Against Pittsburgh’s Primanti Bros

primanti300By Spencer Ackerman

I tried making my way to my friend and FDL colleague Lisa Derrick’s Netroots Nation panel, but VoteVets‘ Jon Soltz had other ideas. What began as an in-elevator parley on Afghanistan — I was on a panel discussing the subject earlier that morning — creeped into a recognition that Pittsburgh, where this year’s progressive carnival was held, is Jon’s hometown. Opportunity seized: “So, Jon, where should we go to eat?”

“Oh, you want Pittsburgh grub?” Soltz replied, eyes alight. “I’ll take you to Primanti Bros.”

It should be noted that it was barely 5 p.m. and Mandy and I had gotten something to eat about three hours before. I wanted to know where, generally speaking, we should go while in town for the convention. But Soltz was excited to show some out-of-towners his childhood cuisine and so we walked the ten or so blocks from the convention center to the Pittsburgh sandwich institution, with Soltz running into a college buddy and his friend’s fiance on the way. Like the mayor, this guy.

Anyway, I asked: what should we get at Primanti’s? “They’ve got these cheesesteaks,” Jon continued. “They’re like a Philly cheesesteak, but from Pittsburgh.” What’s the difference? “Not much.” So we should go for the cheesesteaks? “No,” Soltz replied. “I usually get the corned beef sandwich.”

Primanti’s itself couldn’t have been more inviting. Classic bar set-up inside, with a solid 75 percent of the clientele rocking Steelers jerseys for that evening’s exhibition game against the Cardinals. It was a nice afternoon, so we took a table outside, felt the breeze blow through our hair and watched the August foot traffic at Market Square. Soltz left us to prepare for a fundraiser VoteVets was throwing for Rep. Patrick Murphy. But I figured I’d take his advice and ordered the corned beef, which Mandy and I split with a pickle and a side of fries.

It turned out we didn’t need the fries. Primanti’s sandwiches come stacked with fries, making them the penultimate layer of a sandwich built with meat, cheese and coleslaw. Even if we’d not eaten for a day, it would have been a mistake.

Look, I love a good unhealthy deli-meat-based sandwich. My heart aches first for the deli by South Shore High School in Brooklyn — the pastrami, the corned beef, the cucumber salad, the heartburn — and second for the fact that I can’t remember what it’s called. But this is a mediocre sandwich. The cole slaw is little more than shredded cabbage. The meat is rubbery, not salty — the thin pile provided was a bad sign — and poorly served by the slathering of melted cheese, itself oily and tasteless.  The bread is the most disappointing thing of all. Soggy white bread that offers no textural contrast and barely performs its task of making the overstuffed sandwich portable. It’s actually less of a sandwich than an engineering problem. The human mouth isn’t sufficiently evolved for the needs of a Primanti sandwich. And that’s for good reason: our nature selected us to want flavor, not mere caloric intake.

A surreptitious campaign started at Netroots Nation. Did you go to Primanti’s yet? someone would ask. Well, yeah, came the response. Each side tried to figure if the other would be offended by a confession that the sandwich underperformed expectations. Finally, one would say: You know, I expected more from a famous deli... And then: God, yes — where was the flavor? Of the handful of people I spoke to, only one enjoyed their offering, the capicola sandwich, and who knows, maybe it’s great; I didn’t try it. Everyone else had a disappointing pastrami, corned beef or cheesesteak. Ah well: next year’s NN moves back to Las Vegas. It’s just as well. I can see Soltz denying me my key to the city for my next trip to Pittsburgh already.


15 responses to “Against Pittsburgh’s Primanti Bros

  1. Primanti’s does require a few tries, admittedly. My family had to eat there about three times on visits before they understood why we were so crazy. My dad goes for the hot sausage and peppers now.

    As vegetarians, my wife and I still love the place. The egg and cheese works so much better than it should.

    Primanti is more important for what it SAYS about Pittsburgh than the way it really tastes. I’ll leave the conclusion of that paragraph to your own unfortunate jokes.

  2. Hm,,well, this is interesting. I’m in Pittsburgh right now visiting family. I was here last summer and we went to Primanti’s for “the sandwich”. It’s all impressive looking but , you’re right…no flavor. Just architecture… and the gimmick of having fries on the sandwich. Great idea…but you’ve gotta add some flavor. And the bread….well, I’m from N.E. New Jersey, right outside of NYC (we have unbelievably good bread) , and that Primanti’s bread tasted and felt like Wonder bread to me. Not really fit for a sandwich. Too thickly sliced, too squishy.
    I loved The Strip and I love Pittsburgh. It’s a wonderful city, but that sandwich was more talk than taste.

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  5. Netroots Nation – come back to Chicago!! If only for the food.

  6. @laurinmanning

    I also had my first Primanti Bros. experience while at Netroots Nation last week, and I was similarly underwhelmed by the famous sandwich.

    I ordered the cheesesteak, which was billed as the #2 most popular item on the menu. I neglected to notice that the full name of the sandwich was the “Pittsburgher” cheesesteak.

    So… I’m standing in line waiting on my order and watching the gruff guys with the big guns build sandwich after sandwich in rapid succession. I notice that they keep extracting these rectangularish meat patties from a vat of steaming water. The meat patties were about the size of a checkbook, and I thought for sure that they were scrapple — a processed, Pennsylvania specialty that a former coworker of mine used to horrify me by eating every morning in the Dirksen cafeteria. See:

    Well, I combed the menu over and over in search of the scrapple sandwich, and it wasn’t on there. Perhaps something only the locals knew about, I thought?


    Eventually one of the scrapplish patties made its way onto what would end up being my sandwich.

    Not exactly the mound of shaved roast beef I’d envisioned as the so-called cheesesteak.

    I ended up picking out the fries, which were tasty, and eat the tomato, but not much else. The slaw, which I’d been told was vinegar-based, was mostly just oil and cabbage.

    I love me a good burger, but the patty should never, never arrive pre-formed and pre-soaked in a vat of water.

  7. I disagree with all of you. My Primanti’s experience was at about 2am after a night of drinking and it hit the spot. If you’re looking for culinary enlightenment, you don’t go to Primanti’s, that’s not the point.

    Since you wrote this, I imagine you kept your opinion about Mancini’s bread to yourself, otherwise you would NOT have made it out of Pittsburgh alive! Those people are very loyal and don’t take kindly to criticism.

  8. Yeah, I have to say that my own recreations of Primanti’s sandwiches (undertaken at home every time the Stillers reach the Super Bowl) taste much better than the real thing. Organic shaved steak, sharp provolone, homemade fries and slaw on hearty Italian bread.

    HOWEVER, this is not to say that there isn’t plenty of other great and terrible food to be had. Check out Fathead’s on E. Carson St. for their wonderful sandwiches (I recommend the Southside Slopes – kielbasa, periogies and cheese!), as well as the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern for wonderful rib-stickin’ Polish platters.

  9. RoboticGhost

    Its sort of an acquired taste best acquired when sort of drunk if you didn’t grow up eating at Primanti’s. Think of it as Pittsburgh’s lutefisk.

  10. There are Primanti Bros. in the suburbs now. I grew up in the South Hills, but a Primanti Bros with ample parking just seems wrong.

  11. I agree that Primanti’s is best eaten at around 3AM, when you’re both plastered and ravenous. Also best enjoyed when heavily dosed with the Trappy’s Red Devil sauce on the table. And the cheesesteak isn’t what I’d recommend–I usually double-down on the cholesterol and order a bacon, egg and cheese. Good stuff.

    This also reminds me that I haven’t been to Fatheads for too long a time.

  12. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for a number of years and still haven’t figured out why people like Primanti Brothers, but there is good food here. Go to Mad Mex and order a burrito with the chick pea chili–sounds odd, tastes great, or try Peruvian food at La Feria, or for my favorite, get the ginger hot pot at New Dumpling House (along with some dumplings of course.)

  13. know, I expected more from a famous deli

    But Primanti’s isn’t a deli. The conspicuous absence of a deli counter could have been the first clue. Personally, I always get the hot sausage sandwich, which holds up much better to the other ingredients.

    Also, the slaw is seasoned with vinegar and pepper. You noticed that, didn’t you?

    No argument on the bread, however.

  14. @JRoth, fair point on the ‘deli’ reference, as I was sloppily using ‘deli’ as a synonym for ‘place where one gets a sandwich,’ and that’s just not the same thing. As for the slaw — OMG it was really barely seasoned. I got very little vinegar and pepper. Maybe it was an off-day.

  15. I love Primantis, I’ve only lived here for two years but i go every chance i get. And yes it is at its finest when you are hammered in the early morning hours.

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