Hold the Cheese: Son of Ghost Pizza

hand-painted sign for former Yolanda's Pizza & Italian Restaurant, Monaca, PA

Yolanda’s, Monaca

The lovely woman approaches, jet black hair up in a tight bun, dressed in a plain green skirt and poofy red peasant blouse. She’s headed straight toward you, carrying an enormous plate of indeterminate pasta, red sauce, and meatballs–let’s just assume the carafe of house chianti is already breathing on the table. Her facial expression is difficult to discern as the detail has been lost to weather and time, but we’re willing to bet that once it concealed a secret, Mona Lisa smile.

brick wall of former hoagie shop painted with "Subs," "Hot Sausage," Meat Ball," "Sandwich," Johnstown, PA

unknown, Johnstown

Yolanda’s Pizza & Italian Restaurant, the source of this faded gastronomical fantasia, appears to still be very much around. It’s even multiplied, with dining rooms both in Beaver Falls and here, the original location, in a converted gas station/car wash on Pennsylvania Ave. in Monaca.

But it sure didn’t look like (the possibly-fictional?[1]) Yolanda was still slinging sauce the summer day a year ago when this interloper was wandering around town, dying for an eggplant parmigiana or meatball volcano big enough to sate a blogger’s schnoz-poking appetite. Instead, there was just an empty lot, a Closed sign in the window, and that faded, peeling mural. Sigh.

Ed’s Pizza House, Jeannette

While Yolanda’s is still serving their traditional Italian chicken pot pie calzones and Polish pizzas–just not when we’re in town–the restaurant’s success doesn’t extend to other regional pizzerias and hoagie houses.

For all the true fans who loved The Orbit‘s 2017 Pi/Pie Day salute to “ghost pizza” and have been waiting a cruel a couple years for more photos of boarded-up Italian restaurants, blinds-drawn dining rooms, and pizza shops vacated long enough ago for their buildings to be condemned, well, here you go.

Happy Labor Day, y’all. Go out and eat a damn pizza before they’re all gone!

Angelo’s Pizza and Hoagie House, Wilkinsburg

DiBacco’s, Weirton, WV

older brick apartment building with former Pizza Prima restaurant in ground floor space, Pittsburgh, PA

Pizza Prima, Oakland

exterior of former Luigi's Pizzeria, Bellevue, PA

“Thanks for 42 great years,” Luigi’s, Bellevue

exterior of former Rosario's Pizzeria, New Kensington, PA

Rosario’s, New Kensington [Note: “X” = building condemned]

empty storefront with sign reading "Italian Restaurant", Monaca, PA

Italian Restaurant, Monaca

sign for closed pizza shop in alley, Etna, PA

Ciocca’s “Italian Maid” (sic.) Pizza, Etna


[1] On yolandaspizza.com, the About section mentions the restaurant was founded by a carpenter named Pete Samovoski. There is no explanation as to who the namesake Yolanda is.

An Orbit Obit: The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern

mural for Frankowski family with people holding giant pierogie, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

It takes a village to raise a pierogi. Frankowski family coat-of-arms.

This one’s personal.

Over at Orbit headquarters, we wailed into the night over the loss of Chiodo’s–it with its dusty, historic underwear hanging from the ceiling and the Mystery Sandwich haunting our dreams. We took it easy with the Casio beats and flared collars of The Casual Approach (R.I.P.) who defied gravity every weekend at Dormont’s Suburban Lounge (also R.I.P.). Letter-writing campaigns begged our congressmen to turn The Chart Room into a national monument and there should have been so many more piano sing-a-longs at Moré. The days of dollar pints and four-bit “lady drafts” at bygone Lawrenceville watering holes like Michalski’s, A.J.’s, and Salak’s feel like ancient history–but it wasn’t actually that long ago.

The loss of these iconic, convivial, rowdy barrelhouses are all just eyewash to the earthquake that music-making/beer-drinking/pierogi-eating/squirt-gun-shooting Pittsburgh felt last week. The “Polish party house in the heart of Little Italy,” has bled the grease from its deep friers, removed the ceramic stein collection, carved wooden stage bear, and pictures of the pope. They’ve powered down the spotty PA system and shooed out the last late-night booze hounds. The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has closed forever.

gated front door for the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Closed forever, sigh.

[Cue: shimmering soft focus and a one-two polka beat.]

The year was 1996–some time in November. Arriving from The South with its still-turning mid-fall leaves and pleasant, temperate climate, Pittsburgh was soaking in several inches of days-old dirty street slush as a steady freezing rain dripped from the unrelenting overcast gray-black sky. Needless to say, this blogger-to-be had found a new home.

By pure chance–we’re talking pre-Internet tourism here–The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern was the very first place he spent a nickel. It was on a Polish Platter, and I’m pretty sure it still cost just $5.95 at the time. Carbs are pretty cheap in The South–but they don’t come with names like golabki and kluski. Although my middle-aged metabolism can’t demolish a plate like it used to, the food was as delicious just a few weeks ago as it was all the way back in the ’90s.

plate of Polish food including pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Oh, how I will miss you. The Polish Platter (“Red”): pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski

For the next, gulp, twenty-one years the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has been the most long-running, consistent presence in this transplant’s Pittsburgh experience. The doctor only prescribes Polish Platters a couple times a year [yes, I know: find a new doctor!] but it’s been rare to go more than a couple months without receiving an audio-visual screening from BBT’s musical stage.

Typically, these are administered by local bands. [Full disclosure: the author is sometimes playing in one of them.] But despite BBT’s tiny size, cramped quarters, and DIY show-running [bands were responsible for collecting at the door, setting up the PA system, and running their own sound], the bar has played host to amazing run of touring players too numerous to list here.

Weird Paul Rock Band performing at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Weird Paul Rock Band at BBT, August, 2017

You think that’d be it, right? It’s a tavern: there’s beer, bar food, and weekend rock-and-roll–what else do you need? Well, you may not need much more, but the BBT plays into a legacy of Pittsburgh culture so deep we may take years–decades, even–to dig out from the loss.

Back in the day, then-city councilman Jim Ferlo held an annual Pittsburgh Marathon party in BBT’s side parking lot, complete with polka bands, a hot dog buffet, and cold beer. A highlight of the event was seeing exhausted runners, just hitting “the wall” at the marathon’s 23-mile point, veer straight off Liberty Avenue and plunge into the soft welcoming foam of a free Iron City Beer. Every local politician made it a point to stop by the BBT’s temporary parking lot stage to dole out cash “prizes” for things like “best dancer” and “cutest puppy”. Across the street, Foodland’s electronic weekly specials sign would be programmed to read the jingoist message Go runners. Beat Kenyans.

mural of Polish towns coats of arms painted on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish towns coats of arms, BBT parking lot

And then there are those murals. Dozens–maybe a hundred–different coats-of-arms of Polish towns you’ve probably never heard of. Crests with identifying names like Głowno, Szczecin, Gryfów Ślaski, and Żywiec ring the inside of BBT’s short concrete parking lot wall and come decorated in all manner of old world imagery–castles, bulls, red stags, and green griffins; kings, knights, mermaids, the sun & plow.

It’s gone now, but an earlier generation will forever associate the exterior of the bar with both the wonderful potted-flower Bloomfield mural/sign and [BBT founder/patriarch] Stan Frankowski’s wall-sized polemics attacking local politicians, anti-union foes, and corporate corruption. After Stan’s passing in 2005, his sons Steve and Karl took over the business. They kept up all the other traditions–including the annual day-after-Easter Dyngus Day party–but toned-down the see-it-from-the-suburbs politics. The updated red-and-white paint job, side screened porch/smoker’s lounge, and Polish falcons still look great.

coats of arms for Rodom and Radlin painted as murals on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Coats-of-arms from Rodom and Radlin

I didn’t make it out to the final night at the BBT–the body just wouldn’t let me. Luckily, Mike Shanley gave us all a pretty good scene report plus a slew of his own reminiscences in this week’s City Paper.

That said, news began to circulate about the (then-future) closing of the bar back in the late winter, so 2017 became a kind-of year-long living goodbye to venue. I played a last show there, saw a (different) last show there, and yes, ate a last Polish Platter. For the piece on his recent book of poetry, we interviewed Scott Silsbe over Strawb ambers in BBT’s breezy side porch on a lovely day in May.

mirrored wall behind the bar and patrons at Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

BBT near the end: bevelled mirror bar, blood red ceiling, and big cats on TV.

As much as I’ll personally miss the place, I don’t fault the Frankowski brothers one bit for the decision to move on. Running a bar has got to be really tough work full of long, late hours dealing with no small amount of jerks, deadbeats, drunkards, and bodily fluids. Hats off to anyone who can put up with all that and still keep smiles on their faces the way Stan, Steve, Karl, and Sheila always did.

The Orbit certainly hopes the Frankowskis find a good new owner for the building and business so they can finally relax on the weekends without the sound of electric guitars ringing in their ears. Hopefully, the next tenants at 4412 Liberty Ave. will understand the legacy and history they’re dealing with–maybe they’ll even keep up the outside murals.

exterior of Bloomfield Bridge Tavern with Polish red and white flag and logo, Pittsburgh, PA

Hallowed ground. Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

A final note. “New” Pittsburgh: if you’re out there listening and planning the next local, organic, hop-infused culinary venture, please–sweet Jesus–consider adding a Polish Platter to the menu. I’m sure I won’t be the only one pining for the taste and willing to pony up every chance I get–at least as much as the doctor allows.

metal window cover painted with message "The worst form of failure is the failure to try.", Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

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.