On the Trail of the Wild Pawpaw, Part 1: Way Down Yonder

hillside and trees overgrown with knotweed, Pittsburgh, PA

Panther Hollow hillside. Do pawpaws live here?

This blogger has it bad. Pawpaw fever, that is. The old scout song makes gathering pawpaws sound so easy. Pickin’ up pawpaws, put ’em in your basket…way down yonder in the pawpaw patch. Nothing to it, right? Just head down to the ol’ pawpaw patch–the damn things must be everywhere. Yeah? Well, it’s not quite that simple. 

It started so innocently, almost a year ago. A chance encounter with Andrew Moore, the pawpaw expert who literally wrote the book on “America’s forgotten fruit”[1]. In that conversation, I learned that I had just missed the 2015 season, which was frustrating, but certainly something to look forward to. That pawpaw trees (and their fruit) grow wild and plentiful in our region only made the pursuit more enticing. Could The Orbit locate publicly-accessible fruiting pawpaw trees right in the city? We set our sights on finding out.

five wild turkeys crossing a gravel road, Pittsburgh, PA

Q: Why did the wild turkeys cross the road? A: We don’t know, but they didn’t find any pawpaws. Allegheny Cemetery

So I waited. Eleven long months counting down to pawpaw season[2]. I read Moore’s book, which only intensified desire. Pawpaws are among our oldest heritage foods–eaten by natives, colonists, and western explorers. The trees grow wild through a wide swath of the eastern half of the United States, but they’re amazingly foreign to most Americans.

The fruit is loaded with vitamins and minerals and is credited with treating diseases from gonorrhea to cancer. And, of course, it’s supposed to be delicious. The flavor is most often compared to something between banana and papaya, often with “caramel notes”, and a pleasing custard-like texture. Hungry yet? Yeah, me too–and you haven’t been waiting a year to get a taste!

Friends, neighbors, The Internet were all polled: Do you know any pawpaw patches in Pittsburgh? People tried to help, but like marrying a prince, or profiling serial killers, one has to sift through a lot of bunko anonymous tips to kiss the right frog.

Alley intersection with street sign marking "Pawpaw Way", Pittsburgh, PA

No pawpaws here. Pawpaw Way, Hazelwood.

“There’s a stand in Highland Park by the reservoir,” read the first to arrive. The search was called off before I’d left the house. “Sorry for the false alarm,” the coming-clean tipster filled-in later, “they’re actually horse chestnuts–no pawpaws here.”

Another spoke to rumored pawpaws by the Stanton Heights community garden. I climbed most of that big hill in a low gear, traipsed through the woods, and talked to an Allegheny Cemetery groundskeeper and some Saturday morning gardeners. Sadly, no one knew anything about pawpaws…or at least, no one’s talking. We did happen to cross paths with a rafter of wild turkeys[3], which seems like a decent trade-off.

A third offered pawpaws along the North Side bicycle trail, just as you get off the ramp to the Washington’s Landing bicycle/pedestrian bridge, but it wasn’t happening. There were even more vague directions for entire neighborhoods: “South Side Slopes” and “Panther Hollow” and “on the hill behind Phipps (Conservatory)” and “Frick Park, along the trails”. It’s no surprise that none of these panned-out, but people have got to be a little more specific–we’re racing against time here! Little Pawpaw Way in Hazelwood is six kinds of overgrown, but not with its namesake tree, which is nowhere to be found.

close-up of pawpaw fruits and leaves from a tree, Pittsburgh, PA

First sighting: two fruits of the pawpaw tree

So, empathetic readers will undoubtably understand what a thrill it was to finally lay eyes on the big, tropical leaves of the first pawpaw trees we actually found. There, just feet from a trail in Schenley Park, were tall, mature, big-leafed trees–much larger than I’d expected, but unmistakable after so much preparation.

A scurried hustle off the path and down into the fabled pawpaw patch. Trees–from tiny infants to mature thick-trunked giants–in every direction and continuing far back into the wood. It is glorious, cool in the near full tree cover, soothing, airy, and private.

Seeing no fruit, we began to shake the trees small enough to wrap a hand around. Ripe pawpaw fruit should fall from a shaken tree, but none did. We continued on, deeper into the understory. And then, there they were: a pair of oblong, fist-sized, and potato-shaped green fruits joined under a leaf section. Looking around, another cluster, and then another. Some of the pawpaws low enough to touch, others many feet out of reach. We were finally, unequivocally, in the right place…or were we?

Two clusters of pawpaw fruits hanging from pawpaw tree, Pittsburgh, PA

Double clusters: pawpaw pawpaw.

Will our blogger ever achieve sweet relief beneath the leaves? Does the peculiar pawpaw please the palate or merely maim the maw? And With fruit in hand, what’s the plan, man?

I’m afraid, dear reader, this blog post must end on the kind of nail-biting cliffhanger one would expect, nay, demand from a story about foraged fruit. We get to all that, however, in Part 2 of On the Trail of the Wild Pawpaw.


[1] Andrew Moore, Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit (Chelsea Green Publishing). More of Moore in Part 2.
[2] Pawpaw fruit is ripe enough to pick roughly for the month of September in western Pennsylvania’s climate zone.
[3] Yes, rafter is the term of venery for turkeys.

Muffler Man: The Cadet Cowboy

looking up at the giant fiberglass cowboy known as "Sam", Cadet Restaurant, Kittanning, PA

“Sam”, Cadet Restaurant’s giant hamburger-slinging cowboy/muffler man, Kittanning

He’s broad-shouldered, with a square jaw and steely gaze, and he’s bare-handing a burger the size of a doberman en route just for you. Yes, in crisp white shirt and trousers, black boots, and one enormous cowboy hat cocked just so, Big Sam, the resident burger-slinging cowboy/muffler man of The Cadet Restaurant is the waiter of your dreams…or maybe your nightmares.

At 30 feet tall (we’re taking the Cadet’s word on this–but it seems reasonable), Big Sam is, quite literally, head-and-shoulders above the peak of the Cadet Restaurant’s roof. In an era when the neighboring Sheetz signage (and every other modern highway adjunct) is visible from space, it doesn’t seem like Sam could possibly stand out from the other roadside noise. But he’s got a couple things all those other places can only dream of: class and style.

Exterior of the Cadet Restaurant with giant fiberglass cowboy holding a hamburger, Kittanning, PA

Cadet Restaurant, Kittanning

Though there’s absolutely nothing automobile-related about Big Sam (aside from the Cadet’s previous life as a drive-in) he falls into the broad category of giant “muffler men”. Roadside America has a great detailed repository of muffler man info, but the short version is that the original fiberglass mold was built in the early ’60s for a huge Paul Bunyan advertising a restaurant in Flagstaff, Arizona. The arms are positioned as so to hold the famous lumberjack’s big axe.

The same mold was repurposed over the next dozen years for generic working men, Indians, the “happy halfwit”, and, yes, cowboys. Many muffler shops took advantage of both the striking figure and the fixed hand shapes to cradle exhaust systems, hence the nickname.

Side view of giant fiberglass cowboy, Cadet Restaurant, Kittanning, PA

It may get a thumbs-down from Big Sam, but Cadet’s food is qualified to satisfy

Cadet’s history page tells us that Sam was purchased at the Chicago Restaurant Show for $3,900 in 1962 and details a great story of tragedy and redemption for the big guy:

One foggy morning on September 29, 1990, an unsuspecting Ford Bronco pulled into the path of a fully loaded coal truck traveling from Indiana. The Bronco was catapulted into Sam leaving him in shambles for years to come.

Despite many attempts, no one would take on the task of repair. We would find his hat or burger on top of a local school’s flagpole and other various locations. Luckily, we had our own team of students that were always kind enough to locate and extract the missing pieces.

It was over 12 years before our customers were able to help us finally piece him back together. Dave Bish, stepped up and asked if he could try, and try he did. What a beautiful job! He was back on his feet in 2002. It took a full day, a crane and many volunteers.

Cadet restaurant placemat advertisement proclaiming "Home of the 'Poor Boy'"

And what of the food at the Cadet? As diners go, it’s top-notch. The menu features the expected array of greasy breakfasts and burgers/sandwiches/deep-fried platters for lunch and dinner. A handmade sign on wall proclaims the “Poorboy burger” (a double patty with all the fixins) and roast beef as house specialties. This blogger’s only real quibble was a lack of Polish food on the menu [every Pittsburgh-area diner should have pierogies, haluski, and potato pancakes!]–but even Big Sam can’t provide everything.

The Orbit went all Craig Claiborne with repeat visits to the Cadet. On the way up, we had a fantastically Sam-sized blueberry pancake. It’s sort of the yin to Pamela’s crepe-style yang–thick as a book* and large as the plate, but hot, fluffy, and tasty. On the return trip, it was a thoroughly-satisfying chicken biscuit dinner for lunch with a mind-melting piece of rhubarb pie for dessert.

Needless to say, the Cadet is Orbit-approved and recommended. Stop by the next time you’re headed north and give ol’ Sam the hi-de-ho.

rear view of giant fiberglass cowboy, Cadet Restaurant, Kittanning, PA

Big Sam keeping watch over Rt. 422 outside Kittanning

Getting there: Cadet Restaurant is on Route 422-East, just off Route 28 outside Kittanning. Note: you have to awkwardly go through the next-door Sheetz to get there, but you can’t miss it.


* Thick like a paperback novel–not, you know, the dictionary.

Fish On My List: An Orbit Guide to Fish Fry Guides

Handmade wooden sign reading "Fried Fish Specials"

If the oil’s a-roilin’, we’ll be a-loiterin’

Editor’s note: This story on the various available guides to Lenten fish fries first ran in 2016, but is obviously a valuable resource every year. We’ve done our best to update links for 2022, but definitely let us know if there’s something new we’re missing, a better site, etc.


For some, it is leafing through seed catalogs. It may be freezing outside, but the simple act of dog-earing full-color pages of enticing heirloom vegetables and glorious full-bloom flowers invokes a not-too-distant future digging in the dirt, pulling weeds, and planting tight rows of zebra-striped tomatoes and black Hungarian peppers. They’ll even take the opportunity to cast lettuce seed directly in the snow–a holdover until the St. Patrick’s Day peas are sewn in the inevitable bone-chilling soil. Anything for a breath of life.

For others, it is the sound of horsehide slapping cowhide as pudgy catchers receive wayward fastballs and woe-be-gone change-ups from out-of-practice Skoal-spitting pitchers. [At least we sure hope they’re still allowed to chew tobacco before the real season begins.] Images of sun-soaked Kissimmee, Bradenton, and Jupiter transport those in bleached, bare-treed northern climes. You can almost smell the luxurious perfect green blanket.

But if you insist on knowing my bliss, I’ll tell you this. Here at The Orbit, our first gentle gust of spring blows in with the arrival of Lent and its barrage of church fund-raising Lenten dinners. These fried fish feasts are so numerous they require a comprehensive guide. As it turns out, you even need a guide just to make sense of all of the fish guides out there. That is why we’re here.

fish dinner in former St. John Vianney church, Pittsburgh, PA

Fish dinner, St. John Vianney (R.I.P.), Allentown (c. 2011)

Available in both HTML and handy, print-friendly text formats, Pittsburgh Catholic‘s list is definitely the big fish in this particular roiling grease-filled pond. The guide has the no-nonsense pre-Internet feel of kind parishioners dutifully volunteering their time to type out, update, and double-check their facts each February, all in the name of the Lord. It was likely the region’s first fish fry guide (?) and for this blogger, it’s still the best.

It was the Pittsburgh Catholic list that led us to the late, great St. John Vianney in Allentown (the church was just closed by the diocese early in 2016). St. John was not only open for Friday lunches (a rarity) but offered a spectacular dessert table where the kinds of confections you thought had been banished from this earth (Jello surprise! Pretzel salad! Pineapple upside-down cake! Dirt!) were generously spooned out by the congregants for sums in the twenty-five to fifty cent range. Maybe if they’d asked a more reasonable price, St. John would still be running Sunday services and The Orbit could be dining there this Friday. Sigh.

Window sign advertising Lenten fish fry at St. Maria Goretti Parish, Pittsburgh, PA

St. Maria Goretti Parish fish fry, Lent 2015

Each of the local “Big 3” TV news affiliates has their own guide. KDKA‘s is your basic nuts-and-bolts alphabetized (by church name) list, including the bare essential name, address, hours, and menu items. It’s the best of the lot. WPXI has improved considerably in the last couple years, now offering the same basic script that we see on other sources. It’s nothing fancy, but it’ll get you dinner on Friday night.

WTAE basically phones it in with a “guide” that simply lists names and addresses of locations that claim to have fish fries. There are no other details–no menus, no days or times of service, no bonus data. For that reason–and the bounty of other options–you can safely skip this one too.

Sadly, neither local public television station WQED nor Fox affiliate WPGH appear to make any attempts at fish fry coverage.

screen capture of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's interactive fish fry map

The Post-Gazette’s interactive “Find a Fish Fry!” site, new in 2018

This year, the Post-Gazette has upped its ante considerably. In past, there were no detailed listings, instead focusing on a few random highlights. It was interesting if you already had a plan, but no resource for the hardcore fisherman or fisherwoman.

The new guide is a really nicely designed app that includes a lot of nice bonus info. However, with just the most casual perusal, it’s obvious the P-G still has a lot more data entry to do. [How can you possibly miss Sacred Heart on your first pass?] We’d also like to see some filtering options. It’s fine to include The Harris Grill (I guess), but please let the user skip the noise and get down to the church fries.

As far as other print-first resources, the Tribune-Review has some scattered stories with suburb-specific listings, but they’re not nearly comprehensive enough for us to bother wasting your time. Every year, it seems, the City Paper opts to sit this one out.

screen capture of Code for Pittsburgh's interactive fish fry map

Code for Pittsburgh’s interactive fish fry map

By contrast, Code for Pittsburgh’s 2018 Lenten Fish Fry Map is what the Post-Gazette‘s new tool is trying to be. The interactive web site is extremely useful if your first concern is where the fish is. Zeroing in on a particular location and selecting its pinned point gives the same basic information you get from Pittsburgh Catholic and KDKA (name, address, brief menu description). A good resource for the time- and distance-restricted and definitely preferable to the TV station listings.

Fish fry guides have gone totally Lent 2.0 with their own social media presence on the Pittsburgh Lenten Fish Fry Map FaceBook page and @pghfishfry Twitter account. [Update: this account seems to have gone dormant after the 2017 season.] As one may expect, these are less comprehensive guides and more in-realtime breaking fish-related news. The latter seems to be a little more active than the former, but we’re only one week in so far, so we’ll keep tuned to see how this thing plays out.

bracket listing comparing fish fries

The Incline’s Ultimate Pittsburgh Fish Fry bracket

Launched last year with some amount of fanfare, The Incline’s “Ultimate Pittsburgh Fish Fry” bracket looks a lot like the office’s NCAA tournament pool, but tastes a lot better. This was obviously enough of a success in 2017 for it to come back again a year later, this time with ABC affiliate WTAE as a media partner. The Orbit is just not that competitive–nor can we realistically get to 32 fish fries this Lentbut we love the spirit behind this one.

Lastly, we wouldn’t be reporting if we didn’t mention that there’s even a mobile phone app called PGH FF & FF. But it gets such pathetic reviews, we’ll not dignify it with a hyperlink.

hand-painted sign reading "Fish Fry Today"

The Pizza Chase: Phillippi’s, Home of the “Birdville Pie”

one slice pizza on paper plate with table setting

You could even say it glows: one cut of “Birdville Pie” (only slight color exaggeration)

American cheese, it is said, is neither American, nor cheese. Some would also have us believe that this most maligned of processed foods has no place on that other great American culinary institution, the pizza pie. Those folks, however, don’t live in Birdville, and they don’t get their pizza at Phillippi’s.

excited diners look with anticipation of their "Birdville Pie"

Excited diners can’t wait to dig in to their “Birdville Pie”

We don’t actually know for sure what that gooey stuff is on top of the Birdville Pie–Phillippi’s is famously tight-lipped about the “special blend of Birdville cheeses” they use. But between the radioactive aura it gives off and the weird molar-coating mouth feel, it’s pretty obvious that American cheese is the dominant sibling of this particular nuclear family.

The pizza at Phillippi’s has one other major distinguishing factor. The crust is as wafer-thin as this eater has ever experienced. It puts the pie clearly in the camp of a meal that eats like a snack, or an appetizer, or, as one of our party derisively put it, “like a Lunchable.” Not that anyone left hungry, it just had the overall feeling of one big (processed) cheese and cracker.

exterior of Phillippi's Family Dining and Pizzeria, Natrona Heights, PA

Phillippi’s Family Dining and Pizzeria, Home of the “Birdville Pie”, Natrona Heights

To call eating a Birdville Pie pleasurable is a stretch. The pizza is an acquired taste of the highest (or lowest) degree, but it’s clear the locals love it. The restaurant’s tag line “Home of the Birdville Pie” is printed proudly across the front awning, on every menu, and the masthead to the web site. The Birdville Pie and its sister White Birdville Pie (no sauce, but the same great cheese blend) (come to think of it, wouldn’t that make this an “orange pizza”?) (ah, heck, go with it–we’re in Birdville!) appear at the top of the restaurant’s short pizza list. We can attest that every group around us in the filled dining room was enjoying at least one the famous pizzas at their table. [Explanations for why the uninitiated baby at the next table kept screaming are pure conjecture.]

Phillippi's "Birdville Pie" with banana peppers and bacon

Phillippi’s “Birdville Pie” (here with banana peppers and bacon)

Someone at Phillippi’s really cares about local history. The walls of the Dining room are covered with great black and white photographs of Natrona Heights through the years. The restaurant’s web site has an extensive history–not of Phillippi’s (which is only mentioned in passing) or its namesake pizza pie (ditto)–but of Birdville, Pennsylvania.

This time-is-money blogger will admit he didn’t read the whole thing, (to give you a sense of scale, there are forty-two footnotes) but we can tell you it goes from Frenchman Rene Robert Cavalier de la Salle fording the Allegheny River in 1670 to Rachel Carson and Silent Spring in 1962, and just about everything along the way.

The key fact seems to be that one Richard Bird, “a carpenter born in 1851 in Shropshire, England” purchased a big chunk of what is now Natrona Heights/Harrison Township in the late 1800s. Thereafter, though never an official designation, the locals have referred to the area as “Birdville.”

sign for Phillippi's Family Dining and Pizzeria, Natrona Heights, PA

As generally happens with American cheese-related stories, this one is not without controversy. Any discussion of Phillippi’s and their unique pizza recipe would be incomplete without a mention of their cross-river rival and the authenticity of the Birdville Pie. This is something, we can assure you, that is as contested as the house of Romanov. That, however, must wait for another day, when the Orbit staff have had an opportunity to get the other side of this particular tale. As Dee Snider and the gang said so aptly, stay hungry.

[Editor’s note: we did indeed follow up with a visit to Phillippi’s “cross-river rival” in October, 2016. Check it out in The Pizza Chase: P&M Pizza, Arnold]

The Pizza Chase: Sir Pizza

Sir Pizza storefront sign

Ross Township Camelot: Sir Pizza

“Good day, m’lord! What doth though requireth for thy after-noon repast?”

“Knave: bring forth your lordship a pair of this establishment’s esteemed ten-inch pizzas–and may they resemble the handicraft of the time-honored artisans at Totino’s in all possible ways!”

“Very good, sir! How wouldst thou prefereth to decorate thine pies and enliven thy spirit?”

“Adorn the lady’s with olives black and your finest banana peppers.”

“Of course. And for thou, sir? What extraordinary combination suits sire today?”

“Allow me to bloweth thy mind with coating true, twixt sausage and multi-colored peppers.”

“Such an extraordinary request your humble servant has never encountered! Raise the flag and open the hearth! An order from the king!”

O.K. Ordering at Sir Pizza wasn’t quite like that, but I think it’s fair to say we were treated like some demi-royalty.

Last month, when we introduced The Pizza Chase with Beto’s Pizza we made it clear we were looking for pizzerias that did things in some fundamentally different (though, not necessarily better) way. The people spoke, The Orbit followed-through, and below are our questions (if not yours) on Sir Pizza answered (and not) to the best of our ability.

Sir Pizza 10" pizza with black olives and banana peppers

Is Sir Pizza a chain?

Yes…wait: no…maybe? The Orbit‘s crack research team spent no small amount of time attempting to answer this seemingly-simple question and came to no definitive conclusion. As far as we can tell, Sir Pizza started in 1957 in Indiana as Pizza King and operated as a chain up through at least the early 1990s. From there it gets hazy.

Sir Pizza-Pittsburgh has three locations–all in the North Hills. We visited the “original,” started in 1975 in Ross Township. But a search for Sir Pizza reveals other similar shires scattered around the eastern half of the United States–two in Michigan, five in South Florida, some South Carolina chapters, an outpost each in Kentucky and Tennessee, etc.

There seems to be no central dominion to which the individual restaurants pay tribute. The marionettes appear to have cut their own strings, leaving independent fiefdoms that may or may not resemble each other, but certainly don’t acknowledge any connection publicly.

Sir Pizza crest logo

The royal crest of the Kingdom of Sir Pizza

What’s with the whole ‘Sir’ thing? Is this medieval pizza?

Another interesting ponderable with no clear answer. Sir Pizza’s commitment to the whole lords in sauce/knights of the round pie pan thing is shaky at best. There’s the calligraphic “Sir” in the signage, the crest/shield logo, and a smiling cartoony knight tipping his armored visor on the menu, but other than that you’d swear you were back in any old suburban pizza parlor in a squat New World strip mall. Black and white photos of “la familia” take up one wall and nods to various local sports teams are positioned around the dining areas. On decor alone, it could as easily be Italian Wedding Pizza, or High School Football Pizza.

close-up of Sir Pizza sausage and pepper pizza crust

“Good to the very edge”

The pizza

The only previous time this hungry blogger experienced Sir Pizza was years ago as payment for helping to move a giant 1970s-era recording console from Turtle Creek to the North Hills. “I almost died and you’re paying me with Totino’s?”, I asked. I don’t even remember if I got a beer out of the deal. [Bill: you (might) owe me a beer!] In retrospect, that assessment is a little harsh–but just a little.

The pizza is on a thin, cracker-like crust with a reasonable layer of cheese and toppings. Sir Pizza claims they use special smoked provolone instead of mozzarella, but these layman’s tastebuds couldn’t discern the difference. The meat toppings, as well as the peppers and onions, were minced into tiny morsels, which again gave it that joie de congélateur allée. The pizzas are cooked and served on cardboard discs.

Sir Pizza uses the tag line “Good to the very edge” which is a nod to the practice of running the sauce, cheese, and toppings all the way out to (and over) the pizza’s perimeter. It’s a nice gimmick, but I couldn’t help but think it’s really a mask for a completely uninteresting flat crust that wouldn’t survive on its own.

Our Pittsburgh-born Wisconsin-based correspondent Murphy informed us that all of these qualities–the cracker crust, the minced toppings, the hidden edge–are all hallmarks of a more general “midwestern pizza”.

The other great midwesterness of Sir Pizza’s product is the curious way the pie is cut. Instead of the familiar wedge-shaped diametric slices one expects, the pizza is cut on a loose grid: two cuts in one direction, three the other. But because the pizza is round, this makes every cut an awkward non-standard size. Murphy lays down the pitfalls pretty clearly:

Also and very important is the way they slice it, in little squares called “party style” though it doesn’t sound like a party to me when you have nothing solid to grab onto (like, you know, a CRUST). I would like to further note that using non-triangular cuts means that some people might get stuck with a dinky little side piece and others get a weird gloopy middle piece rather than beautifully uniform, foldable triangles.

Ouch! Ain’t no law like Murphy’s. Just like we said back in our report on Beto’s, when you bake a fresh pizza, even when it’s bad, it’s still good. That basic fact holds true at Sir Pizza. The legion of devoted “Sir-heads” who line up for the trademark pie and defend it with the zeal of South Hills’ “Betonauts” will disagree, but we’re glad they love their local(-ish) pie. The Orbit remains perplexed, but still curious. Mangia!

half-eaten Sir Pizza 10" pizza with sausage and peppers

Sir Pizza’s “party style” cuts

 

The Pizza Chase: Beto’s of Beechview

Sign for Beto's Pizza in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Beto’s Pizza, Beechview

Pizza has gotten almost totally standardized. Sure, there’s a couple varieties: New York-style thin-crust and Chicago-style deep dish, square Sicilian, and some fancy places dress theirs up in various ways, but you’ve pretty much seen it before.

We’ve been collecting stories about Pittsburgh-area pizza houses that do something fundamentally different from any of the above standard configurations. We’re not trying to name the best pizza (although each of these has its super fans); we’re just looking for something that’s truly unique. These will be explored in a new series called The Pizza Chase. And we’re going to start with Beto’s Pizza of Beechview.

There are a bunch of goofy things about Beto’s:

First: there are only two denominations of pie: either individual cuts (approximately 4″ square) or an entire 28-cut rectangular “tray”. Nothing round; none of this small/medium/large business. You’re either all-in, or you take it on the run.

Second: ordering individual cuts (as almost all customers seem to do) takes exactly the same time as ordering a whole tray. (We were told this by the staff and wound up ordering a tray on our first visit; they speak the truth.) How can that be? Anywhere else, the cuts are ready to go and they just pop them in the oven for a minute to warm them up. Not at Beto’s. What are they doing back there? I don’t know, but they’re not working off the standard playbook.

Third: even if you order a full tray, it doesn’t arrive on anything resembling one. The pizza is delivered as seven separate plates, each containing four cuts with an giant halo of post-op mozzarella cascading to the floor.

Beto's pizza tray

Beto’s full “tray” with four cuts removed. Note the near total lack of melted cheese and the employee applying mozzarella to the box (photo: The Internet)

Most jarringly, Beto’s separates itself from other pizzerias by only adding the cheese and toppings after the pizza has left the oven. This bizarre practice produces a hot-on-the-bottom, cold-on-top sensation that is as pleasurable as being in a hot tub while it’s snowing (to its fans) or as disorienting as, uh, being in a hot tub with a big block of ice on your head (to its detractors). After two visits, The Orbit still isn’t sure where it stands on all this.

I should add that if you are the kind of conformist who wants his or her cheese melted to the rest of the pizza, this is an option you can specify. You just need to order it “baked.”

Three cuts of pizza from Beto's, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Three cuts the normal way (not “baked”), Beto’s Pizza

How does it taste? Well, a guy trying to watch his carbs will start by saying that he generally feels like even when pizza is bad, it’s still good. It’s a forbidden fruit, a taboo pleasure to be savored when the occasion presents itself and he’s prepared to put in some extra hill climbs to pay the rent. And so in that sense, Beto’s bi-temperate, sometimes-you-gotta-break-the-rules approach still satisfies.

That said, it is this blogger’s belief that eating melted cheese on fresh-baked pizza dough is one of the world’s great carnal pleasures and to eschew this when you’ve got all the tools and ingredients right there seems insane. But I’m here for the ride.

Beto's customer "Red" Bob Jungkunz

Our Beto’s ambassador: Bob Jungkunz

To get a handle on all this, we called in an expert. Carrick native Bob Jungkunz has been a Beto’s customer since at least 1975 when his older sister and her boyfriend first introduced the cross-hills Beto’s to her little brother. Bob has been coming to Beto’s ever since and continues to stop in for dinner nearly once a week.

Bob swears that the pizza preparation hasn’t changed a bit in the last forty years and went on to detail the old environment. Apparently before the expansion of both the dining room and parking lot, it was common for Beto’s customers to simply eat in their cars in the cramped lot, seating in one of the the handful of tiny booths nearly impossible to secure.

Bob describes Beto’s no-cook-topping approach and mild sauce as “subtle” and the overall experience as “very pleasing,” preferring plain cheese, but mixing it up from time-to-time. He also gave us the pro tip that one can order cuts to go and by the time you reach your destination the cold cheese had done its own partial melt from the in-box heat, offering yet another taste and texture option.

Bob is not alone. Beto’s dining room is stuffed with cold-topping cut-consuming customers, photos of smiling faces, decades-old news clippings, and mementos of the pizzeria’s fifty-plus-year history. To-go boxes sit pre-folded from counter height to ceiling everywhere you look around the kitchen, prepped and ready for a phalanx of orders.

I don’t know if I love it–heck, I don’t know that I like it–but I’m glad it exists.

Beto’s Pizza is at 1473 Banksville Road in Beechview.

 

The Over-the-Wall Club: A Secret Picnic Spot

cement wall with graffiti, trees, and smokestacks in the distance

Over-the-Wall lies a secret picnic spot

When last we left The Over-the-Wall Club, members were straining their necks, up on their tip-toes, peeking and peeping. Sometimes we catch a break and actually make it over to have a look on the other side. And every once in a while we find out that the grass really is greener over there.

The most perfect secret picnic spot lies high in the aerie of Peregrine falcons, reachable only by trained tall tree-climbers with provisions shuttled in by drone. Sigh, someday. Until then, Orbit staff stumbled across a right nice substitute, on a grassy bank of the Ohio River, in the shade of flowering Spring trees, attainable only by bicycle. [Technically one could drive, park, and walk a trail, but that’s not as much fun.] The spot is accessed through a breach in a concrete wall.

woman laying on grass by the Ohio River

A very Pittsburgh picnic spot: Brunot Island power plants on the far shore

It is early May, the first definitive shorts-weather occasion of the year, and a glorious post-Pittonkatonk, post-marathon Sunday afternoon comin’ down. Not to nit pick on the picnic, but the menu was nothing to brag about (my fault, entirely). That said, we can credit Shur-Save with providing an acceptable board of fare (after we applied some after-market vegetables and condiments to the “Anytime Deli” sub) at a price that didn’t dent this blogger’s wallet.  Next time–and there will be a next time–we’ll do it up right.

But what’s really special here is the amazing peace on this particular stretch of riverbank. We were well within Pittsburgh city limits, but never heard the sound of an automobile, a booming stereo, shouting, clattering, or any other noise (man or machine) for that matter. In fact, the only “traffic” we witnessed was one long coal barge and a couple pleasure crafts on the river.  One train rumbled by on the Brunot Island bridge.

barge on the Ohio River near Pittsburgh

This barge is all the traffic we encountered at the Secret Picnic Spot

The Secret Picnic Spot is known to at least a few other river dwellers.  There was an empty Black Velvet bottle in the weeds and the burnt offering of an old school hobo fire.  A stray patch of brick wall embedded in the ground had been graffiti’d in black Sharpie.  We crossed paths with a pair of amorous middle-agers and a grandfather/granddaughter combo, but the spot’s fifty-or-so yards of riverbank can handle at least that much of a crowd with relative privacy.

bricks embedded in grass and dirt with handwritten "awsome" graffiti

Don’t take our word for it: Lizz + Neo + Oly confirm that the Secret Picnic Spot is awsome

If you’ve got a tip on a great Pittsburgh picnic spot (secret or otherwise), please let us know. We’ll show you ours if you show us yours.

Out of the Force and Into the Frying Pan

Carl Funtal of Cop Out Pierogies

Carl Funtal of Cop Out Pierogies, Etna

Pierogi-lovers, there’s a new sheriff… er … sergeant in town.

If Pittsburgh had an official city food there would be a number of possible contenders, but let’s face it: we’d end up choosing the pierogi.  Pierogies appear on diner menus and Lenten church suppers, as caricatures on t-shirts and dressed-up at fancy restaurants.  The Pirates knocked-off Milwaukee’s racing sausages with their own racing pierogies.  Oliver Onion can never catch a break!

That said, for as long as I’ve been around, the retail pierogi landscape has been dominated by only three players: Clara’s, Gosia’s, and the babcia of them all, Pierogies Plus.

Carl Funtal was a Shaler Police officer until very recently when he retired to dedicate himself fully to his three-year-old side business Cop Out Pierogies.  “I gave up working 110 hours a week so I could work just 50 or 60,” Funtal joked with us.

He’s got all the standards covered: potato/cheese, sauerkraut, cottage cheese, and lekvar (prune). But he’s not afraid to go way new school with a menu that reads more like a pizza shop: spinach, feta, and sundried tomato; pepperoni pizza; buffalo chicken, etc.  He’s also got a whole dessert line of “pie-rogies” including apple maple walnut cheese cake, salted caramel, and “Freaking Fudge.”

To wspaniała historia, ale jak to pierogów?

dinner plate with cooked pierogies, onions, sour cream, and green peas

Answer: they are delicious

Sorry! I dropped into my ghetto Polish there. But yes, this is not just some human interest story–this is hard news! The pierogies are obviously hand made, with the same each-is-a-doughy-snowflake unique lumps and pinches and aberrations that you get from the great Polish church kitchen sales.

And, most importantly, Cop Out’s pierogies are delicious. We went rogue with the Reuben and pepper butt varieties. I’ll be honest and say that with two versions of spiced-up red meat inside a dough pocket, fried in butter, and slathered in cooked onions and sour cream, I couldn’t even tell the difference.  But next time we’ll make some choices that are a little farther afield.

Cop Out’s retail storefront on Butler Street in Etna sells frozen pierogies (14 to a “dozen”) on Fridays and Saturdays and is supplying restaurants and entertainment venues throughout the region.

Carl Funtal of Cop Out Pierogies

Carl Funtal poses with some of the shop’s pierogi art