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.
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.
PEAK AND DECLINE
Ifft’s father, Alex Colaizzi, started working with Blandi in 1958. He believes the original recipe was Blandi’s but that, “while Frank created it, Dino [Nardi] certainly improved it.”
Nardi was the longtime chef at Park Schenley, which Blandi opened in 1954 in Oakland. The restaurant, for decades, ruled the roost as Pittsburgh’s mecca for fine dining, alongside LeMont, which Blandi and his brother Jim opened in 1960. This was the glory day of the Turkey Devonshire in Pittsburgh. “Along the way, customers and former employees introduced the dish to their restaurants and clubs. Soon — it was a ‘Pittsburgh Thing,’” writes Ryan.
As often happens with food trends, however, knock-offs made with less care began being sold at cheaper prices. As selling processed foods became more acceptable for some diners since it kept down the price of dishes, the Turkey Devonshire suffered a tail-spin in quality. “At some point, ordering the dish was just like playing Devonshire roulette,” writes Ryan.
As the person with the most direct connection to the original, Colaizzi is doing a pretty good job carrying the torch at Alexander’s Bistro. Here, the turkey is cut from fresh-roasted breast; the bacon hits its mark, too. Colaizzi forgoes cheddar in his cheese sauce. From his memory, there never was cheddar in the mix; contemporary accounts and published recipes say that it should be. Instead, he makes a lovely bechamel enhanced with Parmesan and pecorino. It’s topped with paprika and browned beautifully. But the generic Italian bread, baked down the street at Sanchioli Brothers, is a bust; doughy, soggy and hardly toasted.
At Streets on Carson on the South Side, chef/owner Matt Christie is crafting a Turkey Devonshire that rivals Alexander’s for best in town. Served in a cast-iron pan, his feels contemporary but still rings true to the tradition. Christie uses toasted brioche as a base, a twist that adds an extra layer of flavor from the grill marks as well as supplying a sturdy base. His turkey is intensified with a little caramelization of the meat. Christie uses grape tomatoes, which cook to a concentrated punch even out of season. He cuts his bacon into triangles, which made the sandwich easier to eat but diminishes the presentation. I don’t hate that he folds American cheese (with a bit of cheddar) into the bechamel, but I do wish he’d used chicken stock to lighten it up a bit. It’s a heavy sauce.
A few other places — Union Grill in Oakland, Hartwood Restaurant in Glenshaw and Kretzler’s Tavern in West View — also serve decent versions of the dish, but here’s the hard truth of the modern Turkey Devonshire: They all are imperfect.
There are many ways to go wrong: manufactured meats, bad bread and heavy-handed or packaged sauce among the principal offenses. Most preparations embody at least a couple of those flaws.
The most egregious insults to the dish’s honored memory, found at The Lamplighter in Delmont and a few other places, amalgamate all of its shortcomings in a single sad bite.
I was looking forward to Daniel’s Devonshire (designated in a place of honor on the restaurant’s menu as “Lamplighter’s signature for over 45 years!”) more than any I’d found in my research. The design and spirit of the restaurant feel frozen in 1967, when the Ferri family purchased the operation and co-owner Daniel Ferri ran the kitchen wearing chef’s whites and toque. This, I thought, was going to be a taste of the Devonshire in its heyday. I beamed when I saw the hulking red-and-yellow marquee advertising fine and casual dining on a long stretch of the William Penn Highway 25 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh. I thought I’d found Devonshire nirvana.
But the Devonshires now coming from the kitchen are fallen-from-grace, freezer-burned. A sliver of industrial white bread, low-grade lunch meat turkey, gloomy ham and rubbery bacon are drowning in what could best be described as processed mac-and-cheese sauce meets state-fair nacho cheese. It was dismal. The Lamplighter, in a small way, broke my heart.
It wasn’t always this way. Chad Townsend, co-owner and president of Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream, worked there in the 1990s when he was in high school. Townsend recalls Ferri as a fastidious operator who insisted on house-roasted turkey breast and ham, and even employed a baker to make fresh, top-quality Pullman loaves daily. “He was really proud of what he was doing,” Townsend says.
It’s not just the components of the Turkey Devonshire that changed; our dining habits have too. The Devonshire was a mainstay dish for a sit-down, moderately formal lunch. Modern lunch culture typically means meals on-the-go, fast-casual or sad-desk-lunch, meaning the market for extended lunches is much diminished. “Like it or not, in modern times we have favored foods that can be held with one hand — leaving the other free to drive, text, type and God knows what else,” Ryan writes.
Matt Christie puts a slightly modern spin on the Turkey Devonshire, adding grape tomatoes, herbs and American cheese to his build at Streets on Carson on the South Side.
In turbulent periods such as the one we’re currently mired in, it’s natural to crave food that ballasts our psyches with the reassurance that everything is going to be alright. In December, Sam Sifton, food editor at The New York Times, wrote a story called, “In Defense of a Diner Classic: the Open-Faced Hot Turkey Sandwich,” that argues we all could use the comfort that comes along with that classic. Pittsburgh’s Turkey Devonshire is that sandwich … but better. It has cheese in the gravy.
It’s time to smooth out the rough edges that have developed over the years. Food memory and nostalgia are more fluid that we often think they are. Much as Colaizzi doesn’t recall cheddar cheese in Blandi’s creation, and therefore doesn’t use it in his build, things change over the course of time. They did even back then — Ryan recalls adding mustard powder and Worcestershire sauce to the ones he made at Nino’s in the 1970s.
The day after Thanksgiving, I added a blend of gruyere and cheddar to gravy built on turkey drippings, chicken stock, white wine and Dijon mustard. The additional components enhanced the flavor, and the elimination of milk made a heavy dish a little lighter. I’m Team Tomato when they’re in season (or if you can find some good preserved ones); the added acidity helps cut through a dish with a lot of bass notes. We ought to give good bread its due, too, and either bake our own or buy from bakeries such as Five Points Artisan Bakeshop, Madeleine Bakery & Bistro, Bitter Ends Garden & Luncheonette, Mediterra Bakehouse and Driftwood Oven. People often wonder what to do with sourdough boules a day or two after they’re cut; you can make beautiful toast with them. And I’m sure this is obvious at this point: roasting real turkey is essential. Using thighs instead of, or in addition to, breast meat will help elevate the dish.
“It would be a shame to lose a dish with such a rich history,” Ryan said in our correspondence.
Pittsburgh’s Turkey Devonshire embeds itself in people’s spirits: Ryan and his five-page paper; the Pittsburgh-born chef Bob Broskey adding one last month to his menu at the gastropub Beacon Tavern in Chicago; my newfound obsession.
I finally figured out what bewitched me when I had that first one at Joe’s Rusty Nail. The Turkey Devonshire represents a lot of the values I place on food.
It connects us to place and to history. It takes time to prepare, and it takes time to eat; it’s a dish that reminds us to slow down. You need to use high-quality, unprocessed ingredients if you want to make it right. It’s a dish that reminds us that sometimes it’s OK to be a little indulgent. And, most importantly, when you have a great one, it’s delicious.