It is a rainy Saturday in the 'burgh. I am in my bed with my dog, enjoying my second cup of coffee, and I don't think this picture is going to change today.
However, despite the my laziness, I know one area of Pittsburgh that thrives on Saturdays, rain or shine.
The portion of Penn Ave in Pittsburgh that runs through the Strip District (hereafter known simply as the Strip) is famous for its specialty food markets.
Saturday mornings in the Strip are pretty much a Pittsburgh rite of passage. Every Saturday, Penn Ave floods with yinzers collecting their grub for the week. It's lively. It's exciting. It's so Pittsburgh.
I typically avoid Saturdays in the Strip because I hate competitive parking. However, I highly suggest everybody makes their way to the Strip on a Saturday morn at least once to see the action unfold. Walk or bus if you can, because seriously, you may move out of state if you are confronted with the challenge of finding parking.
Stores open between 6:30-9:00AM on Saturdays. Penn Ave certainly wont be empty at 6:30 AM, but it will be much less crowded. Head on down an watch the action unfold... or, like me, wait until 2pm on Thursday, eat lunch at Gaucho, and have the street to yourself.
PITTSBURGH'S STRIP DISTRICT SPECIALTY FOOD MARKETS:
LOTUS FOOD CO
If you like to cook Asian food, Lotus is a fantastic market to get authentic ingredients for a great price. Lotus sells coconut milk for 79 cents a can and fresh tofu for 35 cents a piece - the best prices in town.
Lotus also sells several types of fresh Asian noodles. Unique ingredients like duck eggs, quail eggs, Japanese eggplants, many types of soy sauce, fish sauce and more line the shelves.
Jus browsing the candies and teas is an experience in itself. There is always something new to find in Lotus, even if it means buying something with a package you cannot read.
ROBERT WHOLEY FISH MARKET
Robert Wholey and Company, or "Wholey's", is a Pittsburgh tradition, dating back to 1912. People visit from all over the region and bring (for reasons my mom can't understand) their entire family to experience the market.
Wholey's lives up to the expectations. The atmosphere is certainly unique. The smell of seafood hits you as soon you walk through the door, and it's fish as far as the eyes can see.
Wholey's consistently has the largest variety of fish in city, and usually best prices as well. Salmon, tuna, swordfish, calamari, crab legs, and pretty much any other seafood you can think of can be found here.
Wholey's sells this seafood in all forms - frozen, fresh, and still living. The back corner contains tanks of live fish and lobster for sale. Down to fishbones to make fish stock, Wholey's truly has it all.
Wholey's also provides other meats and unique frozen provisions - stuff like frozen goose or duck liver (if that is what you are looking for). They also sell fresh pork belly, and were the first in the city to do so.
LABAD'S GROCERY MIDDLE EAST MARKET
Lebads is another family business in the strip. It is the place to find that ingredient that is impossible to find elsewhere- like pomegranate molasses. It also is the place to walk in without a plan, browse, and discover something new. It is ALSO the place to purchase the best pita in Pittsburgh.
One of the best offerings available at Lebads is the bulk selection of many Middle Eastern ingredients that can be hard to find elsewhere in such quantities - like couscous, falafel mix, lentils, ect. Lebads also sells many pre-made Middle Eastern desserts. I shouldn't have to say much more than pre-made dessert.
PENNSYLVANIA MACARONI COMPANY
Pennslyvania Macanoi Company, or "Penn Mac", is another Pittsburgh tradition. The market first opened in 1902 when the three Sunseri brothers of Trabia, Italy, decided to open a traditional Italian market in the United States.
Penn Mac started by manufacturing pasta, and slowly, with much hard work and a few set backs, grew to become THE speciality market in Pittsburgh.
For many years, Penn Mac was ahead of the curve in PGH. It was only place in the city to get the newest and trendiest ingredients that couldn't be found elsewhere. For example, my mother remembers having to special order "spring mix" lettuce from Penn Mac 20 years ago.
Penn Mac is now known for its legendary cheese counter. The store sells over 200,000 lbs. of cheese a week! We all know that cheese is probably the meaning of life so there is no way you will go home empty handed (unless you don't eat dairy, in which case I am sorry, and I am here for you).
STAMOOLIS BROTHERS COMPANY
Stamoolis Brothers has a similar story to that of Penn Mac, except the mother country is Greece, and there were five brothers instead of three. Stamoolis took up its residence on Penn Ave in 1929 and has been dedicated to serving Pittsburghers authentic greek ingredients and cuisine ever since.
The shop provides many types of fresh feta and kasseri cheese for frying into saganaki. My favorite treat at Samoolis are the prepared dolmas - stuffed grape leaves.
MON AMIEE CHOCOLAT
Come with me... and you'll be... in a world of pure imagination. Mon Amiee is a specialty chocolate and candy shop on Penn Ave. Do I really need to say more?
The store sells hundreds of different types of chocolate from all over the world, and has a pretty strong Honeydukes vibe. The world of chocolate - and by that, I mean the literal world - is inside of this store.
Mon Amiee provides unique finds, like the Grenada Chocolate Company, and foreign favorites, like Kinder and Cadberry.
If you have someone in your life who loves chocolate, Mon Amiee is the perfect place to get them something new. Oh... and if anyone was like... wondering or something... I am a huge chocolate lover.
If you somehow can't find a bar that strikes your fancy, Mon Amiee also sells ice cream and almost a dozen types of fresh nonparelis. If you like to cook, Mon Amiee has great options for that too, like Cote D'or baking chocolate and Cocoa Rouge baking powder.
Reyna Food opened in 1988 to fill the much needed Latin America food hole in Pittsburgh at the time. The store was the first Latin American food shop in the entire city.
Inside, the store has hundreds of unique ingredients and the most fun atmosphere of anywhere else on the street. There is as much merchandise hanging from the ceiling as there is on the shelf. Piñatas, chilis, and sombreros create a canopy for the store. Every time I enter I am memorized and think, "What is the soonest event that I could possibly rationalize buying a Piñata for?"
Reyna's selection is impressive: over 20 different types of dried chili, freeze dried banana leaves, hatch chili, Mexican chocolate, and fresh daily tortillas - which are sometimes still warm in their package.
I had to include this beautiful photo of bulk tortilla chips.
JO MAR PROVISIONS INCORPORATED
If you want it, Jo-Mar probably has it. If they don't have it, they can get it for you. Jo-Mar was the first place in city to consistently have boneless duck breast, and their list of unique meat provisions does not stop there. Venison, wild bore, foie gras, and things you didn't even know existed... well, you knew they existed, you just hadn't thought about eating them.
Parma Sausage on Penn is another reputable meat provider in the Strip. The Spinabelli family from Parma, Italy, settled in the Strip District when they left Italy during World War II. They have been working hard ever since to provide the city of Pittsburgh with authentic Parma Sausage and meats. They also sell the best prosciutto in city - enough said.
When it comes to bread, I do not discriminate. Bread is bread, carbs are carbs, and it is all delicious. However, not everyone in Pittsburgh shares these sentiments. Most believe strongly in Mancini's Bread. A staple in Pittsburgh since 1926, you can find Mancini Bread all over the city in different grocery shops. The bakery produces over 10,000 loaves a day! The company has a location on Penn Ave in the Strip.
Other things to check out:
Pittsburgh Sports Gear: If you need a shirt or a hat or really anything Pittsburgh sports related, the strip is the place to go. Within three blocks there are probably around 6 different sports paraphernalia shops. Great place to pick up a shirt before you head downtown for a game!
Amazing street food: Many of the shops mentioned above have their own stands outside their stores and sell amazing street food. If you're looking for a quick lunch, it will probably find you!
Flowers: The Strip is an excellent place to buy bulk flowers for a fair price! There are many stands with a wide variety of flowers.
Cooking Equipment: Penn Fixture has a huge selection of cooking and kitchen supplies. If you love to cook, you must check it out! (In the Kitchen & Penn Fixture and Supply)
For more information on any of these shops... google them.