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By Raphael Kadushin
Early one morning at Primanti Brothers, in the middle of Pittsburgh's Strip District, Antonia Corradetti is constructing a sandwich so big it would make Dagwood blanch. A fixture behind the long diner counter, she flips a wad of just grilled corned beef onto a thick slice of Italian bread. Then, yanking a basket of oil-dripping french fries directly from the deep fryer, she plunges her bare hand into the heap, extracts a fistful of steaming potatoes, and smashes them on top of the beef, so you can hear the sizzle when the smoking spuds greet the meat. Surprised there is no echoing sizzle coming from Corradetti's hand, I'm ready to dial 911, but she seems indifferent to her five-finger fire walk.
"I've only been doing this for 28 years," she says with a shrug, in a strong Italian accent. "I can do a thousand of these an hour." But the pain? "Well the first time I did it, it was kinda hot, but the grill is a good conditioner." Corradetti laughs, holding out beautifully manicured hands as soft as a baby's cheek.
Locals call Corradetti's literal handiwork the official Strip sandwich—not just because others have copied it but because it mirrors the district's own history. Dating back to 1933, when the Strip was still the exclusive turf of wholesalers delivering produce out of mammoth brick warehouses, the sandwich was aimed at a fail-proof market. For the truckers who were Strip royalty, nothing tasted better than the meat-and-potatoes meal they could hold in one big hand, while they steered with the other.
Now the sandwich is consumed mostly by late-night clubbers, but it still signifies the way the Strip guards its traditions, starting with its own defining look. Forget designer makeovers. You can see Pittsburgh's high-rises in the near distance, just to the south, but the restless development largely stops at the Strip's border, where the hulking brick buildings still throw long shadows like something out of a Hopper painting.
The district's survival, though, was never a sure thing. It under-went a slow decline that began in the Depression, when the warehouses first started to lose business. But by the 1970s the wholesalers were opening retail shops, and by the '90s a fresh generation of style setters had moved in, launching the boutiques, galleries, and dance clubs now lining Penn Avenue, the Strip's version of Main Street. The inevitable conversion of warehouses into lofts followed, and the Strip morphed from homey to high style.
Now the neighborhood maintains a delicate balancing act between old and new, one that plays 24 hours a day. I fuel my 24 with a fresh-brewed cappuccino at La Prima, surrounded by shop owners swapping gossip and rustling Italian newspapers. At 10 a.m. I'm mingling with the crowds at the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, where the standard blocks of mozzarella have been joined by French Brie, English Stilton, and Danish blue, though the clerks still slice the cheese with attitude ("What you want, hon?"). Serious eaters usually follow with a wedge of torta rustica at Il Piccolo Forno. "I bake every night from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.," Antonio Branduzzi says, as he bags an almond popover for me, "but it's worth it. I came here from Lucca, Italy, 17 years ago, and I felt right at home. Maybe because a lot of Lucca was already here."
Down at Parma Sausage, another obligatory morning pit stop, owner Luigi Spinabelli also feels at home, despite his own bumpier transition when he came over from Italy in 1954. "Everything you touched in Pittsburgh then turned you black it was so dirty," he says, "and every time a streetcar passed by, the salami we smoked in our living room would swing, so we thought the whole building would fall down."
Today the meat sits out in Parma Sausage's long jewel box of a deli case, overseen by Luigi's daughter, Rina. She always knew she'd be part of the family business. "When my parents brought me back from the hospital, the first thing they did was hang a lovely mobile of big salamis above my crib," Rina says with a laugh.
Many morning shoppers in the Strip have their own visceral memories. A few blocks from Parma, at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, the older Polish worshipers recall the day in 1935 when the banana warehouse—still sitting sheepishly across the street—suddenly exploded, fracturing the chapel's turrets. "It can be dangerous," Father McKenna muses, "to use gas when you're ripening fruit."
Around the corner on Penn Avenue, at Klavon's Ice Cream Parlor, owner Ray Klavon relives another neighborhood trauma. "My father was trapped on top of the parlor phone booth for an entire night during the 1936 flood," he says. "He was finally hauled through the window into a rowboat, and he wasn't a small man."
By afternoon nostalgia wanes, and Tuscan hill town gives way to global village, as young urbanites start to prowl the boutiques. "The people who want the best coffee and cheese are also the kind of people who want the best decorative objects," Keneva Fecko, co-owner of Hot Haute Hot, says, pointing to a shelf of scented candles. "Hollywood," she assures me, "is all over these."
The Strip's fusion act comes fully to life at night, when casual eateries like Primanti and chic restaurants like Lidia's fill up and the pierced kids outside the Rosebud dance club compare tattoos with the last of the Strip's truckers.
For Lucy Sheets, a Vietnamese immigrant, the spectacle is worth her own epic hours. "I never miss one night," she says, flipping the chicken kabobs she cooks on a sidewalk grill. "Last night I was grilling until 4 a.m." As she places a new skewer on the heat, we watch the crowds: the Prada brigade bursting out of a sushi bar, a warehouse workman hauling a crate of fruit, and what looks like Antonio heading to the bakery. It's midnight, and I'm ready to end my own day early, but Sheets is still wide-awake and cooking. "I return to Vietnam for a few months every winter," she says.
But every spring she's back to catch the show.