Pittsburgh probably has more Italian shops and restaurants per square mile than any city outside the Boot. Take a weekday morning or afternoon to explore and eat your way through the family-owned places in McKees Rocks, a working-class town just down the Ohio River. It's not Penn Avenue in The Strip, and it's certainly not Walnut Street in Shadyside, but Broadway Avenue in "the Rocks" has a lot going for it, especially if you like all things Italian.
As for that National Restaurant Association survey that claims Italian food is no longer considered ethnic, well, nobody told these merchants.
Joyce's Homemade Cookies
647 Broadway Ave.; 412-771-7124
Ask for owner Joyce Pecorelli, who bakes more than 30 kinds of homemade cookies. Her shop is one block beyond the main shops on the Pittsburgh side. The tiny, white storefront has no windows on the street, so keep an eye out. Open the door and walk smack into what seems to be a storage pantry that's lined knee to ceiling with racks of cookie trays.
It's hard to choose a favorite, but the Italian stuffed cookie is a best bet. The prune, raisin, chocolate and orange-rind stuffing is baked in biscotti dough and drizzled with white icing. Most of the business is wholesale, with thousands of cookies going out the door to specialty grocery stores, weddings and parties.
If any cookies are left over, Pecorelli, who always looks out for the nuns, packs them up and sends them to the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity at Nativity Convent on the North Side. Closed Saturday.
The Primadonna Restaurant
801 Broadway Ave.; 412-331-1001
You'll learn more about what makes the 'Burgh tick from one visit to Primadonna Restaurant than from any tourist guidebook. Owner Joseph Costanzo Jr., a guy who's hard-wired gregarious, will meet, greet and seat you, and later stop by the table to make sure you're doing fine. Portions of very good Pittsburgh-style Italian food are huge.
Like the tomato sauce? He'll package it for you to go. How about a bottle of the Primadonna salad dressing? It's sold in grocery stores all over town. And don't bother with the wine list. The 14-year-old restaurant even serves its own private label Cabernet Sauvignon. Pastas are a specialty. Dinner only.
Ricci's Italian Sausage
811 Broadway Ave.; 412-331-9531
You have probably already sampled Ricci's sausage. It's on the menu at dozens of Italian restaurants and in the best sausage sandwiches around town. The business is wholesale, but at the retail counter in this small, immaculately clean shop you can buy made-on-the-premises meatballs, sweet and hot sausage and breakfast links.
Ernie Ricci II, 69, is winding down a career as a master sausage-maker after 45 years in the meat business he inherited from his parents. He still comes to the shop every day, making product and checking the spices. Third-generation butcher Ernie Ricci III, 45, is in charge. He spends mornings overseeing production and his afternoons calling on chefs and institutions.
When he makes cold calls, he brings along a sample pan of cooked sausage. "I want potential customers to taste my sausage fresh, made that morning, just the way it will be delivered to them," he says. "I don't want to bring uncooked sausage and have them toss it into the freezer."
The business is a family affair. Young Ricci's wife, Sherry, also calls on customers, and his mother, Lillian, cooks samples for customer presentations.
1/2 block off Broadway on 6th Street
(address is 601 Woodward Ave.); 412-331-2291
For more than 20 years, Mary Mancini Hartner has run the business founded by her dad and uncle in 1926. Nonstop ovens bake crisp-crusted breads and rolls 24 hours a day except on Tuesdays and Saturdays, when the bakery closes at noon, or when they run out of bread.
Popular raisin, honey wheat and rye breads are specialties, but Italian twist bread is the biggest seller. Ask for your warm loaf like a local. Say, "A hot twist, please."
719 Broadway Ave.; 412-331-5335
Look at the tin ceiling and original moldings, and if you squint, you can almost visualize how the small restaurant once looked when it was a Bard's ice cream and sandwich store. Now, the menu features barbecue and soul food. (OK, so it's not Italian.)
Owner Donald Palm serves up racks of barbecued baby back ribs, chicken and wings in a sweet and hot sauce that he makes himself. His mom, Frances, makes collard greens, baked beans and macaroni and cheese. Be sure to order a square of her corn bread to mop up the sauces. For dessert, there's homemade lemon pound cake and sweet potato pie. "Me and Mom, we make it all," says Palm.
Theresa's Italian Bakery
805 Broadway Ave.; 412-771-7389
Customers nearly keel over from the aroma of anise flavoring that greets noses when the door is opened. Here are all the crunchy, chewy and colorful cookies, nut horns, nut cups, buttercream twists and pizzelles you love to munch on at weddings and every other day. Candy, too.
Owner Theresa Vasselo also makes warm ham hoagies to go in case you want to balance your meal.
1/4 mile south of the McKees Rocks Bridge
at 342 Island Ave. on the Ohio River side; 412-331-2224
Make your last stop here for traditional Polish pierogies, more than 26 varieties. A Polish gal who married an Italian guy, owner Helena Pelc Mannarino says potato and cheese pierogies are the most popular. Order cold, to heat and serve at home, or hot and ready to eat, served with butter sauce. Also available: kielbasa, haluskas and stuffed peppers. The tiny store still looks a lot like the gas station it used to be, so take care you don't drive right on by. Five customers constitute a crowd, and you can expect to stand in line at noon. Closed Saturdays.
Sunday, October 22, 2000 By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer