I'm a local and I unironically love Primanti Bros. | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

I'm a local and I unironically love Primanti Bros.

click to enlarge I'm a local and I unironically love Primanti Bros.
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
A Primanti Bros. sandwich
Pittsburgh is serious about its sandwiches, but few boast more longevity than those being slung at Primanti Bros., which turned 90 last year. As any local knows well, with heaps of meat, cheese, coleslaw and, most notably, fresh-cut fries all piled inside thick slices of Italian bread, the so-called “Pittsburgh sandwich” has become synonymous with the city itself.

As a transplant, naturally one of the first things I did in Pittsburgh almost 12 years ago was head to Primanti’s. Living here, I’ve taken nearly every visiting friend and relative to experience the world-famous novelty — making sure we go to the original Primanti’s location in the Strip District and reverently repeating the story of steelworkers and truck drivers grabbing the sandwich as they came off their shifts, eating the hearty meal with one hand.

I admit all this freely as it passes local muster; it’s acceptable to take out-of-towners to Primanti’s and even give them a bit of a show. But where I feel as if I’m confessing something deviant is that I remain a Primanti’s fan (Primanti Bros. actually refers to its customers as “fans”) outside of playing tour guide. For my money, there are few better deals than Primanti’s long-running $37.99 combo, which includes two sandwiches, chicken tenders, and a 14-inch pizza (often with free delivery!)
click to enlarge I'm a local and I unironically love Primanti Bros.
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Inside the original Primanti Bros. in the Strip District
But value aside for now, a nagging question comes up: why does it feel like there’s a cringe factor in liking Primanti’s? Why wouldn’t the city fully embrace the Primanti’s sandwich — in all its uniqueness, history, and lore? Who are the Primanti’s detractors and what exactly are their objections? After polling our staff here at Pittsburgh City Paper, I took my investigation to Primanti Bros CEO Adam Golomb. A native Pittsburgher, before leading the charge at Primanti’s, Golomb worked as a marketer at Giant Eagle and Eat'n Park — I believe, making him some sort of Pittsburgh foods whisperer.

“I'm working the yinzer brands,” he tells City Paper. “Pittsburgh’s got a lot of weird stuff.”

When it comes to Primanti’s, Golomb is well aware of your criticisms. “You’re always going to have your haters,” he says. “We’ve got a lot more lovers than haters. I know that much.”

What most distinguishes Primanti’s — and maybe the best argument to embrace it — is that it’s what marketers call a legacy or heritage brand, bound up in many facets of the city’s history and identity. The tradeoff of being a legacy brand is that it naturally detracts from a sense of being hip or cool (after all, Primanti’s will soon be a century old). But instead the sandwich shop has its own widespread lore — so much so there are Primanti’s myths.

Golomb and the restaurant can’t confirm every origin story, but it’s fun to compile them: a man came in with “French potatoes” and asked that they be sliced and put in a sandwich; truck drivers between New York and Chicago would make a designated stop at Pittsburgh’s produce yards, then pick up a Primanti’s sandwich and keep driving, eating one-handed (imagery of one-handed eating is recurrent). Another version I’ve heard is that steelworkers’ hands would be dirty after working in the mill, so the wrapped sandwich with fries inside made for convenient meal.

Rather than a tourist gimmick, Primanti’s considers its history to be an asset, and the sandwich remains its best-selling item after 90 years. The Strip District Primanti’s is indeed the first restaurant, opened 1933, “same original location, same recipe,” Golomb says. It even has its own location-specific myths, but: the recipe there hasn’t changed; the sandwiches aren’t different; the grill’s not specially seasoned; and Primanti’s has “never ever” used bread from Mancini’s Bakery (though it is sourced locally from Cellone’s Italian Bread).

However, the legacy does lend itself to “an authentic story,” instilling pride and a connection to Pittsburgh’s blue collar and immigrant past.

“We've hosted presidents and kings and we've hosted the everyday man,” Golomb says. President Joe Biden visited Primanti's last year, as did Hillary Clinton while campaigning in 2016, and then-Prince Charles in 1988.

“I always like to say there's probably a billionaire sitting at our bar next to a guy that a construction worker, and the brand does a great job of embracing both sides.”
click to enlarge I'm a local and I unironically love Primanti Bros.
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Inside the original Primanti Bros. in the Strip District
Primanti’s has also lasting ties to sports; it was especially beloved when locals would head there to watch the Steelers during their run of Super Bowl wins in the 1970s — a gameday tradition that continues today.

“I was talking with a guy last night he said he used to go there in the ‘70s and you get, like, yelled at and razzed and he loved that,” Golomb says. “Everyone has a story. Most Pittsburghers have a story of being there, and it's usually two in the morning when you’ve had a couple of drinks.”

Another piece of the Primanti’s puzzle, Golomb says, is accepting Pittsburgh’s fierce attachment to specific foods. Golomb travels frequently to scout new restaurant locations and says there’s simply not the same level of specificity elsewhere: “[Maybe] if you go up to Wisconsin with cheese curds [or] if you go into Kansas City, the barbecue,” he tells CP.

Of course the sandwich chain has expanded outside of Pittsburgh — 42 U.S. locations as of this fall, including a forthcoming restaurant in Baltimore.

Still, “You don't find fries really on sandwiches as a core menu item … it is interesting as we go into these markets where they don't really know [us] and you try to explain [it] to people,” Golomb says. “They're like, ‘Well, I’ll have everything on the side.’ And you're like, It's not going to be good, trust me.”

Beyond that, Pittsburgh’s loyalty extends to particular brands — think: Isaly's chipped chopped ham, Turner’s iced tea — that maybe even transcend loyalty to the foods themselves. While some say the Primanti’s sandwich is overrated — “I'll take our underrateds against the overrateds,” Golomb says — and it certainly isn’t the only one in town that includes fries, they do have a unique hold on that market, he contends. (The company even has a saying around its offices,“imitated never duplicated.”)

Compare this level of recognition, Golomb says, to somewhere like Philly, with its signature cheesesteak.

“Anytime I run into somebody from Philadelphia, I'm like, What's your favorite cheesesteak place?” Golomb tells CP. “And let me tell you, I’ve heard 700 different cheesesteak places. If you’re going to Pittsburgh, people say you gotta go to Primanti’s.”

Even among local sandwiches, Golomb says, “I don't think anyone flies in from out of town to go to Sheetz or GetGo.”
click to enlarge I'm a local and I unironically love Primanti Bros.
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
The menu inside the original Primanti Bros. in the Strip District
Finally, there’s the case for value —or what Primanti’s calls “extreme value.” Any quibbles about the food's quality and taste aside, I have unwittingly found myself back at Primanti’s if only for its cheap late-night menu, happy hours, BOGO deals, and a slew of other specials (I remember they gave away free beer for Leap Day in Feb. 2020, and I’m looking out for that again soon).

That kind of business is a “volume game,” and it harkens back to the restaurant’s origins, Golomb explains. “How do we offer you a way to go watch the game, have three drinks and a sandwich, and be able to walk out under $20?”

Detractors may argue but, “We've been doing it for 90 years … and our goal is to be here for another 90 years.”

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