Bloomfield, Family, Meta, Neighborhoods, Traditional


For some reason, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was crazy enough to pay me to write this story for them. No accounting for taste, I suppose.

But there is one thing you won’t know from reading it. My favorite paragraphs are the ones about the old grocerias long gone from Pittsburgh’s Little Italy.

I got the idea for this wandering around Bloomfield not too long after I moved to Pittsburgh in October. Driving in to the neighborhood from the Bloomfield Bridge or Liberty Avenue, you can’t help but notice the giant “Little Italy” sign.

So I started walking around. Just looking. Wondering how much of that was branding and how much was a real thing. Reading business signs. Listening for accents. Following my nose.

And then I started talking to people. Just random people on the street. Asking questions, having them point things out to me.

And then I walked through the doors at Donatelli’s and the Groceria and couldn’t help but be struck by the differences. More talking to people. More questions.

And I realized I had a story to tell.

And there it is, right on the PG's homepage.

As much as I loved meeting Rose Marie and Paul and listening to them tell me their stories — and as much fun as I had writing it, because I’m kind of a dork like that — I’m a digger at heart. I love old documents, research — history. I could have written this without empirical evidence there used to be more grocerias there — I mean, there just were, right?

But where? And how many? With whose names on them? And when, exactly?

So I went to the archives at the Heinz History Center in the Strip. Found some background stuff on the neighborhood, which was all well and good. But then I got my grubby little hands on what I really wanted: old city directories. Giant, old, somewhat-stinky books that listed every business in Pittsburgh for a given year.

My research on Bloomfield’s demographics told me the Italians really started arriving in some numbers around World War I and basically owned the place by the end of World War II. So I pulled the city directories for 1915 and 1945.

For a lot of people, the next part is tedious. I was thrilled. I found the section for grocery stores and read through every last one checking names and addresses. This isn’t perfect — someone named Johnson could still be ethnically Italian or run an Italian grocery store. But it gave me something real. Something I could almost touch.

For me, it’s what brought the story together.

Bloomfield, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Presentation, Service

Thai Cuisine.

Never been to Thailand. Or Italy. Never been to France or India.

I can’t tell you about authentic. But I know when something’s good.

A friend of mine first took me to Thai Cuisine at Liberty and Pearl before I moved here. I had a winter squash curry. Maybe a little watery, but flavorful. Good. Probably better than just good.

It was also my first time in Bloomfield, which quickly became one of my favorite neighborhoods. The old Italian grocerias where you can meet the person who makes the pasta, the way the freshness of a building’s facade has no relationship whatever to its interior, the Officer Paul J. Sciullo II memorial trophy, the tendrils of an Asian demographic shift.

I made a point to go back. I did. And I will again.

This time there was a soft-shell crab special. That’s an easy sell for me.

I suppose it should weird me out a little that there’s an industry built around snatching crabs out of the water when they’re at the their most vulnerable, shedding their hard shells and slowly growing new ones. But it doesn’t. (… Sorry?)

This one was tasty. Well-battered — not too heavy, good seasoning that adds something to the crab — if a little oily. On the plate, it looked like a giant fried spider climbing a small mound of tasteless shredded iceberg lettuce and toothpicks of carrot that similarly added little.

On my tongue it was almost all crab. As it should be.

Then came the Rad Na. Wide rice noodles in an oyster-garlic sauce with fried tofu, carrots, onions and Napa cabbage.

Thai Cuisine, like a lot of places, has a heat range to choose from, 1 to 10.

“Actually,” my waiter said, “we can go higher than that if you want.”

I asked for an 8 when he couldn’t give be a ballpark idea of what a 10 was. The 8 turned out to be a fairly mild palate-warmer, a little tingle that stayed with me after I walked back into the outside chill.

Next time will be Spinal Tap. Next time, we go at least to 11.

There was too much sauce on the plate that arrived — everything was practically doggie-paddling in it — but it clung to the ingredients well. The noodles themselves were excellent, smaller than I expected, delicately chewy bits of garlic-soaked wonderfulness. The texture inside the tofu added the creaminess I’d hoped for.

This is when I wish I knew more about what was authentically Thai.

I mean, I suppose it’s not not Thai. Not the way that this pizza joint in Oakmont isn’t really Italian even though its name is Tomanetti’s. At least they’re honest about it in the fine print. Check out the end of the second paragraph.

I stopped in here once and bought a hoagie. I had to pee and felt bad I wasn't getting anything. Not a bad little hoagie.

But I digress. I just thought that was funny.