This past weekend, I went home to western Pennsylvania, and as is tradition, the family spent a few hours poking around the eater’s paradise that is the Pittsburgh Strip District. The name implies something X-rated, but apart from the almost obscene number of people clogging the sidewalks of a 12-block strip of Penn Avenue, there’s an almost wholesome love for the city and all its attendant quirks.
Century-old food stores like Wholey’s Fish Market, Stamoolis Brothers, Pennsylvania Macaroni, and newcomers like Mon Aimee Chocolat are punctuated by rows of vendors selling all imaginable pieces of Pittsburgh sports fan gear (“On Ice or Grass, We’ll Kick Your Ass”), street food stalls with scallion pancakes, tables laden with pizzelle and cannoli, and the occasional panhandler playing “Here We Go Steelers” on a flute.
As the line for a pre-game Primanti’s sandwich (the official sandwich of the ‘Burgh) grew longer than Shake Shack’s, we snuck around the corner for a meal that was just as hearty and gut-busting at the cafe behind the 16-year old Enrico Biscotti Company, run by the loquacious Larry Lagattuta.
Waiting for a table to open up, we shot the breeze with Larry and perused the old, well-used cookbooks like Carol Field’s The Italian Baker lining the ramp to the slim but high-ceilinged garage that houses the cafe.
Though the menu changes daily, there’s always pizza straight from the brick oven and “sangaweeches” made with the same housemade pizza dough. And no matter what you order, you’re going to be served a hunk of yeasty and fragrant Italian bread with crunchy crusts and soft, tearable insides.
I narrowed my choice down to spicy sausage and peppers over farfalle, and the family table was quickly covered with beans and greens (kale and cannellini beans dripping with garlic and olive oil), stuffed peppers with beef, pork, and veal, homemade lasagna, and more bread. It wasn’t on the menu that day, but Larry also makes a mean pasta fagiole; order a big bowl along with the house bread, and you’ll have enough energy for watching three hours of Steel Curtain defense across the river at Heinz Field.
Grabbing a few of the justly-celebrated handmade biscotti at the eponymous bakery on the way out is always recommended. And if you’re in Pittsburgh and want a better introduction to yeast than my thoughts on dough and bread machines, Enrico’s hosts a monthly bread-making class. Other seasonal events like holiday cookie and biscotti-making sessions, First Friday dinners with family-style BYOB meals, and movie nights/wine dinners with local Pittsburgh businesses also pop up regularly. Please, do us all a favor and forget the Olive Garden. This is family cooking at its best.
Enrico Biscotti Company, 2022 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh. 412-281-2602.