Hot Takeoff: 8 Reasons to Finally Head to Pittsburgh (and Hurry!)

You’ll no longer be able to fly direct to the city from Billy Bishop Airport after Sept. 20. Here are reasons you should try to get aboard one of the final flights.


Hot Takeoff is a column about travel and cities by the editor of Billy.

After two years of sub-par passenger demand, Porter Airlines has cancelled its Toronto-Pittsburgh route. There will be no more direct flights after Sept. 20. Since Pittsburgh will no longer be reachable directly from Billy Bishop, you’ll be hearing less about the city from us at Billy.

I’m sad about this development, having only recently discovered the city. (Like many Canadians, I suppose, I waited far too long to put Pittsburgh on my radar.) This former industrial city – now a high-tech hub – is a charming place, and one that residents of Southern Ontario in particular should visit more often. Depending on where you live, it can be faster and easier to reach Pittsburgh than, say, Montreal.

With that in mind, I urge everyone to try booking a convenient round-trip via downtown Toronto while you can, to explore this friendly, sports-loving city at the confluence of three great rivers. From the Billy archives and my own on-the-ground, calorie-heavy research, here are eight reasons … for starters.

1. You can eat some of the tastiest charcuterie around

For devotees of whisky and meat, a single visit to Butcher and the Rye may justify an entire visit to Pittsburgh. The décor sets a casual tone (it’s rustic Americana, such as antique cleavers hanging off barn boards), but the food is serious business. Charcuterie is a strength here; it all hits the right balance of salt and umami – from melt-on-the-tongue coppa to bone marrow and rabbit rillettes.

And if meat isn’t your thing, how about cured salmon morsels – all the flavour of a full fish, compressed into a nibble-sized cube! – or a local fish known as “sugar toads” (don’t let the name put you off), or a brilliantly vivid, summery dish of eggplant dip? Wash down your meal with local beer or a nicely executed cocktail, then cap it off with a whisky from a list so extensive that it’s delivered to your table via iPad.


Local meaty goodness.

2. You can stroll through the Strip District and Lawrenceville

Stretching northeast of downtown are two neighbourhoods that can give you a sense of the city in a few hours’ worth of grazing and window shopping. We’ve recommended the populist food and black-and-gold fan merchandise of the Strip District before, in this story, as well as the hipper shopping and dining experiences of Lawrenceville.

3. The Italian food is excellent

Granted, thanks to immigration, the Italian is tasty in a whole lot of North American cities. But Pittsburgh does punch above its weight; as a big fan of Italian cuisine, I had a number of top-shelf experiences here.

Enrico’s Café in the Strip District serves up pizza and other casual Southern foods with perfect simplicity, starting with the gooey cheese and black-bubbled crusts that pizza dreams are made on. There’s an adjacent bakery where visitors can book a class to learn breadmaking, and I wouldn’t be surprised if owner Larry Lagattuta offered you some of the basic-but-delicious house wines if you did.


Larry holding court at Enrico’s Cafe.

The Strip District’s many food stores also lean toward the Mediterranean, stacked to the rafters with Italian, Greek and Middle Eastern delicacies.

The most famous destination here is the original location of Primanti Bros., which was founded by Italians, although it doesn’t serve Italian food per se, other than some lunch meats. This is the place that serves french fries and cole slaw inside its sandwiches, and you can’t visit Pittsburgh without stuffing your face here.


Sports fans at Primanti Bros.

The higher-end Bar Marco in the District is a former garage, a high-ceilinged, concrete-floored cathedral to modern Italian cooking, with spot-on perfect takes on dishes that originate all the way from the top to bottom of Italy – from Piedmontese vitello tonnato (with pork instead of veal here, and a light cream sauce) to a typically Sicilian combination of salty swordfish with a freshly green caponata.


Beyond that, there’s Piccolo Forno for (and spot-on authentic) Neapolitan pizza; Vallozzi’s downtown for well-executed Italian basics, such as a hearty, fennel-scented pappardelle with meat sauce; a beautiful downtown bar called Talia for a wide selection of before-dinner apertivi (some of the vermouths and other specialties are vintage bottles, decades old); and Grapperia for an even wider selection of after-dinner drinks – which in the Italian context means amaro and grappa.


There are plenty of Italyinz here.

4. The soul food is amazing too

If you’re a fan of African-American cuisine, you’ll find delicious examples of that in Pittsburgh, too. Read Audarshia Townsend’s roundup of black food and culture in Pittsburgh here.

5. You can bike off those calories and admire the bridges

Pittsburgh is a city of bridges – which Billy admired last year – and it boasts a pretty waterfront generally, considering this used to be a heavy industrial town. This summer I got to experience a fun way to take in all the riverfront scenery: a tour with Golden Triangle Bike Rentals; you’ll get to cross at least a couple of those famous bridges if you book with the friendly crew there.

The souvenirs are funny if you know a thing or two about Pittsburgh.

6. There are tasty craft spirits to sample

The craft distilling boom has blessed Pittsburgh (and Pennsylvania generally) with a plethora of spirits worthy of sticking in one’s suitcase for the journey home – meaning you’ll have to check your luggage.

The outfit you’ll hear about most often is Wigle, known for its rye whisky. Before bourbon was famous, Pennsylvania rye – known as Monongahela whisky, after a local river – was America’s major whisky style, and among its offerings Wigle makes a white rye spirit that approximates the hooch that would have fuelled the Whiskey Rebellion of the late 18th century.

Meanwhile Maggie’s Farm specializes in excellent rums; the best are rich and oily with a bit of funk – because they’re produced the proper way, using techniques and yeast from the Caribbean. Sample the range at the laid-back tasting bar.

Finally, Pennsylvania Libations in the Strip District is a liquor store specializing in craft spirits made in-state, and makes a handy way to try a variety if you’re pressed for time.

7. The independent brewing scene is also hopping

I’ll let globe-trotting beer writer Stephen Beaumont make the recommendations here. Suffice it to say Pittsburgh has a vibrant scene for suds.

8. You can finish with an art crawl

Pittsburgh was the birthplace of Andy Warhol, and beyond that, as I wrote here, there’s plenty of contemporary art to soak in during a short visit to the city. Enjoy!

Hot Takeoff: 8 Reasons to Finally Head to Pittsburgh (and Hurry!)
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