By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2000 Gourmet Magazine
IN PITTSBURGH’S STRIP DISTRICT, named for its ribbonlike grid of streets along the Allegheny River, a vast wholesale produce market comes to life just before midnight as long-haul trucks full of tomatoes, onions, tubers, and greens begin to arrive. Five blocks of loading docks are packed with big rigs wheel to wheel, and through the night, buyers haggle over flat and reefer as forklifts tote tons of fruit and vegetables in and out of ware-houses. Truckloads of groceries depart before dawn for stores throughout the lower Midwest. By eight o’clock, the market is quiet again.
In this dynamic nighttime world, the elsewhere-erroneous adage is true: For a good meal, follow the truckers.
No gear-jammer or dock-hand is willing to leave cargo unattended for too long, so the graveyard-shift restaurants of the Strip District make a specialty of short-order meals for drivers with big appetites but little time. At JoJo’s Restaurant, beautiful omelets are whipped, set, filled, and folded from opening time at 11 P.M. until midday. Round the clock at Primanti Brothers, flabbergasting multilevel sandwiches are assembled in less time than it takes to say the ingredients.
When Joe Cristina and John Cognetti created Jo Jo’s as a trucker’s haven 15 years ago, they featured a breakfast special at $2.49, its cost selected to honor Teamsters Local No. 249. Since then, Cristina’s daughter Robin and her husband, Frank Mannetti, have made the place a family business. Prices have gone up, too. But produce haulers are still considered royalty in this former gas station now filled with the smell of home fries. They are sometimes the only customers between four and five in the morning. Earlier, however, they have company. Around midnight, the dining room rocks with face-painted post game fans of the Penguins, Pirates, or Steelers, and clusters of boisterous club denizens who don’t want to go home. As dawn breaks and the produce crew leaves, a new shift of early risers comes in to start the day.
The flagship meal is a Jo Jo omelet: a three-egger cooked in a small skillet, flipped with great panache at the stove, then loaded with peppers, onions, mushrooms, provolone and American cheese, your choice of breakfast meat (bacon, sausage, and ham if you order an “all meat Jo Jo”), plus a spatula-load of fried potatoes hot off the grill. “We were making a frittata one day for ourselves, as a family,” explains Frank Mannetti. “We all work here—my wife and my son—and after all three of us tossed in a little of everything we liked, I thought that we should also fold in some potatoes. You really need the potatoes as a dam, so all the other things don’t come squishing out.”
Potatoes are also vital at Primanti Brothers, a raucous beer-and-sandwich joint that throbs all night with the play-by-play broadcast of whatever local team is in action. Opened in 1933, Primanti Brothers is a city shrine where it is considered a crime to drink anything other than Iron City suds, and where the walls are painted with caricatures of native sons ranging from Andy Warhol to Mr. Rogers to Tom Mix to Roberto Clemente. Its awesome sandwiches were originally designed for truckers with no time to eat a Dagwood, slaw, and potatoes separately. The solution was to load hot french fries directly into the sandwich atop the customer’s meat of choice, then top the fries with Pittsburgh-style (no mayo) coleslaw and a few slices of tomato. The disparate uni meal is presented wrapped in butcher paper so that when one’s appetite flags, the paper’s corners can be gathered like a drop cloth to pick up the spillage.
Primanti Brothers’ mile-high creations may seem like a ridiculous concept, but they are not an anomaly in a city that cherishes sandwich complication. (The Big Mac was invented in 1968 by a local McDonald’s franchisee; and Chiodo’s Tavern has built an exalted reputation on “The Mystery,” a sandwich of untold layers of ingredients.) Regulars at Primanti’s assert that their favored combinations—double-egg and pastrami (both sizzled on the grill), for instance, or steak and cheese—simply do not taste right without a layer of crisp-fried potatoes and another of cool coleslaw. Truckers from far away dash over as their cargo is being unloaded to sit at the counter, looking like junkies overdue for their fix. “You know, now I can deadhead right on back to Oklahoma,” one told us as he gleefully received his roast beef and provolone sandwich after hauling up a truckload of melons. “I don’t mind going back with nothing in the trailer so long as I’ve got Primanti’s under my belt.”
Jo Jo’s Restaurant (permanently closed)
110 24th Street