Pittsburgh was once the whisky capital of America. As fantastic as that notion seems today (just ask anyone from Kentucky), this is but one of the amazing treasures to be unearthed on a trip to Western Pennsylvania. In the land where many rivers converge can be found culture, food aplenty, craft beer, architectural amazements, seasonal sports and, yes, the aforementioned spirit industry.
The Washington Times presents a few warm-month, travel-worthy options for visitors who sojourn to Pittsburgh and the far western reaches of the Keystone Stone.
Pirates baseball at PNC Park
Sure, we can all whine till “yinz” come home about the death of Three Rivers Stadium and all of the old ballparks, or we could celebrate the fact that so many of MLB’s newer, updated, 21st century stadiums have revived urban centers and given fans and suburbanites new reasons to head back downtown to watch the pros play ball.
Enter: PNC Park, the home of Pittsburgh’s Buccos since 2001. This thoroughly modern ballpark on the Allegheny — and a stone’s throw from that river’s confluence with the Ohio and the Monongahela — offers stunning views of downtown Steel City from pretty much any seat in the house.
Culinary options abound, but our favorite, hands down is the scrumptious crab fries from Chickie’s & Pete’s, a savory delicacy that borders on the decadent. One order is simply not enough.
On some summer game nights, fireworks alight the air over PNC, transforming excitement on the baseball diamond into a celebration seen around the city.
Take a food tour
Pittsburgh is briskly gaining a well-deserved reputation as an epicurean mecca, thanks not only to the tourist-friendly local sandwich shop Primanti Bros. but also with amazing additions to the scene such as NOLA on the Square, offering a “taste of New Orleans on Pittsburgh’s Market Square” in downtown.
There’s simply too much to taste, but for a more concentrated taste tour, consider signing up for one of the offerings from ‘Burgh Bits and Bites Food Tour, a walking food excursion company founded by Pittsburgh local Sylvia McCoy offering peripatetic samplings of some of “the ‘Burgh“‘s most cuisine-concentrated locales.
For the day of The Times’ tour, Ms. McCoy took a hungry group for a friendly foot tour of the historic Brookline neighborhood. Our tour met up at our first stop, Pitaland, a delightful Mediterranean shop specializing in traditional cuisine from some of the world’s longest-inhabited regions. At Pitaland you can watch the bread baked fresh and sample it hot out of the oven.
The friendly and thoroughly knowledgable Ms. McCoy offered not only a plethora of information on each of the stops — which included a taqueria, pizza shop, coffeehouse, as well as dessert sorties — but also on the greater history of both the Brookline neighborhood and Pittsburgh in general. (Brookline, settled largely by Italians and Germans, partly came to be as the result of the construction of the nearby incline rails, which are also great for a visit.)
Ms. McCoy also took the group to visit a classic barber shop as well as explained the history of one Steel City’s oldest continuously operating firehouses.
In a little more than two hours, you will earn an appreciation of not only the local flavors but also of the history and culture that has seasoned just one small part of Pittsburgh’s culinary medley.
A word of advice: Don’t go for seconds at any of the food stops on the tour. Leave room for samples of all of the ensuing locations and then make notes for where to return to later.
For more information or to make reservations, visit BurghFoodTour.com.
Incredible as it may now seem, Pittsburgh and environs was once the whiskey capital of the New World. Irish and Scottish immigrants, plying trades from the Old Country, operated numerous distilleries in Western Pennsylvania that satiated the thirsts of Colonial America thanks to ample fresh water supplies and open farming country in what was then the Western frontier — much as their German-American arrivals would do for beer.
Trouble arrived for the distillers in the 1790s when Congress passed a whiskey tax in an attempt to raise money and pay off debts from the new country’s recent war of independence from Great Britain. Farmers and distillers in Western Pennsylvania revolted, accusing the government of oppressing the same principles of taxation without representation under which Americans had rebelled against the Crown.
George Washington, the first president of the infant republic, himself led thousands of federal troops across the Appalachians to quell the uprising, which resulted in arrests and sentences of high treason for some of the rebel leaders. While Western Pennsylvania continued to have a flourishing whiskey industry thereafter, many distillers, anxious to avoid the excess tax, fled into then-unexplored territory that would one day become the grandaddy of American bourbon: Kentucky.
Two centuries later, distilling is back in The ‘Burgh thanks to the family-owned and -operated Wigle, the first such opened since Prohibition, and named in honor of Philip Wigle, a Whiskey Rebellion agitator who was pardoned from hanging by President Washington when the insurrection fizzled.
Thanks to the successful lobbying of Harrisburg lawmakers to change the laws on distilling, Wigle opened shop in 2012, briskly going on to enjoy a reputation for quality products among both Pittsburghers and whiskey connoisseurs alike.
Co-owner Meredith Grelli offered The Times a personalized lecture on Pittsburgh whiskey history as well as generous samplings of Wigle’s organic wares. The sheer variety of experimentation and taste were exemplary, and some of our favorites from among their award-winning wares include the Four Grain, a delightful elixir distilled from malted barley, rye, wheat and corn. Spiced Landlocked is a pot-distilled beverage utilizing Pennsylvania’s buckwheat crops to add a delicious honey flavor. Wigle also retails in white whiskey, which is a spirit that hasn’t been barrel-aged — and thus doesn’t have the “traditional” brown color.
For information on tours, visit WigleWhiskey.com.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural genius manifested itself in his projects during his remarkably artistic life, and one of the Chicagoan’s most unusual, and most lauded, commissions was creating a home in the Pennsylvania backwoods for the Kaufmanns, a wealthy Pittsburgh family of retailers.
In the late 1930s the Kaufmanns came to Wright with a commission for a unique home to be fashioned at a waterfall in the secluded western Pennsylvania countryside. Ever one to try something unorthodox, Wright one-upped even himself, designing a home that would actually be built over the waterfall itself.
Such was the uniqueness of his design that the house made the cover of Time in 1938.
Today visitors can make their way to the remote area of Mill Run to tour the home . It’s a bit of a drive into some rather isolated countryside, but there’s really nothing like that glorious first view of a home that is as much — if not more — art than craft. Photographs are allowed of the exterior only, which entreats tourists entering the home to put the cameras and cellphones away and simply enjoy the interiors as if stepping into a time capsule of Depression-era Americana — at least as afforded by the well-to-do. Guides helpfully provide a travelogue of each room and passageway, detailing the life and times of the occupants and providing helpful stories of both the Kaufmanns and their servants, who lived just up the hill from the house itself in their own quarters.
Reservations are highly recommended, especially during peak season. Visit Fallingwater.org for ticket and visiting information.
Sixty-seven miles northwest of Pittsburgh is the somewhat-forgotten town of Youngstown, Ohio. Like much of the Rust Belt, the evaporation of the steel industry left Youngstown largely in the dust, with the loss of jobs and glory days gone by memorialized in a memorable dirge by Bruce Springsteen.
Contemporary visitors can walk the streets where steelworkers once mingled as part of that great American industrial juggernaut of yore. Like many other communities in transition, Youngstown is in the midst of a tentative reinvention, with history, new businesses and hip new nightlife spots cropping up in the wake of what has since left.
Along the main drag are signs commemorating some of the the Buckeye city’s most famous sons, including the Warner Brothers, who headed west to found their eponymous movie studio at the dawn of Hollywood.
At Circle Hookah and Bar you can enjoy flavored tobacco on the outdoor patio while cheerily sipping on Ohio brews like those from the Great Lakes Brewing Company up in Cleveland. Also, take a short saunter across the street to Rust Belt Brewing Company, where local brewmeisters whip up brewskis named in honor of the area’s industrial heritage.