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Food
Western Pennsylvania holds many stops that offer taste of something special

Thursday, February 19, 2004

By Johnna A. Pro, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

One of the joys of living in Western Pennsylvania is the abundance of great food, ethnic and otherwise.

LAWRENCE COUNTY: When Sherri Skowvron Firmi and her husband, Rodney, learned the Wasilewski Market in New Castle would close after its owner retired, the couple bought the store. Today they continue to offer its specialty, kielbasa made from a secret recipe.(Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photo)


First in a series

To suggest a Worth the Trip idea, send e-mail to food@post-gazette.com and give the name of the business, phone and an address or town. Include your name and address, too. Or you can write to Post-Gazette Food, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.


Part 2

Doughnuts, candy and more make for sweet trip to Beaver County

It runs the gamut from pierogi cooked in church basements by Polish immigrants to succulent ribs made and sold by a mysterious elderly black man named Jerome from a shack in the woods along the Monongahela River. (If you don't know about Jerome, we can't help you. )

In an era when big box grocers and chain restaurants have made every suburb and small town Anywhere, U.S.A., this corner of the Keystone State remains a haven for those who relish food prepared by people with a sense of time, place and history.

So today, we launch a feature in the Food section called Worth the Trip, fondly referred to as Eating Our Way Through Western PA. (We're the writers who are NOT participating in the dieting story.)

The idea is simple: We're looking for coffee shops, delis, markets, restaurants, taverns or other businesses with longevity in the towns and villages that dot Western Pennsylvania. These are the places that have been around for years, often for generations, and have built their reputation on a single product or gimmick, such as the pickles at the Royal Lounge in Whitehall.

Locals know them well, but they don't often get a lot of media attention. They may be off the beaten path, but so much the better. When you're out for a drive, they're worth a visit. If your trip equals ours, the food will be good, the employees interesting and the experience something to tell your friends about.

Here are a few great places we found, so forget the snow and crank up the car. They're worth the trip.

Fish sandwiches

You can tell by the parking lot at the Muse Italian Club that the Friday fish sandwich offering is going to be good. On a blustery winter afternoon, there is nary a space to pull into among the utility trucks, construction vehicles and contractor pickups. The customers are rugged men working in frigid conditions. They know good food.

They pack the club in this village in Cecil, Washington County, where the atmosphere is warm, the regulars are friendly and the codfish sandwiches are scrumptious, hearty and just $3.50 each.

The women of the club have been serving the sandwiches for decades, getting paid in tips. Four or five of them get together each Thursday to prepare roughly 400 pounds of fillets, 600 pounds during Lent. In a process that takes as long as five hours, the women hand wash each piece of fish and pick out the bones. They take pride that the fillets are "clean."

Each fillet is breaded with a delicate mixture of Cellone's bread crumbs and eggs and carefully layered in parchment paper and chilled in tubs in a cooler overnight.

The kitchen is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays, and the women work in two shifts standing over vats of bubbling peanut oil to cook the fillets, which are drained and served on the freshest Cellone's Kaiser rolls.

If you're eating in, there's a nonsmoking dining room, or you can grab a table in the bar. If you like the fish, don't forget to stop back on the third Sunday of the month, when the women make spaghetti, meatballs and tripe.

"People come from Pittsburgh to eat the tripe," says Anna Louise Marinelli.

The Muse Italian Club is along Muse-Bishop Road, which you can pick up off Route 50 in Cecil or Route 980 outside of Canonsburg. Phone: 724-745-9878.

Kielbasa

New Castle lawyer Anthony S. Piatek turned us on to the Wasilewski Market, a 91-year-old store in a residential neighborhood that locals call Sheep Hill.

John Wasilewski started the business in 1913, and his son, Walter, ran it until he was ready to retire three years ago. With no buyers for the business, Wasilewski prepared to close the store, which draws customers from as far away as Ohio and Kentucky.

Sherri Skowvron Firmi decided she couldn't let that happen, so she and her husband, Rodney, bought the business from Wasilewski and his wife, Jennie.

"I know the Wasilewskis from my church," Sherri Firmi said. "I said, 'Give me one week.' "

With her husband's blessing and Wasilewski's secret family recipe, which hasn't changed in nearly a century, Firmi took over the business Dec. 1, 2000.

She's been making kielbasa ever since, as much as 650 pounds in a day, more during holidays. In the last seven weeks of 2003, Firmi sold 27,000 pounds of kielbasa.

"This is why the store is here," she said.

Like her predecessor, Firmi uses only a single supplier for the pork, which is ground to a specific consistency. The spices she adds are measured precisely to mix with 165 pounds of pork -- never more, never less -- before it's stuffed into casings. (Her husband knows the ingredients but not the recipe.) The kielbasa is hung on racks and smoked over a fire made from applewood.

For kielbasa lovers, Firmi also makes a kielbasa loaf and kobanosy, which is a Polish version of beef jerky. Italians can check out the homemade sweet and hot sausage.

The store is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

Wasilewski Market is at 1701 S. Jefferson St. in New Castle, Lawrence County. Phone: 724-652-3457.

Homemade potato chips

There are chips, and then there are potato chips from Ruse's Roost in Hopwood, Fayette County, a drive-in/ice cream stand that over the years has grown to include a drive-thru and inside tables.

Linda and Ed Kindevater took over Ruse's in 1996, but it's been there since the early 1950s, when Ken Ruse opened it to serve burgers and ice cream through a tiny walk-up window. His nephew and namesake added the homemade potato chips to the menu more than 20 years ago. Longtime cook Ruby Wilson -- she's been working in the kitchen for 43 years -- has been making them ever since.

"In the summertime, we run out every day. Every day," Linda Kindevater said. "Sometimes people will get 10 bags."

Using a deli slicer, the Ruse's staff slices dozens upon dozens of potatoes each morning and drops them into buckets of cold water. When orders come in, the potatoes are thoroughly rinsed and then dropped into deep fryers and cooked to a deep golden brown. They're drained, seasoned and served warm to customers or packed in glassine bags to keep them from getting soggy. What you'll get is a chip that is lightly seasoned (Ruse's serves plain, ranch and barbecue) -- not greasy -- and bursting with a potato taste.

And don't worry about finding Ruse's. If you take Route 40 to Hopwood, look for the big white chicken with a blue tail. It opens daily at 11 a.m. and closes at 7 p.m., 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Ruse's Roost is at 1191 National Pike, Route 40, in Hopwood. Phone: 724-437-2796. Web site: www.rusesroost.net.

Homemade pie

Pie day starts at 9 a.m. and we call on longtime Post-Gazette reader Rod Shellhouse of Mount Washington to help taste pies from around Western Pennsylvania.

Shellhouse is a fine baker, plus he likes to eat, so his credentials are good. After a nine-hour day, we have two favorite stops.

WASHINGTON COUNTY: Homemade pies bring the customers into Spring House restaurant, part of a dairy farm in Eighty Four. Joyce King has been baking them for four years.(Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

First is the incredibly charming Spring House, which has been in business for 28 years on Route 136 in Eighty Four, Washington County. The Spring House is an old-fashioned general store and restaurant that is part of the 400-acre dairy farm operated by Beverly and Samuel Minor.

The couple's daughter, Marcia Opp, runs the Spring House, which has a soda fountain, ice cream parlor, hot buffet, deli, market and gift shop.

Shellhouse, who as a kid spent summers on a dairy farm, is immediately impressed because he can buy a half gallon of heavy cream, made from milk produced by the farm's 200 cows.

"Nobody sells a half gallon of heavy cream anymore," he remarks before sitting down to test the banana cream pie, which has flavor enough to savor and contains a layer of fresh bananas.

He's such a good sport, he drinks a pint of the Spring House chocolate milk, which is pasteurized on-site. Delicious!

The Spring House offers apple crumb pie daily, along with a cream pie, both of which are made by hand and contain only fresh ingredients depending on what's in season. Look for rhubarb in the spring and sour apple in July.

"There's nothing low-fat about the Spring House," Opp says as she talks about real butter and real cream. "This is the farm. Save up and have a sliver."

The Spring House crust is a secret recipe passed on by Marie Robison, Opp's grandmother, now 85.

"It's a 60-cup flour recipe," Opp says. "We peel the apples with a hand peeler."

Grandma Robison also shared the secret of her caramel walnut pie. That's usually made around Thanksgiving.

From Route 136, we head back to Route 519, which cuts through Washington County to Route 40, the old National Pike. It's dotted with quaint inns, antique shops and restaurants.

After several hours and several pie stops, we reach Glisan's Restaurant just outside Markleysburg.

Locals swear by the homemade pie, bread and buns that look like huge mushrooms. The locals are right.

We head to the banquet room where diners are seated temporarily while renovations are being done in the main part of the restaurant. At 2 p.m., the place is busy. A good sign.

Glisan's makes 19 kinds of pie. Two-crust pies are baked Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Cream pies are made at 4 a.m. every day. Coconut cream and apple are the most popular. You'll find mincemeat at Christmas.

There are no recipes, secret or otherwise, for any of the food, including the pie, says manager Curt Hager, the third generation of his family to work there.

"They put the flour in the pan and add shortening until it feels good."

That's how Isa Glisan cooked and that's how she taught her family to cook, including Hager, one of her grandsons. Isa and her husband, Howard, opened Glisan's in 1950. She is 92 now and still came to work every day until last Thanksgiving.

The Spring House is on Route 136 in Eighty Four, Washington County, and is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, and noon to 7 p.m. Sundays. Phone: 724-228-3339. Spring House Pies range from $6 to $9.50.

Glisan's is at 4624 National Pike, Markleysburg, Fayette County. Phone: 724-329-4636. It's open 24 hours a day, but, depending on the time of year, you might wait in line for up to 90 minutes. A slice of pie is $1.75. Whole pies sell for $6.75. If you're not in the mood for pie, try the chicken soup with homemade noodles.

Fudge

What's most amazing about Joyce's Copper Kettle Fudge factory in Hays is that there is no machinery to speak of, just four large copper pots, each of which holds 80 pounds of fudge and some oversized wooden spoons.

It's on this simple setup that Joyce Massucci has been producing luscious, creamy fudge for 13 years, as much as 4,000 pounds a week. Massucci grew up watching her grandmother, Catherine Emery, make fudge in the family's South Side home.

In 1990, when she was looking to start a business, it made sense to fall back on Grandma's secret recipe.

"I do it the old-fashioned way," Massucci says. "It's stirred by hand. It's made by hand."

She makes 12 kinds of fudge, including traditional chocolate, maple walnut, butter pecan and vanilla nut. Massucci adds only fresh ingredients from local vendors, such as Turner's Dairy, and the fudge has no preservatives, so its shelf life is just three weeks.

At Christmas, she made 3 1/2 tons, a portion of which was sold by school children for fund-raisers. Massucci also sells retail from her factory and in the summer at festivals and flea markets.

The factory is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

Joyce's Cooper Kettle Fudge is at 820 Mifflin Road in the Hays section of Pittsburgh, just a few yards from Route 885 South. Phone: 412-461-6510.

Hot dogs

When Jim's Drive-In opened in 1927, it wasn't a West Mifflin drive-in at all. It was a sit-down restaurant in McKeesport.

But founder Jim Damianos watched as the Depression made it more and more difficult for people to buy a meal.

He reduced his menu until just a few sandwiches were left, including grilled hot dogs placed into the freshest of buns, then smothered in a special sauce, topped with onions and lightly toasted.

Damianos died in 1959, 11 years after he moved the business to Pennsylvania Avenue in West Mifflin, but his son, Alex, still runs the drive-in with his Jim's grandson Brian Homoki.

The two keep it simple. The menu has just a few items and there's no indoor seating. Customers can eat in their cars or stand outside, weather permitting. The hot dogs are by far the most popular item and at just $1.89 each, you can afford to buy several.

"We're serving the sixth generation of people," Alex said.

The key to success has been the sauce, the recipe for which has never been written down. These days, only Alex and Brian know the ingredients, and they're not talking.

Jim's Drive-In uses only Smith's wieners made by a family in Erie, and Alex and Brian produce the sauce daily. In an average week, they'll go through 50 gallons of sauce and 50 pounds of hot dogs.

"When it comes out to you, it's a sandwich," Homoki said.

Jim's Drive-In is on Pennsylvania Avenue at Reuben Drive in West Mifflin. Phone: 412-466-0832.

ANTHONY S. PIATEK'S EASY KIELBASA SANDWICH

  • 1 1/2 pounds kielbasa
  • Water
  • Mustard, to taste
  • Rye bread

Purchase 1 1/2 pounds of kielbasa from Wasilewski Market in New Castle, Lawrence County. (If you're buying kielbasa elsewhere, look for rings that have a reddish-brown color).

Fill a 5-quart pan or Dutch oven with water and bring it to a boil. Add kielbasa rings and reduce heat so that you have a steady, rolling boil, not a wild hard boil.

Cover but leave the lid slightly askew so that the steam escapes, otherwise you'll end up with greasy kielbasa.

Let kielbasa cook for 1 hour 15 minutes. Remove from water.

Slice and serve hot as a sandwich on rye bread with your favorite mustard or cut into bize-size pieces.

Serves 4 to 6.


Johnna Pro can be reached at jpro@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1574.

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