Best Late Night Bite / Best Pittsburgh Smell: Primanti Brothers | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Best Late Night Bite / Best Pittsburgh Smell: Primanti Brothers

The aroma hits you halfway down 18th Street from Penn Avenue: a fried, meaty smell you have to swim through. A few steps more and you're inside, where it smells like ketchup. "It's the coleslaw," corrects Andrea, a one-named blonde from Switzerland sitting at the bar, fresh from an anniversary party at Level. Andrea was on the cover of Maniac, her boyfriend tells us several times. If the smell at Primanti's were a cologne, what would be its name? She thinks. "15201. Or 15222. Whatever it is, the zip code here."

The signs on the wall scream above the Foreigner coming from the speakers: "Yes! We are OPEN 24 hours!" and "Our award-winning hand-cut French fried potatoes topped your way!" and, of course, the menu. Atkins? South Beach? Forget it. Low-fat diet? Go home. You got your meats (baloney, bacon, ham, cappiocola, salami, roast beef, corned beef, pastrami), your fowl (turkey breast, Cajun chicken), your sausages (knockwurst, hot sausage, sweet sausage, kolbassi), and your fish (imported sardine, jumbo fish, tuna fish). There are meatless options -- cheese combo or deluxe double egg and cheese -- but there's something about a Primanti's sandwich that seems to gloriously violate the spirit of vegetarianism.

Wide barstools are pulled up to a long stainless-steel bar, across from which piles of ingredients look like they've been drawn by Dr. Seuss. A floppy tower of sliced provolone. Sheaths of meats of every sort, from red cappiocola to roast beef to a shivering pile of fat white knockwursts. Stacks of sliced tomato shift and slide on a plate. The guy behind the counter pushes mounds of glistening slaw out of a white container. By half past midnight, there are 30 people hunched over sandwiches and more pouring through the doors, not walking in as much as making entrances. Thing is, this is food that commands your full attention.

Like The Beatles, martinis and the perfect mate, a Primanti's sandwich is many things to many people. But my suspicion is that for many people, late, late at night, it is the answer to which alcohol is the question. It's 4 a.m. -- what do you want, focaccia? A ficelle?

Start with sliced white bread. Then a stack of coleslaw. (It's the vinegar, that smell.) Boxy white French fries nestle on a thin layer of tomatoes on a layer of rich provolone on a thin square of hot sausage -- the happy culmination of hundreds of years of Italian civilization. Our award-winning hand-cut French-fried potatoes spill out from the sandwich onto the white waxed paper.

Wolf, scarf. My sandwich, half as tall as my bottle of Yuengling, is gone before Foreigner gives their hot blood a rest.

A beer tastes like water next to a sandwich like this. This, a sandwich that got a two-page spread in National Geographic. A sandwich that people eat on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale, where a Primanti Bros. opened in 1995. Would people wearing bathing suits under a bright sun eat any old mess of meat and cheese and bread and potatoes? There's a mystique, no doubt. From Strip District truckers in the 1930s to sun bunnies on the Atlantic Coast.

Back in the 'Burgh, late-nighters offer suggestions for bottling the essence of sandwich: Sean Smith from South Fayette thinks, "Ah ... Intoxicated Lust!" "Internal Dwelling," says Jon Mayo from Crafton. Tim Capan from Greentree? Seduce Sensations.

Kellie Ussack from Ross Township gets it. "Just ... Primanti."