It Wouldn’t Be the Strip Without Primanti’s Famous Sammich

By Cory Meiser

The meat and cheese bubble and sizzle on the huge flat-top grill. The French fries gurgle in the deep fryer as they cook to a perfect golden brown. A symphony of culinary preparation drowns the chatter of the usual weekend crowd, scents overtake the senses. The customers try with all their might to fit their mouths around the monstrosity that is the historic Primanti Brothers sandwich. Not one person seems to mindthe messy meal as they smile and chow down.

The Primanti sandwich evolved into a Pittsburgh staple after Joe Primanti opened his sandwich cart back in 1933 to help feed the truck drivers. Soon enough it was time to move into a more permanent location. Joe bought a small restaurant on 18th and Smallman Street and decided to stay open from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. for his truck-driving clientele. Joe’s brothers Dick and Stanley and his nephew John DePriter, who became the cook, soon joined him. An institution was born when DePriter, who had just been given some potatoes by a trucker, fried some up for the customers and served them on their sandwiches.

Photo by Aaron Warnick

Photo by Aaron Warnick

After Joe provided a jumping-off point for the Primanti’s legend, he moved to California for health reasons. That didn’t stop John, Dick and Stanley as they continued to craft their unique culinary creation for 30 years. In 1974, after the deaths of John and Stanley, Dick decided to sell the business to Jim Patrinos. This is when Primanti Bros. began to evolve into the munch-out Mecca it is today. 1974 was also the year that Tony Haggerty started at Primanti’s. The owners may have changed, but Tony says the quality of their sandwiches has always been the same.

“Nobody else makes this,” she says. “We have the fresh coleslaw, the fresh potatoes. It’s a truck driver sandwich, but everyone loves it.”

Tony has seen Primanti’s grow into an influential business. Since its humble beginnings in 1933, Primanti Bros. has expanded to 21 locations, including three in Florida. They make a quality product, and no one can dispute that but to Pittsburghers like Haggerty, the sandwich is so much more than coleslaw, fries, meat and cheese between two slices of hearty Italian bread.

“The people are what made it stick. It’s a part of the culture now,” she says. “I think what made it popular is people’s mouths. They eat the sandwich and tell their friends about it.”

The need for truck drivers to have a full meal that they could eat with one hand while on the go gave birth to the Primanti Bros. sandwich. What better way is there to do this other than pile their sides right on their sandwich?

A shop that was once filled with the blue-collar workers from the Strip has a different image today, though. As time went on, the people who patronized the shop became more diverse. Tony watched as the trucker clientele gave way to a trendier late-night crowd.

“We’re busy all the time that’s why we’re open 24 hours-a-day now,” she says. “Before it was more truck drivers and people working around here, but that’s changed. We get bar crowds and stuff now.” When the bars let out, the inebriated masses want something quick, convenient and delicious. The usual post-midnight snacks in Pittsburgh, like pizza or gyros, may be enough to curb alcohol-induced hunger, but according to midnight manager Andrew Perich, a Primanti’s sandwich is an unbeatable choice.

The truckers of the earlier days of Primanti’s still linger, but it’s the bar crowd that brings in most of the late night business these days, according to Andrew.

“Once 2:30 hits we fill up really fast. Actually, for an eight hour night shift, we make most of our business between 2:30 and 3:30. I mean like 90 percent,” Andrew says.

Photo by Aaron Warnick

Photo by Aaron Warnick

Though the clientele devouring Primanti’s highrise of a sandwich may be changing with the new hip image of the Strip District, people still seem to flock to 18th and Smallman Street. The historic sandwich shop gives people a huge, feel-good meal that will keep them satisfied for hours. It doesn’t matter if it’s hungry loading dock workers, truckers looking for a rich and convenient meal, or famished bar-hoppers hoping to sober up before hitting the sack, most people in Pittsburgh have a soft spot for the hearty sandwich that has been ingrained in the culture for over 75 people a huge, feel-good meal that will keep them satisfied for hours. It doesn’t matter if it’s hungry loading dock workers, truckers looking for a rich and convenient meal, or famished bar-hoppers hoping to sober up before hitting the sack, most people in Pittsburgh have a soft spot for the hearty sandwich that has been ingrained in the culture for over 75 years.