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Pilgrimage across PA (Philly, Lancaster County, Johnstown, Pittsburgh)

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Pilgrimage across PA (Philly, Lancaster County, Johnstown, Pittsburgh)

Jeff Shore | Sep 9, 2001 07:28 PM

Both my wife and I grew up in Los Angeles, but we each trace our roots back to Pennsylvania. My family is from Philadelphia; my wife’s father is from Johnstown and went to school in Pittsburgh. I have traveled to Phila many times growing up and assembled a lengthy list of memorable places to which we could return in Phila; west of there, we were on our chowhound-y adventurous own. (To make our challenge more exciting, we’re both fish-eating vegetarians.)

PHILADELPHIA

Nifty Fifty’s

Our first meal in PA, outside of a Morningstar Farms veggie burger (“100% Real Beef Taste!”) on Amoroso roll. Chocolate malt, large fries, fried fish sandwich, and Maryland crab cake sandwich. Fries were good in an In-and-Out (for LA readers) vein, the malt seemed overwhelmed by the chocolate ice cream, but the fish sandwiches were superb. Not too greasy, excellent quality fish.

Goodnoe’s Ice Cream

As part of a concerted plan to exit Phila city limits ASAP, we made our way to this landmark of my childhood visits. We split a Chocolate Chip Cookie Sundae – hot fudge, vanilla ice cream, cookies. Decadent, and quite good, though hardly the best ice cream we’d have on our sybaritic visit.

New England Pizza
9867 Bustleton Ave
Philadelphia, PA

Horribly bright place in a strip mall; one of many semi-related New England Pizza restaurants in North East Philly. After learning that the marinara sauce in the calzone was cooked with a bone, we opted for a no-bone large pizza with mozz cheese and extra sauce. Amazing. Thick pizza, thin crust.

White Dog Café
3420 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104
(215) 386-9224

Thanks to a suggestion posted on this board to a question I posed back in February, we found this superb restaurant. Really, one of our favorite restaurants anywhere; a beautiful building and location, extra-friendly staff, brilliant and challenging dishes. (This is what I want from Campanile in Los Angeles…)

On one trip, we took advantage of their Senior Brunch – bring an elderly person to lunch (who doesn’t get out very often), receive either one main course free or get 50% off the bill. (“Either” because it seems to depend on how your server interprets the rule; we got the more generous offer.) I had Eggs St. Bernard, poached eggs with salmon; my wife had Chihuahua Eggs (tortillas with eggs over easy, gazpacho sauce, and crisp lettuce). We had a side of scalloped potatoes and a basket of pastries (savory scone with buttermilk, cheddar and scallions; a lemon ginger muffin with icing; bran muffin; and a coffee cake with fresh berries that completely altered our concept of the world.) My grandmother had the buttermilk scrambled eggs with an enormous hunk of ham.

Aldo’s Pizzarama
10201 Bustleton Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19116

Daughters behind the cashier, sons making the deliveries, dad cooking in the back; by our second visit to a different restaurant, we realized that tiny Italian holes in the wall don’t get much better than in NE Philly. The baked ziti with ricotta and mozzarella was delicious and overpriced, but the eggplant parma sandwich was awesome…and not even the best on our trip!

Corner Bakery

Grilled cheese sandwich and a cream cheese brownie at this passable but attractive café across from Marriott & RT market; we only ate here because it was a) Sunday and b) Sunday. (Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but compared to everything else…)

Pat’s Steaks

Okay, I AM a vegetarian, but this isn’t food…it’s a monument. I had a “cheese whiz with” (which I practiced nervously for 15 minutes, while waiting in line); my wife had the “fish cake.” Bet you didn’t know that was on the menu? It sure threw the counter people for a loop; they recovered, dishing out a “small shark,” as they called it, and frying it up in the “meat” grease. Oh, and a small fries with cheese whiz.

So, how did treason taste? Well, the bread was great…and the cheese was a blast. And the meat…uh, well, it was chewy? That’s sort of the point, but I didn’t feel like I’m missing that much on a daily basis.

New England Pizza
6728 Bustleton Ave
Philadelphia, PA

Different location, different owners, no bone in the sauce. Mozz stromboli – hyper greasy, but delicious. Same crispy crust.

Reading Terminal Market
Paradise! We had coffee, and walked all the aisles; here’s where we ate:

- Bassett’s Ice Cream
Dark chocolate chip. Creamy, chocolatey, good.

- Rocco’s
Tuna hoagie with sharp provolone. The provolone alone – tangy, sharp, finds all the cuts in your mouth – is worth the price of admission.

Illona Keller’s Dugan’s Restaurant
7900 Roosevelt Blvd
Philadelphia, PA 19152

This restaurant – nay, this experience – deserves far more description than I am willing to provide.

This facility is primarily a banquet hall. There are three separate enormous rooms, each permanently set up in round table arrangement, with fake flower centerpieces and gaudy fanned napkins. The office of the manager includes an enormous display of bizarre crystal animals and what appeared to be faux Hummel figurines. The lobby is gaudy beyond description, with a permanent gazebo. The dining room of the restaurant is dark and slightly dingy, with a cheesy or bitter “matre d’” (depending on whether you come for lunch or dinner). The plates are dirty, the waitress is angry and sad and overworked, and the food is not good enough to make up for the pain all around.

White Dog Café
(second visit)

So traumatized by Dugan’s were we, only a White Dog could cure us of our ills. Organic Mexican decaf coffee, accompanied with their house blend of Snaggletooth Red Rhone Wine (bottled by Cline!) helped; milk chocolate mousse with peanuts, caramel, and whipped cream REALLY helped; home made coffee and vanilla ice cream with pup & bone cookies made everything okay. Such amazing flavor in the ice cream; flecks of roasted coffee bean danced on our tongue.

LANCASTER COUNTY

Shady Maple Smorgasboard
1324 Main Street - East Earl, PA 17557
Phone: (717) 354-4981 - Fax: (717) 354-2164

This place is awesome. Not just good awesome, but awe inspiring awesome. It is the size of, and looks like, one of those California/Nevada borderline casinos. Massive and boxy from the outside, it is, well, massive and boxy on the inside. $7.98 for the all-you-can-eat buffet – we loaded up on dried corn (our first taste – amazing, smoky and sweet all at the same time), mashed potatoes, buttered noodles, surprisingly crispy snow peas, mixed veggies (fresh! FRESH!), “filling”, stewed tomatoes, and, did I mention the mashed potatoes? For dessert, we loaded up on shoofly pie (our first taste – didn’t really blow us away), several types of gooey, thick custard, Reese’s Pieces cake, apple crumble, and some impressive soft serve ice cream.

So good, and so…much for PA Dutch food. That was it. We loved it, and we knew we really didn’t feel like eating any more!

Lemon Grass Gourmet Thai Restaurant

We drove around the surprisingly expansive Lancaster Country (duh…it’s a county!) searching for who knows what. We found it in the form of the “best” (and only) Thai restaurant in Lancaster. And man, was it freaking expensive; good, but expensive! Veggie egg rolls were impressive, Thai salad was small and nothing special, and the special (the name escapes me) of glass noodles with veggies, tofu, and bean paste wrapped in a pastry shell was excellent. But really, $10.95?

JOHNSTOWN

Johnnie’s

Johnstown is a surprisingly beautiful town, but it has been through some very hard times; 4 floods, and a couple decades of economic decay have not left a thriving restaurant scene. A tip from the welcome center led us to what we believe is the oldest existing restaurant, Johnnie’s. Our waitress, Mary, has been there since they opened in 1962, and worked with the owner at separate locations since 1947; she is something of a local legend and knows the town about as well as anyone around. After an “appetizer” of grilled cheese, we tried the fried and breaded scallops and the fried and breaded haddock. Each came with three sides, and so our table was soon filled with mashed potatoes, buttered broccoli, cole slaw, zucchini and eggplant, and a plain salad. The food was good, solid competent food; nothing extraordinary or exciting. It made us quite happy, however; the haddock was quite tasty, and the cole slaw / fresh bread combination felt like a sibling of the Pantry Restaurant in Los Angeles.

Our Son’s Restaurant

We found this gem thanks to our family pilgrimage across Johnstown. Breakfast was good; the hotcakes were savory and springy, the kraft cheese / mushroom omelette with scalloped potatoes was great. This restaurant really seemed to excel in the baked goods department. The omelette came with homemade fresh Italian bread, the likes of which I would commit crimes to find in Los Angeles. On our way out, we got a slice of apple pie to go (which over a day later was still sweet and fresh), and an oval, egg-shaped black pastry known only as a “Gob” (or “glob,” we couldn’t quite remember.) Basically, a gourmet, homemade dingdong, the Gob is a rounded and amazingly moist cake, sliced in the middle, and filled with a thick artificial vanilla icing. Sort of an icing sandwich, if you will. Does it sound disgusting? Then you really have to taste it; neither of us is a crap-food afficionado, but this was one of the most compelling sweets we’ve ever tried.

PITTSBURGH

Piccolo Piccolo

After being turned off by the rude, abrupt maitre d’ at the famed Tin Angel, we found Piccolo Piccolo in downtown Pittsburgh. Comfortable Italian restaurant in the style of a mafiosa-esque place in San Francisco’s North Beach, with a shtick: order a main course, get antipasto, pasta or soup, and salad all included. Antipasti included rice and cheese croquets, garlic olive oil green beans, spicy pickled veggies, and bitter green pepper, all good. The main course standout was a pasta streudel: spinach, pasta, marinara sauce layered and rolled up in a streudel style, then sliced and laid out in a nutmeg cream sauce. Sounds so simple, yet so complex and unique; the marinara and cream sauces played off of each other, yielding a sweetness that tasted almost like pumpkin.

Trucks by Pitt Campus

With abysmal campus food to choose from, its no wonder that the dining hall of choice at Pitt appears to be a series of dodgy looking (but apparently state licensed) ethnic food trucks, whose name might was well be “How do you cook in there?” We tried a spicy Aloo Palak from an Indian truck (skipping an exciting looking North Indian truck) and a Szechuan Eggplant with Tofu from a Chinese truck. Both were good, and cheap.

Pi

A sleek and modern Tapas bar/pizzeria in Squirrel Hill. We generally spring for Tapas whenever they’re available, and this did not disappoint. A potato pancake and an eggplant parmasean slice were good, an artichoke manicotti rich and creamy, and a roasted red pepper tart was the big hit. Pizza was astoundingly expensive, but satisfying; over $11 for a very large “small,” with “valuzzi’s famous thin crust.” The crust was thin and extremely crispy, with a sweet sauce and copious cheese.

De Luca’s (on the Strip)

The Strip District near downtown Pittsburgh is a Chowhound paradise, a still vibrant marketplace for fish, meat, and vegetables, packed with decades-old Italian retailers. DeLuca’s bills itself as having “The Best Breakfast in Pittsburgh,” and who are we to quibble? The zucchini omelette is packed with thick slices of fresh zucchini, and the veggie scramble is a vegetarian masterpiece of onions, home fries, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini with scrambled eggs on top. The Italian Rolls come from an artisan baker on the other side of town, and the coffee is fresh roasted next door.

Sunseri Brothers (on the Strip)

Perhaps the Eggplant Parmasean sandwich of our time? A fresh Italian roll stuffed with more than twice as much sauce and eggplant as it can possibly handle, the fast collapsing sandwich looks like a parody of itself. Meaty, thick, chewy and oh-so-satisfying.

Benkowitz Fish (on the Strip)

Eggplant Parmasean sandwich part II, fish version. A tiny roll stuffed with three (THREE!) pieces of freshly fried fresh cod. We took two out and ate the separately. The cod is amazing, and the sandwich comes with their own brand of tartar sauce. Heaven.

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