As I mentioned last week, I was out of town. Specifically, I was in San Francisco. Every day and night, I ate at fabulous trendy restaurants. I walked around a vibrant, young, exciting city. I gained five pounds. And when it was all over, I took the red-eye back to Pittsburgh on a cold, dark, wet Saturday, landing at 6 in the morning.
This felt pretty depressing.
I would have felt this way even if it wasn’t raining. The fact that it was a dark and ugly morning just accentuated the mood. Now, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have this feeling when I return home from anywhere. It’s the ultimate expression of “the grass is always greener” syndrome. It doesn’t particularly matter where I go. When I go to LA, I think about moving there so I could have Roscoe’s chicken and waffles every day. Every time I visit Toronto, I consider whether it would be feasible to get a work permit for Canada; then I could have breakfast at Bonjour Brioche all the time. And it’s got nothing to do with how cool the places are: I’ve even felt this way after driving back from Toledo. I mean, really. Toledo.
So although San Francisco has real attractions and advantages over Pittsburgh, I have learned through experience that what I’m really feeling is an emotion that has nothing to do with how cool the place I just left was. It’s simply that when you travel, it’s easier to see (or remember) only the good things about a place, and not the other side of the coin.
Although I felt a bit down, I was prepared. I had anticipated this feeling. And I had a plan.
By 6 am, the Strip district in Pittsburgh is starting to come to life. By 6 am, La Prima Espresso is open. It’s the best coffee shop in town and would be among the best if you transplanted it to any city in the world outside of Rome. I drove into town and hit La Prima at 7. A proper cappuccino — unspoiled by the asinine Seattle tradition of “pour airy foam on the coffee until it is ruined” — started the day. Antonio, next door, was baking sfogliatelle; I had one there, and took one to go. Napolitan sfogliatelle traditionally have this citrus-cheese filling that I despise. Often, they have little bits of candied orange peel in them that I don’t like, either. Antonio’s aren’t like that: the filling is subtle, only a little sweet, and matches perfectly with the crunchy, striated shell. They’re not traditional; they’re merely perfect.
I walked down the street and into Penn Mac, where the Saturday morning rush at the cheese counter hadn’t yet begun. A hunk of Rosso Sini, a medium-bite sheep’s milk cheese, was the first choice. Danish fontina was on sale, so that went in the basket too, along with some French butter and oil-cured olives. Across the street, Sunseri’s Sunrise bakery was in full swing. A loaf of crusty bread to go with the cheese and butter and, what the hell, a dozen hot bagels. I’ll invite company over.
A line had already formed at Wholey’s fish market (they open at 8 in the morning), but I’ve always preferred Benkovitz, on the other side of the Strip. It’s a little more expensive, but something about the atmosphere there appeals to me. I dove into Prestogeorge to check out the specials, and then walked back up to my car. Passing Enrico’s bakery, I stopped in to say hi to Larry, and get some of the best of all possible coconut macaroons, anywhere in the entire world. Larry’s making sfogliatelle now, too, so of course I had to have one there, too. His sfogliatelle are larger than Antonio’s, and cost more, and have the traditional napolitan filling that I can’t stand. But right out of the oven, they’re great, filling and all. If you can get them hot, get them from Larry, otherwise go back up the street to Il Piccolo Forno and Antonio.
With a steaming sfogliatelle in my hand (and mouth), the light drizzle of cold rain was no longer bleak and depressing. It was a refreshing counterpoint, a tonic, brisk and pleasant. If I was eating this sfogliatelle in a 70 degree summer, it would just be good. But walking down a dark street in a cold January, it was like a magic talisman, keeping me warm and happy.
I was feeling much better about living in Pittsburgh by this point, and the sun hadn’t even come up yet.
Benkovitz had just opened when I arrived. I was carrying a dozen bagels. Therefore, I needed lox and whitefish salad and pickled herring to put on them. Bagels require fish. If you can understand this essential fact about bagels, then all of life’s other mysteries will fall into place by themselves. You’d think that you’d be better off finding whitefish salad somewhere in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh’s most prominent Jewish neighborhood, but this turns out to not be the case. Benkovitz’s salad feels like it was made by hand, with huge chunks of smoked whitefish, rather than being purÃ¨ed into submission in a food processor.
Laden with enough food to feed a peck of people for a weekend, I loaded up my trunk, got in the car, and drove home.
So this is what I think of as the best part of Pittsburgh. I like it here. Sure, the weather sucks.
But that just makes the pastries taste better.