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Suzanne Martinson: Seizing Coneys, croissants, and chocolate

Sunday, December 17, 2000

One of the unexpected pleasures of holiday shopping is what I'd call the stumblebum philosophy of fun. These serendipitous occasions pop up when you least expect them. Carpe diem, or at least seize the minute.

Take my husband, Ace, and me and Coney dogs. We had just driven our aging motor home to the caves for her long winter's nap, and we were cruising through downtown New Castle when I spotted it.

"Look, it's Coney Island! Stop, let's go."

It is 10 a.m. He parks. We go into MP Coney Island and meet up with 72-year-old John Mitsos, who is cooking something that smells earthy and good.

The eatery has a few years on him. Born in Greece, Mitsos came to Pennsylvania in 1956 to work in the restaurant, which was founded in 1923 by his uncle, also John Mitsos, and George Papazickos, both of whom died in the 1970s. They made it with an American standard.

Today, he's in the business -- a second MP Coney Island is just up Route 18 -- with his cousin, New Castle lawyer Chris Mitsos (the elder John's son), and two relatives of the founders who live out of state.

Beware of Greeks bearing Coneys. These beef wieners could become addictive. We had ours with French's regular mustard and some crisp Spanish onions. Coneys for breakfast are not a bad thing.

Mitsos speaks Greek and English, "both broke," he says.

He makes up 300 pounds of ground chuck every day with the secret spices. The Coney sauce has no beans. "People love it," he says.

They probably also love the price: 79 cents. (We had a little breakfast with our Coney Dog -- two eggs, sausage or bacon, fries, toast and coffee for $2.59.)

MP Coney Island, Kennedy Square and Route 18, New Castle. Hours 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily (downtown is closed Sunday). Call 724-654-6761.

You can also buy a gold standard treat for under a buck at Jean-Marc Chatellier's Bakery, where the best croissant I've tasted -- including Paris -- sells for 85 cents. Jean-Marc's isn't exactly out of the way, unless you're like Ace and me.

"I always get lost in Millvale," I admit.

"Me, too," he says.

Lost in Millvale. So every time we happen onto Jean-Marc's, it's like seeing a beautiful tropical island after you've been at sea for years.

Jean-Marc's fabulous pastries are the real thing. Buttery, light, delicious. Obviously the Frenchman's touch.

Ace likes to latch onto a filled croissant, but, purist that I am, I go for the unfettered pastry, although I also tend to toss in a spiraled palmieri, too. I once spent the wee hours at the bakery with Jean-Marc for a story on his fine craft, and seeing all those pounds of butter just waiting for him to work his magic let me know I was surely in the right place.

Visiting this pastry chef is like a trip to France without the long plane ride.

Jean-Marc Chatellier's Bakery, 213 North Ave., Millvale. Hours: 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, until 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The bakery will be closed Jan. 1-4. Call 412-821-8533.

Not every spot worth lingering over is an accident of geography. I first happened onto Chocolate Universe by cruising the phone book.

Finding the way to the South Side chocolate storehouse is more challenging.

"What's the cross street again?" I ask.

"Come down Carson, then right on 21st."

"Left on Carey Way, right?"

It has a street name, but it looks as though Carey got an alley named after her.

"Just park right in front," says owner Norma Moros.

The first time I ever ventured into Chocolate Universe, I felt as though I was doing a deja vu in search of a speakeasy. Ring the bell twice and all that. Truth is, Norma hangs out across the alley. "It's cold in here -- for the chocolate," she explains.

The store begins to fill up with customers. She takes me on a little chocolate tour: No Valrhona, but three brands of Clasen, Peters Ultra, Merckens and Guittard. I'm not a candy mold kind of woman myself, but there is something for me.

"This is the Food Section," Norma says. Here, cheeseburger molds. There, a plate of spaghetti. Then, steak and potato, pizza and ice cream. Molds ready and willing to be filled with chocolate. Who could argue with a solid chocolate hot dog?

Need a fix? They're open until 10 p.m. (7 p.m. today).

Purveyors of Coneys, croissants and chocolate do not work banker's hours (bankers don't work them, either), but if you stumble onto any of this trio, life is a holiday.

Chocolate Universe, 2131 Carey Way, South Side. Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. Call 412-481-4004.

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