People that have grown up in Pittsburgh have a ton of pride in themselves and their city. Outside of their culture and sports teams, life-long Pittsburgh folk are incredibly proud of Primanti Bros., a restaurant known for being the first to put fries on a sandwich. The love for this sandwich is pretty insane and out-of-town visitors without a doubt will be told they have to try a sandwich at Primantis during their visit. Well, I’m here to spoil some of the love for this sandwich shop and probably piss some people off in the process, but the truth can be hard to hear sometimes. While perhaps Primanti Bros. used to have delicious sandwiches back in the day, during my two years living in Pittsburgh I not once had a delicious sandwich from the restaurant. I still feel that their sandwich is one of the most over-hyped things I’ve ever eaten. Before I tear apart this dry and tasteless sandwich that tends to fall apart in your hands anyway, let me give you a run down of the interesting history and mass fan-appeal that Primanti Bros. has garnered over the years.
Joe Primanti grew up in the suburbs outside of Pittsburgh and was the supposed creator of the first sandwich to be topped with fries and coleslaw, an overstuffed sandwich that was known to be served to late-night and early-morning workers during the Great Depression. His brothers Dick and Stanley joined him in his sandwich making endeavors and opened up their first restaurant location in 1933 in an area of Pittsburgh known as the Strip District. After Stanley and Joe Primanti passed away in the early 1970’s, Dick Primanti decided to sell the business to Jim Patrinos in 1975. Today Primanti Bros. has several locations, most of which are in the Pittsburgh area, but many that are outside the city in nearby states like Ohio and West Virginia and even further away in Florida and Maryland.
The fanfare around the restaurant is enormous as it has been featured on many top sandwich lists and mentioned on several publications and TV shows including National Geographic magazine and Man v. Food. Perhaps among Primanti Bros. most prestigious honors is that The James Beard Foundation named their sandwich as an American classic. Primanti Bros. has such a massive following that the restaurant delivers sandwich packages nation wide, even by drone for those who are willing to pay a higher price.
One of the great things about Primanti Bros. is that there is a large assortment of meat choices on the menu, including less commonly found meats on sandwiches like knockwurst, kolbassi, and sardine. As long as it’s not insanely crowded the sandwich usually is out fairly quickly, and with most stores open late at night, it’s a popular spot for those not-so-sober night owls on the weekend. While it was usually a last resort for my friends and I when we would go to the bars in Pittsburgh, it was always a savior when nothing else nearby was open and we needed food quick.
Their speed, service, and selection is where my compliments stop. The makeup of the sandwich is pretty simple but Primanti’s has a fun diagram of this “almost famous” sandwich on its website. As you can see from the below diagram the sandwich is at least half coleslaw and fries, not the greatest ingredients for a tasty and well-textured sandwich. The diagram also notes that the bread is fresh, and while I can’t claim to know if they actually bake their bread fresh daily, it doesn’t taste fresh or special at all. In fact, the bread tastes like the cheap packaged white bread you can find in any grocery store, but dried out as if the package were left open for a week. It also tends to fall apart and doesn’t hold the massive sandwich together well. When a sandwich place can’t even offer good bread you know you are in for a bad eating experience.
But let’s look past the bread and the ratio of components and dive into the taste and flavor of the ingredients in between these two lifeless pieces of bread. The tomato is fine, it seems juicy and fresh enough. Of the deli meats that I’ve had on my sandwich – including roast beef, salami, capicola, and ham – I’ve been quite pleased with the quality of the them, as well as the provolone cheese. The problem is that when you eat the whole sandwich with all of its elements, you can’t really taste the delicious meat and cheese, which to me is the best part of a sandwich. The heap of oversalted and soggy fries, the tasteless coleslaw, and that damn dry bread outweigh any good flavors coming from the meat and cheese, making it a extremely sub-par sandwich.
Even when I try to match it up to similarly done sandwiches like the one at Panini’s Bar and Grill in Cleveland, Primanti’s is worse. That is saying something because I don’t like Panini’s sandwich that much either. I just think Panini’s has a better ratio of ingredients.
Maybe I’m just no fun. Maybe I’m just a hater of fries and coleslaw on sandwiches. Maybe I’m comparing it to too high of a standard to all of the other fantastic food spots that Pittsburgh has to offer, including an overwhelmingly better sandwich at Gaucho. But one thing I can say without a doubt is that it is not even close to the best sandwich you will ever have. If you ever try Primanti’s either go highly intoxicated at night, like almost everyone else at that time, or come in expecting one of the worst sandwiches you’ll ever eat, and you’ll be less upset when it’s just extremely mediocre.
-Michael Averbook, Foodie Extraordinaire