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Pittsburgh's hooked on fried fish sandwiches

Thursday, October 25, 2001

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 27, 2001) In our guide to the Pittsburgh area's finest fish sandwiches Thursday, we misspelled Lawrenceville's prime purveyor of this epicurean delight, Nied's Hotel.

A few months ago, I got a call from Rick Sebak, the WQED-13 producer famous for his Pittsburgh documentaries. His latest show is "Pittsburgh A to Z," a program that alphabetically celebrates some of the unusual and wonderful things about the Pittsburgh region. F is for Fish Sandwiches, he said.

Sebak asked if I could help to define a good fish sandwich and tell him where might he go to eat a really good one. So began my quest.

The 'Burgh,
A to Z

The premier of Rick Sebak's television special "Pittsburgh A to Z" will air at 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday night on WQED-13. The Senator John Heinz Regional History Center opens its new exhibit "Hidden Pittsburgh A to Z" the same day. Does either WQED or the History Center know the other's choice of the alphabetical features?


Pittsburgh is known for its huge deep-fried fish sandwiches. But the big question is, why does a land-locked city 600 miles from the ocean have such a liking for -- no, a dependence on --fish sandwiches? Sure, you can get a fish sandwich in almost any city, but in few other urban locales will you find neon signs in the windows of scores of neighborhood pubs, each claiming to have the "Best Fish Sandwich." Why?

According to John Flaherty of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Catholic population of Allegheny County is about 55 percent to 60 percent. For years, meatless Fridays were a penitential practice for Catholics everywhere. Back when Pittsburgh's rivers were cleaner, people often caught their own fish. In those days and especially during Lent, the fish sandwich came into its prime. They were easy to eat, almost anybody could make one and it was a blessed relief from another round of macaroni and cheese.

When the ban on meatless Fridays was lifted by the Vatican Council II in 1962, the habit of eating fish sandwiches stuck. You can find a fish sandwich nowadays in just about every neighborhood, bar and restaurant in town, and everybody has an opinion and a favorite.

Defining a good sandwich

A good fish sandwich will have a better-than-generous portion of juicy, fresh tasting, deep-fried fish. It's usually cod, and less frequently pollock. A fresh clean taste means that the frying oil is changed frequently. The coating may be batter or crushed cracker or bread crumbs, and it should stay crisp until the last bite.

There should be a huge fish-to-bun ratio, with fish hanging out of both ends. Nevertheless, the bun plays an important role. A good one will be sturdy with a good bite and, preferably, be "homemade" by one of our good local bakeries.

What makes a bad fish sandwich? Reverse all of the above. Old fish that is cheap and of poor quality. A coating that is too thick, soggy and clunks off when you bite into the fish. Stale, fishy flavor from old oil. Cheap soft bun that squishes when it's squeezed and lacks presence. Fish that actually fits the bun. Fish that's either too pale or overdone and dry. A bad fish sandwich is heavy, soggy or greasy.

And there's something else to look for in a fish sandwich: the social factor. It seems to taste best in a bar or restaurant near your house, in a place where you feel comfortable and you're welcome to hang out.

As for the category of people who order a broiled (for Pete's sake) fish sandwich, well, they just don't get it. They probably order margaritas without salt and burgers without fries.

The quintessential sandwich

In my opinion, Roland's Seafood Grill and Iron Landing in the Strip serves Pittsburgh's quintessential fish sandwich. The fresh pollock is juicy and full of flavor, inside a thin, crackly, peppery beer-batter coating. Every sandwich has 12 to 16 ounces of fish, usually two monster filets, depending on the size of the fish.

This is a HUGE sandwich, with fried fish hanging off the bun on all sides. Most customers stare at it in disbelief before attacking the thing. It's impossible to match bites of bun and fish, so there's quite a bit of finger picking and licking. The sandwich comes with fries and coleslaw, tartar and cocktail sauces, but good luck in finishing it all. Even if you go half-ers with a friend, there's plenty of fish to share and you each get a whole bun and sides.

Roland's is a family-owned business. General manager Rick Carrozzi tells the story. "My stepfather was the original Roland, Roland Chelini. He opened The Rail Restaurant on 28th Street back in the '40s. He moved it to 19th Street in 1950. Then, in 1959, he bought the building on Penn Avenue that houses Roland's today. Over the years, three adjacent buildings were bought and we've expanded into our current space." The business is now owned by his uncle, Paul Carrozzi. Rick and his dad, Rich Carrozzi, run the restaurant day-to-day. "During Lent, we go through 600 to 700 pounds of fish a week," Carrozzi says.

The excellent hamburger-style bun is from Sanchioli Brothers Bakery, a family-owned bakery in Bloomfield. Alex and John Sanchioli are third-generation bakers. Their grandfather, Alessandro Sanchioli, started the bakery on Polish Hill in 1921. When it burned down in 1925, he rebuilt in Bloomfield, almost under the Bloomfield Bridge.

Most folks never heard of the brand but have probably tasted the bread if they've eaten in Bloomfield because Sanchioli's supplies the neighborhood: Tessaro's, Del's, Pleasure Bar, Alexander's, Groceria Italiano and others. Mineo's Pizza buys the buns, Atria's uses the sour dough. Penn-Mac sells it on the Strip. In stores, look for the white bag with red and blue lettering.

Roland's Seafood Grill and Iron Landing, 1904 Penn Ave., the Strip. Call 412-261-3401.

Runners-up, alphabetically:

Abate Italian and Seafood Restaurant

The Famous Giant Fish Sandwich, as it's billed on the menu, is rightfully named. It's a first-class Pittsburgh fish sandwich. Two big pieces of cod, about nine ounces total, are dipped 1-2-3 into flour, batter and panko, those Japanese bread crumbs that stay crackling crisp until the last bite. While the fish bubbles in the fryer, a BreadWorks bun is buttered and grilled and the sandwich comes to you hot on a 14-inch oval platter with coleslaw and fries on the side. If the size is intimidating, order the medium fish size. The sandwich is worth the trip on Route 28. But if you live on the other side of the river, the same sandwich is served at all sister Dingbats restaurants and goes by the name Crispy Jumbo Fish Sandwich.

Abate Italian and Seafood Restaurant, Freeport Road, Fox Chapel; 412- 781-9550 .

Benkovitz Seafoods

You want fresh? Come to the source. Behind the scenes, women in white coats and caps dip filets of fresh cod into an egg batter, then into pans of specially formulated bread crumbs. The fish is fried brown and crisp in a dedicated fish fryer -- no shrimp, no oysters, no onions -- in which the oil is changed every day. The deep-fried fish is served on a Nickle's bun; but the broiled fish version is served on a whole wheat bun. Those in the know ask for their fried fish to be served on the whole-wheat bun. It's a winner. Season with vinegar, cocktail or tartar sauce and lean on the tall counters. Is this a popular sandwich? It's the only fish sandwich served at PNC Park and Heinz Stadium.

Benkovitz Seafoods, 23rd and Smallman streets, The Strip; 412-263-3016.

Epiphany Catholic Church

This church is typical of many that sell fish sandwiches and dinners as a way to build community and raise funds. Most of the churches are active only in Lent. But Epiphany holds a fish fry from 11 a.m. through 6:30 p.m. every Friday throughout the year. The kitchen has been closed for several months for extensive remodeling. When it reopens in November, it will have its signature fish sandwiches, homemade halusky, pierogies, sometimes hot dogs and cherry or apple phyllo turnovers.

Former pastor the Rev. Daniel Sweeney (he was transferred to a church in Mt. Oliver in the summer) started the fish fry as a way to fund renovations for the church. When it became so popular during Lent, the practice was continued throughout the year.

The fish frys are open to the public, according to present pastor, the Rev. James Garvey. Fish is frozen cod, hand-breaded, fried in corn oil, with a bun from Cibrone and Sons Bakery. The church is a short walk from Grant Street, opposite Chatham Center.

Epiphany Catholic Church, Centre Avenue at Washington Place, across from the Mellon Arena; 412-471-0257.

Neid's Hotel

Here is the king of neon. The sign along the front is 40 feet long with 20-inch-high letters yelling to the world along Lawrenceville's Butler Street, "Neid's Famous Fish Sandwich."

Is it the fish sandwich -- 8 ounces of hand-breaded, deep-fried fresh cod on a Nickle's hoagie bun -- or is it the neighborhood and the people that make this place so popular?

Nied's Hotel is celebrating 60 years in business, and Jim Nied is the third-generation owner. "My grandfather started the business in 1941. Dad, 82, still comes in and works an 8-hour shift every day." Barbara Kline has worked here for 36 years. Her sister, Amy Murphy, has worked here for 29 years. Sherry Moan, "a recent hire," has put in 25 years. All of the women are Lawrenceville natives. They cook, tend bar, sell lottery tickets and keep house at the place.

The bar is lined with regulars. Almost everybody has gone along with one of the many tours and cruises sponsored by the eatery because Neid's is as much a travel agent as a restaurant. Nied sponsors trips to Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and the regulars signed up for an Alaskan cruise last summer. "My customers always have something to talk about and they always see a familiar face."

Nied's Hotel, 5438 Butler St. at 55th Street, Lawrenceville; 412-781-9853.

Robert Wholey Company

When you're in the fish business, you put your best fish forward, right? And a good fish sandwich is a good advertisement. Wholey's goes through 400 pounds of fish for sandwiches every day. You have your choice here -- cod on a BreadWorks hoagie bun or whiting on a soft Nickles bun. Best bet is the cod. The crumb coating is thin, crisp and delicious, with just enough crunch from cornmeal. Make a soup stop on the cafeteria-style line for gumbo, Maryland crab or other fish chowders. Take lunch upstairs if you want to sit down or wander and check out the fish and seafood of the day for sale. The Magic Breading is sold by the bag, so you might want to take some home to coat fish or chicken.

Robert Wholey Company, 1711 Penn Ave., the Strip, 412-391-3737.

The Original Oyster House

This centrally located Landmark building has been in operation since 1870. Wash down your fish sandwich -- batter-dipped cod on a Nickles bun -- with a big glass of buttermilk. There's no missing the gallery of photos and portraits of notable sports figures over the bar from the past hundred years -- everybody from Rocky Marciano to Willie Stargell. Across the room, see the collection of vintage group beauty pageant portraits. It's a hoot.

The Original Oyster House, 20 Market Square, Downtown;412-566-7925.

Up Over Jimmy's

A big blue fish neon sign hangs out over the sidewalk on Smithfield Street touting the fish sandwich at a small eatery, upstairs over Jimmy's Tavern. It's a climb to get to the informal little restaurant, but worth it for the sandwich. This is a good one, all right, and it has been featured nationally on TNN. There's fresh fish and lots of it tucked into a thin crumb coat that's crisp and light. The Cibrone and Sons Bakery hoagie bun is toasted and sturdy.

Up Over Jimmy's, 110 Smithfield St., Downtown; 412-562-0238.

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