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Pittsburgh PA: Capital City of Sandwiches

Updated on August 20, 2018

Let's talk about the Steel City - Home of some of the best traditional sandwiches.

If you read some of my other memoirs from the 1950's you will find some other traditions that have long been a part of the Pittsburgh story. I've been honored to eat in a little roadside restaurant in O'Hara Township that was called Dinty Moore's which was home to pulled pork style barbecue sandwiches. Alas it closed back in the 1950's but that was good eating. When I was a teen I worked in Downtown Pittsburgh at McCrory's 5&10 (also gone) where I was first introduced to the footlong or submarine sandwich. Working as a secretary in the strip district, I found a true treasure, a Primanti sandwich. I hope this article does the city justice because I truly am my father's daughter and specialty food lover.


One such story is a that of Primanti's in the Strip District and has been there for as long as I can remember.

This restaurant was only open overnight into the morning hours and catered to the truckers who brought in the produce and other merchandise to be sold in the warehouse type shops. Since the unloading was done overnight and some of these drivers came long distances or as we referred to it, "over the road driving." These drivers showed up late at night and unloaded their trucks.

At the end of their day they were hungry and this style sandwich was humongous and filling. It wasn't what type of bread do you want it on. You ordered your sandwich either on the heel of the loaf or the center. This sandwich started out by cutting up an Italian loaf of bread. Both ends were cut off for the heel and what was left was the center. That was just the beginning of your choices. Next you had to pick your meats and cheeses. My preference was always ham and mozzarella. But, they had corned beef, pastrami and all of the other ethnic meats that you could think of as well as all of the different cheeses.

Your sandwich was already lumberjack size, but on top of all that was piled french fries and cole slaw. Yes, the sandwich was a meal in itself. Nothing fancy in this restaurant. You got your sandwich wrapped in paper and if it was to go in foil.

If you left Primanti's hungry you just didn't try. I worked just outside of the strip district in the 1960s and we would send our delivery man to pick up these sandwiches when he would go to do the bank deposit. The rest of the day I would take a bite and try to swallow before the phones would ring again. But the inconvenience was well worth it and I never had to go home for supper on those days.

Submarine Sandwich

Hoagie Sandwich

The ultimate Hoagie or Sandwich Ring for parties.
The ultimate Hoagie or Sandwich Ring for parties.

Submarines and Hoagies

Almost every small town or borough had it's own pizza shop that boasted of it's Hero Sandwich, submarine or hoagie. The main difference between a submarine and hoagie was that the submarine was served cold and the hoagie was baked to melt the cheeses.

Back in the 1950s, I worked at McCrory's 5 & 10 in Downtown Pittsburgh. Once a week, the store would open up a special counter in the front window of the store and sell submarine sandwiches. These sandwiches were made out of jumbo (what we Pittsburghers called bologna), American cheese, tomato slices and grated lettuce. You got mayonnaise packets or Italian Dressing packets to pour onto the sandwich. These were not the large hearty sandwiches that you bought in the pizza shops but they were big enough to take your whole half hour lunch period to eat.

The Subway stores makes these submarines but recently started making the hot sandwhiches. Churches, athletic groups and scout troops have fundraisers by making this sandwich to sell. At least once a month I get a request to buy one for some organization who is trying to raise funds for their activities.

My favorite hoagie place is no longer there but we used to go to an inn on Freeport Road to get hoagies. They made their sandwiches on buns that were not too much smaller than a whole Italian loaf of bread. These sandwiches were piled high with delicate hams and Italian cheese and then put into pizza ovens to melt the cheese before putting the tomato and shaved lettuce on them. The Italian oil dressing was drizzled over the bread before it was loaded with the other delicacies.

Every pizza shop in Pittsburgh tries to come close to that sandwich and the shop that comes the closest is Casey's on Route 8 north of the city.

Chipped Ham BBQ Sandwich

Chipped Ham BBQ in Crockpot

Chipped Ham and Chipped Ham Barbecue

If you grew up in Pittsburgh, you know what chipped ham is and that if you move out of the area you can almost never find it again. When my mother-in-law would visit her daughter in Raleigh, she would take a cooler full of chipped ham with her. Like I said, you just didn't get the same type of ham anywhere else in the country. If you asked for chipped ham you normally got a chopped ham version that the slices were too thick to make your favorite recipes.

In Pittsburgh, Isalys and Bards Dairy Stores were the two big chains that served what was called the chipped ham barbecue. Both stores have long since closed but you can still buy the brand of chipped ham. It was a secret recipe that everyone tried to make at home but just couldn't get it quite right. The sauce was a mixture of ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar and pickle relish. Once that sauce was heated you started adding your chipped ham until the pot was full and the ham was still floating in the sauce.

These were messy sandwhiches but oh so good at parties. Speaking of parties, this was a favorite for football games and after the game parties. I know today, people tailgate before the game but I can't imaging them doing this recipe but I could be wrong. I know they even carry grills with them and park outside the stadiums cooking their meals early in the day before the football games.

Pulled Beef for sandwiches
Pulled Beef for sandwiches
Shredder claws can be purchased at most online and kitchen stores.
Shredder claws can be purchased at most online and kitchen stores.

Pulled Pork or Pulled Beef Sandwiches

This sandwich is new to me and I only saw it made a couple of times by my son-in-law. It starts out by browning your boneless pork. Then you place the whole thing into a pot of water and simmer until the pork falls apart. While the pork is simmering you add barbecue sauce and continue to simmer.

Once the pork is done you pull the pork until it is shavings in the pot. My daughter says pulled pork is best when you pile cole slaw on the bun with the pork. I personally like my cole slaw on the side.

If you are making pulled beef you need to add cranberry juice instead of the barbecue sauce.

This sounds to me like a variation of the Primanti method of serving food and is another good sandwich for that game day fair.

The Truck Driver Egg Sandwich at Primanti Bros. as it originated to feed truckers delivering to the Strip District.
The Truck Driver Egg Sandwich at Primanti Bros. as it originated to feed truckers delivering to the Strip District.

Wrap Up

The whole point of this hub is to show that Pittsburghers are party people and we take our sandwich making seriously. Whether you are making cold submarines or hot hoagies, pulled pork, ham barbecue or just plain sandwiches you know you will find the best variations in Pittsburgh.

And, I never even mentioned the deli sandwhich rings that every grocery chain sells for parties. It's just as easy to make your own by buying the ring or making one from the frozen bread dough in the grocery store. Cut the ring in half, pile it high with lunch meats that you can buy at the the super markets or at specialty stores like Labriola's and top it all of with tomato and shredded lettuce. Some mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup on the side and you have a party dish you can be proud to serve.

Whatever you do, remember Pittsburgh is the Steel City and the Sandwich Town.

© 2009 Laura L Scotty


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