In March of 2018, the Sterling Building in Carnegie, home to Papa J’s Ristorante, went down in flames. A fire started in a stove in one of the upstairs apartments raged out of control, and “cooked off the roof,” recalls Michael Troiani, whose family owned the building.

“Situated just above the Number 5 (apartment) was Number 11, where my friend and co-worker of 25 years (John Michael Wells) passed away from smoke inhalation,” says Troiani, president of the Troiani Group. “Devastating. Really, one of the best people I’ve ever met … He was the superintendent of that building, and someone whom I cherished as a friend.”

The fire also displaced 25 residents, put 40-plus restaurant employees out of work and destroyed a beautiful 1890s-era mixed-use building — a longtime anchor for Carnegie’s revitalized Main Street business district. The loss was felt throughout the community.

The Troiani family vowed to rebuild and now they have settled on a way forward.

Plans were presented this week to the Carnegie Planning Commission for a new mixed-use development — one floor taller than the original three-story building — that will include 42 apartments atop a new commercial retail space and a new home for a new Papa J’s restaurant.

The former Sterling Building in Carnegie. Artwork courtesy of Michael Troiani.

“My father was a real estate developer, and in a lifetime built and owned and operated a number of great commercial buildings,” says Troiani. “And oftentimes, he would build a restaurant on the first floor to add value to it and have an owner-operated business on the first floor. Over the years, he’s had 11 different restaurants.”

As many Pittsburghers can attest, Papa J’s in Carnegie was special.

It was “almost 32 years of operation, and all the lives we’ve touched, and all the friendships, marriages and babies,” says Troiani. “A lot of life happened in these walls over the years of operation, so I couldn’t wait to get back to it.”

Papa J’s Ristorante in Carnegie. Photo courtesy of Michael Troiani.

Papa J’s was known for classic Italian comfort food, and Italian will likely be the focus going forward. The shape and scope of the restaurant has yet to be determined.

“Here’s my goal: someone’s going to pull up on Broadway, looking for a white pizza, based on the haunting memories they’ve had in the past — and I don’t want to disappoint them,” says Troiani.

They’re planning on using modular construction, which is expected to speed up the process, and the hope is to reuse some of the architectural details — keystones, arches, lintels — salvaged from the Sterling Building. Completion is expected by the end of 2021.

The adjacent buildings at 212 and 214 East Main Street were purchased in 2019 and demolished. The new plan has 45 surface parking spaces, to comply with zoning requirements.

“In two weeks time I’ll be heard by the Planning Commission, and they’ll be advised by their third-party engineer,” says Troiani.

Troiani Group is working with Pieper O’Brien Herr Architects, which has a local office on the North Side.

“The people of Carnegie are great people,” notes Troiani. “I look forward to invigorating Main Street. I know that my counterparts and businesses on Main Street miss having the activity and traffic generated by having Papa J’s.”

The former Sterling Building in Carnegie. Photo courtesy of Michael Troiani.

Downtown impasse

There was also a Papa J’s location Downtown, in the Firstside Historic District, which is part of the National Register of Historic Places.

The eatery closed in 2013, and the Troiani Group had the deteriorated, 19th-century building demolished. The company also owns several buildings nearby, including the former Froggy’s nightclub building, which they plan to raze since it has deteriorated significantly. Their goal is to build a skyscraper on the site with 200,000 square feet of Class-A office space, 151 residential units, a rooftop deck and street-level retail at the intersection of Market Street and First Avenue.

Those plans are opposed by preservationists, including the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which believes the buildings can still be used. The Troiani family disagrees, saying that they’re beyond repair, and face possible collapse and danger to those nearby.

The Troiani Group recently lost two Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas decisions for permission to demolish the 1860s-era Froggy’s building and its two neighbors. They will appeal the decisions in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

Strip District plans

The Troiani Group also owns a renovated former Pennsylvania Railroad office, in the heart of the Strip, known as the Twin Plaza building. Its tenants range from a CMU tech startup to the legendary diner Pamela’s. There’s some movement here, after a long pandemic lull.

“I’m really excited,” says Troiani. “On the first floor, I’m talking to a great soul food operation, who’s interested in operating at the former Smallman Galley location.”

Twin Plaza building. Photo courtesy of the Troiani Group.

There are also preliminary plans for a huge development on a parking lot Troiani owns at the edge of the Strip District’s bustling central business district. It’s more than an acre of space that sits between Penn Avenue and Smallman Street, 23rd and 24th streets.

That could involve 260 residential units above retail. “Now, certainly, we’d activate the streets there with some sidewalk cafes, but we’d also like to really do some creative, Kaufmann’s-like windows on the streets curated with some great art collections,” says Troiani.

“We’re going to offer a plan for that site as soon as we have confidence.”