Last updated on May 12th, 2020
Gotta admit that I’m a little nervous today. I’m about to talk about Primanti’s in Pittsburgh, home of my favorite sandwich of all time.
This sandwich, this divine towering paragon of all that a meal should be, is the one foodstuff I crave more than any other and the one thing I make a beeline for every time I visit the old Pittsburgh homestead.
Though less famous than Heinz ketchup or Klondike bars, Primanti Bros. (although no one says the “brothers” bit and just calls it “Primanny’s,” if you want to get your ‘Burgh accent going) is just as influential to Pittsburgh’s culinary history.
Based in the Strip District—home to the city’s wholesale food warehouses—since the 1930s, Primanti’s now has outposts throughout Pennsylvania and (somewhat inexplicably) Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The legend goes that the Primanti brothers got into business feeding the truckers who dropped goods off in the Strip during the wee hours of the night leading into morning. The truckers were starving, so the bros packed the sandwich to the gills to give the guys a full meal that they could also hold in their hands while driving.
(Although how one person could eat a Primanti’s samwidge and drive is beyond me—it takes me two hands just to get through one half—and the official bio skims past those details.)
However it went down, the Primanti siblings had lightning in a pan—er, on a griddle—and now everyone in Pittsburgh eats at Primanti’s. I remember stopping in before a mid-’90s They Might Be Giants show around the corner at Metropol to see Sally Wiggin, the Katie Couric of the Pittsburgh news anchor scene, wolfing one down with the common folk.
So with all of this background, aren’t you dying to know what makes up a Primanti’s Pittsburgh sandwich and why it’s so killer?
How to Make a Primanti’s Sandwich
Start with a thick slice of Italian bread. Add your choice of meat, which could be anything from jumbo bologna to pastrami to capicola to sardines (me, I’ll take the kolbassi), and then top with the following:
- a few slices of provolone cheese
- a few slices of tomato
- a handful of signature, tangy, vinegar-based Primanti’s coleslaw
- a pile of real skin-on french fries
- and then top with the other slice of bread, although not before adding a healthy shake of Frank’s Red Hot, if that’s your thing. (Of course that’s my thing too.)
The whole shebang melds together when you sink your teeth into it, though you might have to dislocate your jaw like a snake to get every single component in the same bite.
Hot kolbassi meets chilly coleslaw, fluffy french fry innards soak up the slaw juice and mix with the bite of hot sauce, and the result is pure greasy magic barely held together in a spongy carb container.
That specific conglomeration of ingredients—a genius combo akin to the partnership of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr—is best eaten at the original Strip District location on a slightly sticky wooden table.
There, you’ll be surrounded by murals of Pittsburgh greats (including Jeff Goldblum, Gene Kelly, Bill Mazeroski, Dan Marino, and Mister Rogers) before heading out to walk the Strip and buy a signed copy of Pierogi Love at the Heinz History Center.
Oh, and on the menu, you’ll notice that cheesesteak is listed as the “#2 best-seller.” This begs the question from many a tourist: What’s #1? I’ll spare you the humiliation—it’s beer, of course. Preferably Iron City.
The Famous Primanti’s Pittsburgh Coleslaw
If this blew your mind but you’re nowhere near Pittsburgh and you want to try an at-home version, I believe this coleslaw is the key.
As I mentioned, it’s vinegar-based, not drowning in mayo, so it brings a special zing to the sandwich that balances out the heavy meats and thick texture of the fries and bread.
My version of the Primanti’s coleslaw is based on a regional Amish dressing recipe, as I suspect the original was as well. Hey, why mess with something that’s worked for eons?
However, I’ve updated the method slightly to provide a faster way of removing the excess water from the cabbage. If you’ve ever massaged kale for a kale salad, this will be quite familiar to you!
And by all means, don’t restrict the use of this coleslaw to homemade Primanti’s sandwiches! Use it on everything—hot dogs and burgers, tossed with fresh summer vegetables like squash and beans, as a topper for tacos, or just as a BBQ side. Primanti’s coleslaw gets along with everything at the table.
- 1 small green Napa cabbage, very finely shredded (no more than 1 pound if possible)
- 1/2 cup + 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, divided
- 1 cup white wine vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon celery seed
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- In a large bowl, combine the shredded cabbage and 1/2 cup sugar.
- Massage the sugar into the cabbage, squeezing and pressing the mix between the tips of your fingers to release the excess liquid in the cabbage.
- After about 3-5 minutes, the cabbage should be very tender and almost translucent, and there should be a fair amount of liquid in the bottom of the bowl.
- Drain the excess liquid and reserve the cabbage.
- Whisk the remaining 1 teaspoon sugar with the white wine vinegar, kosher salt, celery seed, and Dijon mustard in a high-sided saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.
- Carefully whisk in the canola oil until the dressing is cloudy and emulsified. Continue to simmer for 5 minutes, whisking occasionally to maintain the emulsion.
- Allow to cool completely.
- Toss the cabbage and the dressing together in a large bowl and refrigerate overnight before serving.