Sunday, November 3, 2013

Scarola e fagioli, or a lesson in eating Pittsburgh-style

Before moving to Pittsburgh, the only local food specialty that I was aware was the famous overstuffed sandwich from Primanti Brothers.

People kept telling me I had to try it when I got here. On top of the generous portion of meat, you will find coleslaw and French fries on this sandwich. One of the stories of how this story came to be is that local truckers needed a meal they could eat with one hand but will also keep them full for a long day of work. The cook had the idea to throw all the usual fixings, plus all the usual sides onto this mega sandwich and send the truckers on their way.

While I love the humble beginnings of this sandwich, those who know me know this isn't really my schtick. We are still navigating the strange beer/wine/liquor laws in this state and exploring our neighborhood joints, and I want to share one of my most surprisingly enjoyable discoveries... Beans and greens.

My first encounter with Beans and Greens almost didn't take place. We were walking around the Strip District, being shown around the city by a knowledgeable transplant who has called Pittsburgh home for the last several years. She suggested we go to Colangelo's for a quick bite before I had to go back to work. When we got there, I wasn't sure what to expect. Pastries dominated the display case, and the lunch menu seemed limited and not terribly exciting. The smell of garlic and coaxing from my host urged me not to give up on the place before I even tried it.

Though it didn't sound very exciting, I almost ordered the roasted vegetable panino. It seemed like a solid vegetarian option. But I was urged to try the Beans and Greens. Really? I questioned this recommendation. That sounds even more droll than the sandwich. Something that wouldn't be filling or even that flavorful. I don't eat meat, but I don't eat "rabbit food" either. But ultimately I conceded to the suggestion. And I'm sure glad I did!

The Beans and Greens were flavorful and comforting. The vegetables (mostly spinach, some roasted tomatoes and potatoes) brought enough variety and a "healthy" factor that met my basic needs. The beans and broth were richly flavored, with just the right amount of cheese on top, plus a slice of in-house-made bread to sop up the remnants. Did I mention the garlic? The wonderful garlic aroma that had been wafting from Colangelo's to the street must have been my Beans and Greens in the making.

While I didn't know it at the time, Beans and Greens was not a unique dish to Colangelo's. In retrospect, Colangelo's set a high bar for Beans and Greens and I'm thrilled to say my next experience gave the first dish a good run for its money.

Upon discovering it on the menu at the newly opened Della Terra in Harmony, I knew I had to make  Beans and Greens mine for a second time. While different from the earlier version in so many ways, this Beans and Greens experienced tickled my senses in all the right places. This time, the greens, a more traditional escarole, were the sole vegetable star of the plate. The scent of fresh rosemary played a lovely duet with the garlic. This dish was slightly less brothy and served without the lovely bread companion, but still wonderfully comforting and leaving more wanting more at the end. While a trek from the city, I can promise that I will make it back to Della Terra for their Beans and Greens.

The Della Terra version

As I wonder where my next encounter with Beans and Greens will be, I also ponder the history of its presence in Pittsburgh. Due to the rich history of Italian immigrants in the area, this traditional peasant food has found its way onto menus around the city for years. I'm excited to try as many variations of the dish as there are chefs with Italian nonnas in this Paris of Appalachia. Perhaps I'll even try my own hand at making it during a blustery winter evening with one of the recipes found below.

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