By 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.