National Geographic : 2003 Aug
PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA 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 some thing 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 ware houses 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 con version 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 II 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 Pitts burgh 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 "The senses, the ability to enjoy taste and texture are gifts that God gives us." -TOM JOHNSON Bone-licking ribs attract soul-food fans on Satur days, when ethnic food stalls and street vendors jam the Strip. "That'swhen everybody in Pittsburgh comes together," says the Reverend Tom Johnson (above). "It's a pilgrim age." A welder downs a crunchy lunch at Triangle Welding, a thriving busi ness true to the area's blue-collar roots.