Family, Ingredients, Lawrenceville, Meta, Neighborhoods, North Side, Techniques and tools

Amateur status.

I am not a professional. Don’t pretend to be one, no real aspirations to be one.

Those who cook for a living impress me. The hours, the conditions, the repetition — and the hazards.

About a year ago I came across this piece on nasty injuries in pro kitchens. Yikes.

I’ve nicked myself with knives, sliced off a wafer of finger here and there, gotten the occasional blister from popping oil or a light burn now and again from a hot oven rack. Some even left scars. Cool, right?

But nothing like those folks. I have health insurance, should the need arise. And perhaps more importantly, if I hurt myself, I can simply stop cooking.

Or so I thought.

I got up on Saturday a couple weeks ago determined at first to do nothing more adventurous than drive into Lawrenceville to pick up some pastries for breakfast. Joint was closed, so no dice.

I got home, looked around my kitchen and had a grand idea. Diced red peppers and Asian long peppers, onion, potatoes seared in duck fat, cheddar cheese, eggs. One big-ass pile o’ breakfast.

Something like this:

My folks had gotten me some new knives for Christmas. It was a solid if not world-changing set of Wusthofs. Which means, like everything else in my life, I can blame them for this. (Kidding.)

I started dicing the peppers and got lazy with my left thumb. I know where it was supposed to be to stay safe. Wasn’t.

Slice.

I felt the pinch of the knife and it took a second for the blood to start rushing where some of my fingernail and tip of my thumb had been.

First stop: sink. Cold running water, make sure no bits of food or anything else were in the wound. Then: pressure. Paper towels were close. Grabbed a few and squeezed. The throbbing moved all the way up my arm. And damn if those paper towels didn’t saturate quickly. That can’t be good. I secured some new paper towels with band-aids for a little extra absorbency.

My wife was a couple blocks away getting coffee. I texted her something like, “I just sliced of a hunk of my thumb. How you doin’?”

I tweeted something about it, too — I had to distract myself a little bit — which brought back notes of sympathy and advice and my friend Hart, who works in the business, calling me “cupcake” and telling me to suck it up.

My wife came home and checked on me, asked if I wanted to go to the hospital.

No, not really. Nothing for them to do. Clean cut, but broad, not deep, so stitches or even butterfly bandages wouldn’t do anything. The bleeding wouldn’t stop, but that was more a matter of pressure and time than anything else.

She went to a pharmacy nearby. Gauze, Neosporin, sterile pads, the whole nine.

While she was gone I looked around the kitchen. I found the bit of my thumb on the cutting board but it hadn’t gotten into the peppers. There was no blood there either.

And, man, was I still hungry.

Back to dicing. Which is really hard when you can’t use your thumb at all.

She got home and walked in the kitchen and just stared at me. A combination of No! and What the hell? and How stupid are you? and But doesn’t that hurt, baby?

I smiled and shrugged and asked her if she wanted to see the chunk of thumb I sliced off, because I kept it. No idea why, but I did. Not like I was proud of it. (She didn’t. It got thrown away.)

We wrapped up my thumb more appropriately. Something like this:

And I went back into the kitchen. She helped me peel the potatoes and I did the rest.

It didn’t make me feel like a pro. Please. I’m just an idiot who still wanted breakfast and figured continuing to cook it was the quickest way to make that happen. How do you think I got that first picture?

But it did make me think about those who feel like they cannot stop cooking when such a thing happens. There’s work to do, a shift to finish.

I respect the hell out of those people.

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Ambience, Beer, Family, Neighborhoods, North Side, Service, Traditional

Caruso Beer Distributor.

Sam Caruso started out as a teacher. Grew up on the North Side in Mexican War Streets, where his Sicilian father opened a beer store in 1933, right after the end of Prohibition. Maybe the first one in Pittsburgh after repeal. He’d worked in the store since 1944, when he was 4 years old. But he was something else with an accordion.

That's him on the left.

So he went to Duquesne. Bachelor’s, then master’s. All in music. Taught first in Sharpsburg then up in Clarion County.

“I had one class that was girls’ chorus,” he said. “Finally I figured out that if I didn’t want the girls to talk all the time I had to get my accompaniest to go straight from one song into another without a break. I had those girls singing more than 40 minutes in a row, but no chattering.”

He didn’t make much money teaching — $6,000 a year at first — and he still worked for his dad in the summers delivering beer for a couple hundred bucks a week under the table. Time came in 1968 to open a new place a couple blocks from the one on Resaca where it had been since 1940.

“My dad asked me if I’d like to come in and work selling beer full-time,” Caruso, 71, said. “So there I was and here I am.”

The younger Sam Caruso, 1986.

The place has been around. Inside, it looks almost untouched, let along unchanged, since 1968. Back then, he used to sell almost 10 times as much Iron City as anything else, with Fort Pitt in the top five. Sometimes people offer him more money for his old beer signs than they spend on actual beer.

Seems like a lot of those old, family-owned beer distributors around Pittsburgh don’t change much. They still bank on Busch, Yuengling, High Life, Bud Light, Duquesne — often in cans — to keep their old regulars coming in but have no interest in the newer stuff.

This is where Sam’s a bit different. He carries those, but also gets in cases from Rogue, Great Lakes, Smuttynose, Troegs and others. In his office he keeps bottles from distributors’ samples he’s gotten to remind him what he’s had and liked. If a customer wants something he doesn’t carry, he’ll order it and call them when it comes in. He keeps a handwritten list of certain customers’ names, phone numbers and beer preferences by the cash register.

“Things change,” he said. “Tastes change. Some of those newer microbrews are really good beers. I’ll sell whatever people want, but beer’s come a long way.”

So has his family’s place. He’s not sure whether one of his children will take it over.

“They say they want to, but there’s no action on it,” he said. “I’m not going to be here forever.”

Even if it seems the business has been around that long. He collects old photos of his family and the beer distributorship — 19,000 in all, all of which he scanned in to keep digital copies.

Their first storefront:

A delivery truck:

He moved out of the neighborhood long ago, but he’d like to see the business remain.

“I hope it can,” he said. “I’ve always felt we had a real connection to this place.”

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Family, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, North Side, Recipes, Techniques and tools, Traditional

Wilson’s.

Publishing can be a strange beast. I wrote a piece on the North Side barbecue joint Wilson’s in January for a magazine in Arkansas. It finally hit print — yesterday. (Flip to page 17 and zoom in if you’re so curious you can’t stand it.)

It was the first bit of paid food writing I’d ever sold. I had this charming little site, sure, but most of my writing experience has been, well, other. There have been other things since, but this was el primero.

And as simple a piece as it seems as I read it again, it wasn’t. I don’t think George Wilson trusted me. Not at first. Some dude walking in his place with a notebook and a camera asking him all about his business. I wrote it freelance. Not like I could show him an official-looking press pass or a business card with the name of a real publication on it.

He doesn’t have time for anybody else’s crap. He only takes cash. And he works when he wants, as much as he wants. His place. His rules. You don’t have to like it.

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He’d tell me to show up and then say he was busy or didn’t want to talk that day. Maybe later. Come back again.

So I did. Again and again. He lives upstairs and so was usually around, even if he wasn’t open. If he was open, I always ordered food and sat a while. After a few times, I let him talk to me first. Didn’t initiate any kind of conversation at all. Just ordered and waited. And usually, he’d want to talk a little bit.

I think the only reason he went with it at first is that he grew up in Arkansas and he liked the idea of people there seeing how he turned out after he left in 1945. When I get a hard copy of the story, I’ll walk one over to him. I happen to live a few blocks away.

I found him fascinating. Hell of a storyteller. And — oh yeah — the food is seriously good. True Southern barbecue, the likes of which don’t seem to exist much in Pittsburgh.

Just remember to bring cash and a smile. Otherwise this octegenarian just might beat you down.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, North Side, Recipes, Techniques and tools

Make your own stock.

I beg you.

Chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, clam, mushroom — whatever. It makes everything better.

Funny thing: I couldn’t tell you why I did it the first time. I think I was just curious. Now it’s one of those things I need to survive.

It doesn’t take much. A big-ass pot. An oven for roasting. A stove, preferably gas, but it doesn’t have to be. A water supply. Other stuff as needed.

Making stock is one of those things that tells me I’m home. Most stocks take a while to make, so you have to be comfortable in the space. It makes my place smell incredible. Sometimes for days.

Maybe most importantly, it slows me down. I can’t leave it totally unattended. Shower: yes. Grocery shopping: no. It’s the kind of thing you build a day around.

Making some chicken stock was a priority for me the minute I moved in to my new place. I use it a lot. In soups, in braises, in sauces, to cook rice, etc. It’s just something I always like to have around.

So I started with this:

Roasted bones from two chickens, carrots, celery, onion, halved heads of garlic, bay leaves, white and black peppercorns, cumin seeds, Meyer lemons, fresh dill and fennel fronds. I think that was everything.

You’ll notice: no salt. Part of the reason I make my own stocks is to manage the salt in the food I eat. Not because a doctor told me to, just because it tastes better that way. And besides, my salt tastes better than whatever industrial processing salt Swanson’s or whomever uses to package their cartons of stock.

Anyway.

Covered the whole thing with lots of water in the aforementioned big-ass uncovered pot and hit the heat.

Heat is the big trick here. Low enough it doesn’t boil, high enough the fat renders and rises to the top to skim off. A little bubbling is fine. It keeps the liquid moving and the solids suspended so they’re not just inert, sunk at the bottom.

And then, basically, you wait. Once it got up to temperature, I think I let it go five or six hours. Every 20 minutes or so, I’d check it, skim the fat, adjust the heat if I had to.

Shrimp stock is different. Take the shells, slice a lemon, add a bay leaf and peppercorns and boil it for half an hour or so, skim off the junk and you have something usable.

But with this, the whole time, it’s reducing, water floating off as vapor and concentrating the flavors in what’s left.

When it looks and tastes done, strain it well. Cheesecloth helps but is not mandatory. Sometimes putting one fine-mesh strainer inside another is all you need.

This being my first batch in this pot and in this kitchen, I spilled more than I would have liked. Still wound up with this yield:

And another view:

The containers are just quart containers I got for cheap here. Huge sack of like 30 of them and another of lids for I think $7 or $8 total.

What to do with all of it? Most of it heads to the freezer for when I need it. Some went to my friend Andrea, who had asked a while back on Twitter what homemade stock was good for.

My first meal with it: Beef braised in chicken stock with cauliflower and red bell peppers, smoked paprika, allspice, white pepper, cumin, roasted garlic, oregano and Sriracha.

The leftovers are even better.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, North Side, Presentation, Service, Wine

Bad Doors song, good advice.

You want to get people in your doors, especially for a special event, tell all the people.

Put it on your website. Tweet it. Post it on Facebook. Blast your email list. Give your regulars a heads-up.

I met up with some fun people last night at Atria’s at PNC Park. There was a wine tasting — the new Beaujolais nouveau from Georges Duboeuf.

Now, this isn’t $3,000-a-bottle stuff, or even $150-a-bottle stuff. I think last year’s goes for $10.99. But there was almost nobody there.

Free wine. Small cheese plate, gratis. Empty.

I’ve never been a fan of the hard sell. There’s a decent chance I have oppositional defiant disorder, after all. (Telltale sign: I once argued, heatedly and very much wrongly, with a neurophysiologist friend who studied the disorder whether it was “defiant” or “defiance.”) So, push me too much and I’d rather walk in the other direction.

But on this night, the only reason our group knew about the event was a press release a friend who works in Butler saw on a PR wire service. She sent it out to her friends on Twitter. Eight of us showed. One in our group is even kind of a deal hound. He couldn’t find anything else about it. nothing to link to, nothing to tell us what precisely to expect.

The staff at Atria’s clearly expected a crowd. Someone asked one of us if we had tickets. Extra servers, prompt attention, a nice set-up to show off the wine. Then they poured almost none of it.

The tasting glasses were plastic and small — little more than glorified double-shot glasses. It was hard to get a sense of a wine this young, which needs to open up, in a glass that prohibits swirling. Beaujolais nouveau is made from the gamay grape, which gets almost no public love, and aged barely at all.

It wasn’t bad. A little tight. But full-flavored, a little peppery, a little sharp and acidic. There are worse things. Have mercy, there are worse things.

The staff tried to give one of our group a cheese plate three times — twice after she handed off the first. And the plates came with no explanation. A couple grapes, one green and one red, an eh slice of prosciutto, a salami that was OK, a slice of baguette drizzled with a little balsamic vinegar.

All fine. But no one told us what the cheeses were. Brie — OK, easy to recognize. Manchego, maybe? Tasted kind of like it, firm and nutty, but that doesn’t make my guess right. The last one was earthy and creamy with a little thread of some blue-cheese mold running through its middle for a pleasant tang. Can’t put a name to it. No idea what its mama calls it.

Of course, all this was free. No complaints with the price. I bought a full glass or two of the wine, which opened up fine in a larger glass.

It was just hard getting over being practically the only ones in the place. As to why the management there didn’t try to shout its event all over town, maybe another Doors song has the answer: People are strange.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, North Side, Traditional

Peppi’s.

Help me out here.

When a certain Steelers quarterback was in deep trouble he got himself into, I kept hearing people disown him.

It’s about the team, they’d say. The team has integrity. The team has class. That’s what’s important. Any player who messes with that doesn’t belong in Pittsburgh.

OK. But how to explain this.

I’d been into the Peppi’s in the Strip District a couple times. I love a good Italian hoagie and their Sicilian ain’t half bad. Someone told me I needed to go to the main one on Western on the North Side.

Pretty good. Nice contrast of temperatures on the New Yorker sandwich I had — a nice balance between the cold lettuce and tomato and the hot steak, bacon and American and provolone cheeses. Rich, smooth, plenty of everything you’re actually paying for on a sandwich like that.

The bread — kind of eh. Good flavor but the texture wasn’t what I’d like. I prefer more of a crust and this was a little soft for me. Piling all that meat and cheese and drippings on bread like this can make it a little soggy.

Good sandwich. I’d go back. Could be better, is all I’m saying.

Anyway. I saw owner Jeff Trebac working the flat-top grill. I asked him about the infamous Roethlisburger — ground beef, sausage, onions, scrambled eggs all on a roll.

“I would have thought someone in this city would not want to be associated with that man’s meat,” I told him.

He laughed.

“People never stopped buying it,” he said. “As long as they come in the door and bring me cash, they can have whatever they want.”

And as long as people order it regularly enough, it stays on the menu. Jeff’s not supporting the man, as he sees it. Just his customers and his own bottom line.

Different kind of principle. I respect that.

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