We could talk for quite a while about the Napolean, with its stacked layers of pastry filled with vanilla custard and drizzled in chocolate. The bakery has been family-owned and operated for 60 years, and it’s perhaps best-known for its cakes: The menu of choices will make your head spin, with long lists of specialty items like almond batter mini petit fours or angel food baby cakes. Yet if a classic yellow birthday cake with chocolate frosting is what you crave, that’s available, too. When it comes to a sweet reward, this bakery knows how to dole it out.
546 Brookline Blvd., Brookline, 412/531-1944; 28 Old Clairton Road, Pleasant Hills, 412/653-1717, kribelsbakeryofpittsburgh.com
Shadyside & Market Square
Lots of bakeries make a terrific burnt-almond torte, but nobody can argue that this bakery churns out one of the very best: layers of thin, moist yellow cake filled with custard and generously frosted with vanilla then crowned with crunchy, sugary, crystallized almond slices. The Shadyside bakery provides a charming old-fashioned counterpoint to Walnut Street’s slick chain shops and displays lots of colorful specialty cookies that taste as good as they look. When you need satisfaction, try the chocolate-peanut butter bar—why reinvent the wheel when it tastes this good? Long a fixture in the East End, the bakery expanded in 2008 with a second site, located in Market Square.
5525 Walnut St., Shadyside, 412/621-2092; 438 Market St., Market Square, 412/471-6861, prantlsbakery.com
Adored for fluffy cakes and delicious fillings that range from cherry and raspberry to chocolate pudding and white-chocolate mousse—not to mention
essentially perfect buttercream frostings—this 65-year-old bakery has enough sweet choices to make any cake lover swoon. You can’t miss the lemon torte: three layers of dreamy white cake and lemon filling, frosted with buttercream that is just sweet enough to balance out the bright citrus flavor. Want to try something different? Order the miniature mango mousse, which looks like a small package but delivers big tropical flavor.
543 Lincoln Ave.; 412/766-0954
La Gourmandine Bakery and Pastry Shop
A perfect miniature lemon tart with crispy sable dough; divinely flaky croissants; sweet and tender madeleine cookies; the city’s best sweet baguette. These are just a few of the joys of this authentic French bakery owned by pastry chef Fabien Moreau (see profile, below). Among the bakery’s many taste-as-good-as-they-look desserts: Stunning opera cake layered with chocolate cocoa mousse, coffee pastry cream, and three layers of almond sponge cake, and religieuses, essentially a double-stack of gloriously light cream puffs filled with vanilla or chocolate custard and topped with white fondant. Yet for all its glorious French-ness, there is nothing fancy or pretentious here—just a neighborhood bakery anyone would be lucky to live close to.
4605 Butler St.; 412/682-2210, lagourmandinebakery.com
FABIEN MOREAU » la gourmandine
In 2010, French native Fabien Moreau opened a bakery and patisserie in Lawrenceville that rivals any you’d find on the Left Bank. He trained in Paris at LeNotre, one of the world’s most prestigious pastry schools. But if you think that makes him fancy or affected, think again.
Pittsburgh has gained a true gem in this down-to-earth baker whose main goal seems to be recreating his favorite childhood treats.
“I don’t try to do a big showcase or something crazy — I prefer to focus on the classic flavors,” he says. By this, he means plain, almond and chocolate croissants (and, yes, these are the flaky, buttery, delicious and totally authentic versions you’ve been searching for) and brioche, as well as traditional desserts like lemon tarts and easy-pleasers like chouquette, which are little bowls of choux pastry sprinkled with sugar.
“The chouquette cost 30 cents apiece, and I just love to see the kids come in and buy four for a snack. It reminds me of being young,” he says.
Yet while he offers plenty of everyday treats — from baguette to pain aux raisins, those delicious custard-y raisin rolls so hard to find outside of France — the pastry cases at La Gourmandine are also stocked with gloriously grown-up desserts. The beautiful Opera Cake layers almond sponge cake with cocoa-chocolate mousse and coffee buttercream inside dark-chocolate glaze, and the Tarte aux Fruits shows off perfect berries atop handmade vanilla pastry cream in a buttery shortbread crust.
As impressive and delicious as his creations might seem to us, Moreau sees everything as a work in progress.
“Even if you follow the steps perfectly, you can’t be sure you’ll have a perfect result,” he says, explaining how a too-hot kitchen makes it especially important to fold in the butter very quickly so the pastry stays light and flaky. Moreau adds that it’s essential to make a fresh batch of croissant dough each morning to prevent the yeast from getting “lazy.” When you talk to Moreau, it seems that knowing exactly what can go wrong is his great motivator. Luckily for us, this means everything from La Gourmandine tastes just right.
Sweet Tip: Chances are that even if something here seems unfamiliar, it’s a tried-and-true classic in France—so don’t neglect pastries with unfamiliar names, like the Paris-Brest (choux dough filled with delicious hazelnut cream) or the Religieuse (two-tiered pastry filled with vanilla or chocolate pastry cream and covered in white fondant).
Mantsch’s Blue Bonnett Bakery
The Danish pastries are a good reason to travel a little further down Eighth Avenue in Homestead to this bakery that's been in operation since 1954. Loaded with fruit, nuts and icing, they are delicious treats for any time of day. One devoted fan orders a large version in lieu of a birthday cake each year. Savory ethnic specialties, such as bolbaki, are also available: These small, firm bread balls are typically steamed and mixed with sauerkraut for Eastern-European Christmas. Another popular offering is paska bread, made for Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays.
338 Eighth St.; 412/462-4957
Don’t miss this pastry shop’s specialty desserts, including the gorgeous “Georgia peach” cookies, which are homemade sugar-rolled vanilla sandwich cookies with peaches-and-cream filling. The many labor-intensive pastries here often take two full days to prepare from scratch, and the results truly show in every bite. Try any one of the specialty tortes, such as the heavenly chocolate—or, since a variety of torte sizes are prepared daily, sample more than one flavor. After opening in 2004, the shop has continued to build on its great reputation and offers 30-plus cookie varieties, breakfast pastries and all kinds of delicious cakes. We’re especially partial to the simple but sublime fresh-cut apple pie.
81 Clairton Blvd.; 412/653-2236, pastriesalacarte.com
Even if you literally just moved to Pittsburgh, you’ve probably already enjoyed one of the special-occasion treats from this famous baked-goods emporium. From the classic yellow birthday cake with chocolate frosting to the delicious pumpkin log (featuring ginger-spiced cake rolled log-style around a decadent cream-cheese-frosting center), there are few desserts you could dream up that Oakmont doesn’t make from scratch. Want a little more than a cupcake but not the whole cake? Try the “cake bars” in flavors like tiramisu and chocolate torte.
531 Allegheny Ave.; 412-826-1606, oakmontbakery.com
Observatory Hill & West view
First of all, dear reader, put down that package of Hostess Ho-Hos. So much fresher and more delicious is the “gem” pastry from this homey neighborhood bakery, a soft cake chocolate treat with rich creamy filling. There are lots of other sweet surprises on hand beyond the usual, too, including small spiced cupcakes with maple frosting. The fluffy raised doughnuts are also absolutely delicious, and the raisin fritter is perfect for breakfast when served with hot coffee, of course. Just be sure to bring cash or a check to pay for your sweet treats.
3912 Perrysville Ave., Observatory Hill, 412/321-7568; 433 Perry Highway, West View, 412/931-0653
Cream pies are a sure bet at this South Hills bakery. Coconut and banana cream, in particular, are sure to delight those with a discriminating sweet tooth. Like so many places, the menu boasts a dessert called the “death by chocolate” cake, but this one puts others we’ve tried to shame; it features three layers of moist devil’s food cake filled with rich chocolate fudge and enrobed in chocolate buttercream icing that’s topped by a pool of dark-chocolate ganache. Many other specialty cakes and pastries are offered, and the website features monthly desserts that you’ll want to grab while the getting is good.
3360 Library Road; 412/882-9960, signaturedesserts.com
This is one of the city’s prettiest bakeries, with its chandelier-lit seating area and a fancy wrap-around display case packed with gorgeously decorated cupcakes and pastries. It’s also the place that will finally convince you that non-dairy kosher pareve desserts can be downright delicious (everything here falls into that category). Some standouts include dense apple-spice cupcakes with honey buttercream, terrific challah and lattice-topped fruit pies. Above all, the cookies—in flavors like chocolate chip, maple cranberry oatmeal, cinnamon sugar snickerdoodle, ginger chewy and chocolate-filled peanut butter—will keep you coming back time and again.
6595 Hamilton Ave.; 412/450-8445, sweet-tammys.com
Is it possible that flour isn’t a required ingredient for great baked goods? As “Exhibit A,” we present the decadent chocolate brownies from this bright and tidy gluten-free bakery. One bite will force you to admit that, yes, gluten-free desserts can taste better than the normal version. The yummy chocolate whoopie pies with creamy vanilla filling don’t seem the worse for skipping the flour—wait, do they seem better?—and neither do the addictively flavorful sweet loaves in flavors like lemon and pumpkin. Having mastered this distinct niche, Gluuteny has found its audience—so call ahead if your heart is set on something (popular items often sell out quickly).
1923 Murray Ave.; 412/521-4890, gluuteny.com