I was recently perusing Pittsburgh’s Strip District, the melting pot neighborhood of Pittsburgh cuisine, wondering where to go for lunch. As usual, I had a hankering for a good sandwich, but Primanti Bros. had reached its typical maximum capacity and I was looking for something new.
Then I came to the Cafe on the Strip, a little, out-of-the-way, homestyle Italian restaurant that I had literally never noticed before. At 1814 Penn Avenue, the cafe is as small as they come, but the atmosphere and decor make it feel like you’re dining in Italy. The walls are lined with family pictures, adding to the homey feel that the size already provides. All around, it’s a happy place just to be. And then you open the menu.
The sandwich list is impeccable. It has an all-star roster featuring all the Italian mainstays that you’d expect, and if you pay attention, you’ll notice one congruence: almost all of the sandwiches have roasted red peppers. Reason being, they’re the absolute key to the flavor of the sandwiches. Personally, I ordered the Italian Turkey Specialty Sandwich, made of “oven roasted turkey, mozzarella, tomato and basil dressing, and roasted red peppers”. One thing the description leaves out is the delicious roll that it came on: it was toasted to a golden-brown, and featured the telltale crunch when you picked up. I was impressed before I even took a bite.
When I did, the flavors exploded. The turkey was roasted to the point where the edge of each slice was crispy, but the majority was still tender and full of its classic flavor. The way the mozzarella was layered, it gave the sandwich a little character: normally cheese is simply a slab, which is fine. But here, they spread it out among the ingredients which (besides the pleasing aesthetic that you can see above, where it’s laid artistically against the red peppers) gives the sandwich intrigue: not every bite has cheese in it, because not every bite needs to. It was sandwich showmanship at its finest.
And then came the triumphant moment when I came across a bite with the roasted red peppers. Once again, they spread these out, making sure that every bite had variety. But I can tell you that I looked forward to biting into a bit with red peppers. In theory, they should just provide the sandwich a little extra flavor, but in reality the difference was extraordinary. Also roasted to perfection, the refreshing flavor popped against the backdrop of similar tastes in the turkey-cheese-bread trio. The reason each pepper stood out so much (to me) was the distinct contrast with the rest of the ingredients, which gave them a quality of diversity that was evident in each bite.
The Cafe on the Strip is a must-attend for anybody looking for uber-authentic Italian food. The grilled bread that they bring out prior to your meal, the true craftsmanship that they exhibit in the dishes: everything here is real, especially the flavor.