PITTSBURGH -- There is no shortage of pride in the "Steel City."
Walk around Downtown Pittsburgh for any length of time and you are virtually certain to encounter a steady stream of friendly, easy-going folks with distinct accents and dresser drawers stuffed with T-shirts honoring their favorite sports teams. There is a thriving art scene, cool museums, a smattering of trendy shops and restaurants and some historic neighborhoods with unique drinking and dining options.
In some ways, it's like Milwaukee -- with three rivers instead of a lake.
Pittsburghers are laid-back and approachable. They are funny and a bit self-deprecating.
And, they are crazy about a sandwich.
If you ask any cab driver, hotel employee, store clerk or random person on the street for advice on what to do, the question is almost inevitable:
"Have you had a Primanti Brothers sandwich yet?"
Sure, the locals love their Super Bowl and Stanley Cup titles. The real source of civic pride, though, comes from a signature sandwiched serves by Primanti Brothers, a chain of casual eateries with more than 18 locations.
What makes a Primanti Brothers sandwich special, you ask?
It's unique. The sandwich consists of grilled meat, a vinegar-based cole slaw (no mayo), tomato slices and hand-cut, skin-on French fries stacked high (nearly six inches) between two soft pieces of fresh, soft Italian bread.
It's been called "heavenly." It's been called "the best bar-time food in the world." It's been called a "gut bomb." Some simply call it "the best sandwich in America."
According to local legend, the original Primanti Brothers location is in Pittsburgh's Strip District, which once housed warehouses and produce yards and is now home to many retail shops, restaurants and condos.
In the 1930s, Joe Primanti designed a sandwich for truckers, who would pick one up and drive with one hand and eat with the other. He began selling it from a cart, but moved to a permanent location and sold sandwiches between 3 a.m. and 3 p.m. -- prime time for truckers and dock workers in the area.
Today, Primanti's is popular for lunch and late at night, when crowds line up to order varieties that include simple selections like corned beef and cheese ($6.29), Turkey or chicken ($6.29), hot sausage and cheese ($5.99) and the classic "Pitts-burgher" cheese steak ($5.99), which is more like a burger than a Philly cheesesteak and is described as the "No. 2 seller," but actually dominates the sales charts.
Over the years, I've sampled pastrami, cheese steaks and the sweet sausage varieties and all were exceptional. This sandwiches, served wrapped in waxed paper, are warm, delicious and exceptionally messy. The slaw doesn't have mayo, but it drips onto the fries, which help hold things together. The bread has a doughy consistency reminiscent of Wonder bread, but it stands up to the other ingredients so perfectly that it's hard to imagine any other end pieces.
Now for the key question: Is it the best sandwich in the world?
I think the folks at the Carnegie Deli in New York City and a few other places may have something to say about that. For people in Pittsburgh, though, there is no substitute.
Mix in a little ketchup (Heinz 57 is the local favorite), some Red Devil hot sauce and a cold beer (Iron City?), and you have a meal that will fuel hours of activities like Pirates/Steelers/Penguins games, trips to the Warhol Museum or pounding Iron City beers until it's time to have another sandwich.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.