My family spent many Saturday mornings of my childhood in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, wandering through the neighborhood, meeting friends, and stopping in stores. I’d walk through Wholey’s fish market, two fingers pinching my nose closed and the other hand over my eyes, ready to clamp down if I saw the big catch. A miniature train snaked through the store, chugging and tooting its horn—a passing joy amid the lobsters, snappers, and catfish that I was so afraid of. We would run into a dozen or so people we knew, get groceries for the week, and savor the hectic energy of too many people deciding to be in too small of a place at once. We’d end the morning at the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, purveyor of my favorite childhood treat: olive focaccia. I cherished the still-warm flatbread, eating all the bites with olives first.
The Strip District lies on the Allegheny River, close to the confluence of the three rivers that marks the original geographic rationale for the city of Pittsburgh. In the late-19th and early-20th century, the Strip was home to the city’s wholesale warehouses. Accessible by boat and train, goods were dropped off and received for delivery by truck drivers at the warehouses. As long-distance freight became more efficiently transported by trucks than by trains or barges, the public warehouses moved out toward highways, and the Strip District morphed into a public market, anchored by a variety of expansive and long-standing grocery stores.
It’s hard to write about this neighborhood without falling into cliché. The Strip District is a microcosm of Pittsburgh—of immigrant culture, sports mania, and a frenzied citywide desire for conversation that makes pushing through the crowd at anything but a sluggish pace nearly impossible. The sensory overload of sounds and smells found at most outdoor markets is delivered in spades here: freshly ground coffee from the many roasters, Hatch chiles grilling in front of Reyna Foods, dakkochi (hot chicken skewers) in front of New Sambok, the Korean Grocery. The bells of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, an immense Polish cathedral, ring out amid the din of conversation, commerce, and buskers. T-shirts, bottle openers, and Steelers paraphernalia are ubiquitous and aggressively hawked.
My first job was in the Strip District. As a teenager I spent a summer selling homemade soap in the outdoor market. Becoming part of the vendor milieu cultivated a more complicated affection for the market. The internal Strip District economy and sociology has a romance of its own: the informal employee discounts throughout the neighborhood, the bartering for use of restaurant and bar bathrooms by those of us who sold our wares on the street, the gossip and crushes and intra- and interfamily feuds. A decade since I worked there and two decades since my earliest memories of the Strip, the neighborhood has changed—but not much. There are new establishments—a woman-owned whiskey distillery, an Argentine restaurant, and more—but you can still tell Jimmy Sunseri from his brother Nino by the cigar hanging out of his mouth as he sells pepperoni rolls outside their Italian grocery. Penn Avenue Pottery is still filled with peculiar but beautiful mugs and bowls, made by a cooperative of local artists and fired in a kiln the artists built in the shop’s back room. Parma Sausage has been owned by the same family since 1954 (there is a little garden nearby dedicated to Nona).
When I go to the Strip District today, I walk to Salem’s Market and Grill. Owned by the Salem family, who are originally from Libya, Salem’s is a grocery, hot bar, and halal butcher shop. In a sweet if often-told story of small-city friendship, Salem’s was opened under the mentorship and financial support of the Jewish owner of a long-standing kosher grocery in town. Today Salem’s is thriving. The hot bar is always full of people—some attracted by the large, delicious portions for cheap, others because the food tastes like home. The lunch crowd is elbow to elbow, and there is no rush to leave.
Saving the best for last, I get a cup of hot coffee and buy biscotti from The Enrico Biscotti Co.—one for now, a dozen to take home. Enrico’s biscotti defy description. You’ll just have to try one for yourself.
I leave the Strip at closing time—in the early evening when everyone is packing up tents, closing gates in front of doors, and breathing a quiet sigh of relief. Biking through the back alleyway as the light is dimming, I can tell where I am by the smell—a cascade of spices, the savory whiff of meat charred at the bottom of the pot, peppery chilies cooling before being bagged, coffee roasted to chocolaty richness, the complex vinegar of olives, and honey-sweet roasted nuts. St. Stanislaus Kostka’s bells toll, now loud in the relative quiet of the empty street, and I head home.