More than a sandwich

On their salads or their sandwiches, Pittsburghers have a strange desire to put French fries on top of almost everything. This odd habit can be traced back to Joe Primanti, founder of Primanti Bros. Restaurant.

The Primanti legacy dates back to the days of the Great Depression, when Primanti and his nephew opened a small lunch counter in the Strip District. The story behind the Primanti sandwich varies, but the official account is that, on a cold winter day, someone delivering a load of potatoes to a nearby warehouse stopped by Primanti’s to see if his potatoes were frozen. The cook at the time, John DePriter, took some of the potatoes and fried them on the grill. A few of the customers eating there asked for some of the potatoes. DePriter put them atop their sandwiches and the Primanti sandwich was born.

Primanti’s original clientele consisted mostly of truck drivers and warehouse workers. Though these originals have long been replaced by weekend-shoppers and clubbers, the sandwich has remained virtually the same. The only difference is that now coleslaw and tomatoes are heaped atop the sandwich alongside the fries.

This sandwich has turned Primanti Brothers into a Pittsburgh institution. From its original location on the Strip, the restaurant has expanded into Downtown, Oakland, and the South Side, in addition to some suburban locations; there are even two Primantis in Florida.

Primanti’s menu consists predominantly of sandwiches. The restaurant offers a wide variety of meats, ranging from turkey breast and pastrami to sardines and knockwurst. While everyone knows that people go to Primantis for the sandwiches, the restaurant also offers a small selection of salads and side dishes — more as a formality than anything else. There’s also the Pittsburgher Cheesesteak, which the menu advertises as the restaurant’s second-best seller.

Primanti’s cheesesteak would be unrecognizable to anyone from Philadelphia (sorry, no cheese whiz), or, for that matter, anyone familiar with cheesesteaks. In place of the traditional shaved beef, Primanti’s uses — for lack of a better description — a rectangular beef patty. Looking like something that one might find in a high school cafeteria, the meat has an interesting texture and consistency, with a somewhat sweet taste.

Piled atop the meat and melted provolone cheese is a layer of French fries. The fries are dry, bland and lacking in salt; as a stand-alone side, the fries would have been totally insufficient, but they manage to work in the context of the sandwich.

After the fries comes the coleslaw, while helps to make up for the fries’ deficiencies. The coleslaw is made from vinegar, rather than the typical mayonnaise, resulting in a sweet and sour taste. Ground pepper, which noticeably speckles the shredded cabbage, rounds out its flavor.

Primanti’s tops off its sandwich with anemic-looking sliced tomatoes, which were relatively tasteless. The tomatoes added nothing — except for maybe a little vitamin C.

It does not come standard on all sandwiches, but a fried egg should be added. It may seem like a strange bedfellow with the other ingredients, but the egg melds terrifically with the melted cheese, making this combination one of the sandwich’s most satisfying components.

The buzzword “synergy” is usually reserved for business, but there is perhaps no better word to describe the phenomenon that occurs when all of the ingredients come together. Despite the strange look of the meat and the bland taste of the French fries, when the ingredients combine, they form a very satisfying sandwich.

Thinking of a Primanti sandwich as, well, nothing more than a sandwich, may make its $7 price seem rather steep. But looking at that cheesesteak and seeing only a sandwich would be like looking at the Guggenheim and seeing only a building — it misses the point entirely. What patrons are paying for is a full meal: meat, French fries, and coleslaw, sandwiched between two generous slices of crusty Italian bread.

While I do not plan on returning to Primanti’s anytime soon, I certainly do not regret my visit. What I do regret was ordering a soda — “pop” in the local vernacular — instead of a beer. A sandwich as unabashedly Pittsburgh as a Primanti deserves to be washed down with an Iron City.