Pittsburgh bagels — they’re not just failed doughnuts anymore. OK, bagels have always been awesome, when done right. (Source: NYC, Montreal). But Pittsburgh has long been a barren wasteland for bagels.
Of course, New Yorkers have often asserted that proper bagels cannot exist outside the five boroughs and that any attempts in a bagel backwater like Pittsburgh are doomed to fail. And you know what? Maybe they’re right. (New Yorkers will pay $4,000 a month to live with six roommates, half of them rodents. Let them have their bagels.)
All I know is that these curious rings of dough are starting to taste better in Pittsburgh, and we deserve to know why.
The bagel itself was created by the Jewish diaspora in Poland, likely as long ago as the 1600s. Today, they can be found all over, though they’re particularly popular in places with a significant Jewish population.
Unfortunately, the most common bagels are probably frozen or packed with preservatives at the grocery store. Those are better than no bagels, but not by much. Until recently, it was pretty hard to find anyone truly dedicated to the bagel arts in Pittsburgh.
However, a few brave souls have tossed their own ring-shaped bread into, uh, the ring. Yes, we have a long way to go to make bagel-eating a competitive option for breakfast and lunch. But judging by the construction workers lined up at Gussy’s in Oakland — the bagel’s moment has finally come.
1. Pigeon Bagels, Squirrel Hill
Is this the bagel place that has been foretold in song and story, for which we have waited so long? It is! Pittsburghers’ list of things to complain about got shorter in 2019 because we finally got a great local bagel shop in Squirrel Hill. Garlic sea salt, “everything” and seeded marble are perfect places to start, but you really can’t go wrong.
Schmears go beyond cream cheese to include fig & honey, hummus, jalapeño and herbaceous vegan tofu. There are also bagel sandwiches with Acme Nova Lox (smoked Atlantic salmon) and or Vegan Carrot Lox. Get there as early as you can, because they do run out of things, and there’s often a line out the door.
2. Gussy’s Bagels & Deli, Oakland
Chef Scott Walton, formerly of the excellent Acorn in Shadyside, told me a few years ago he was working on developing the perfect bagel — which ended up being a takeout-friendly project during the pandemic — and he seems to have cracked the code.
The result is Gussy’s named for Walton’s buddy, former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte. The dough here is made fresh every morning and rises through natural fermentation. It has no sugar or corn syrup, though he adds honey for a touch of sweetness. The rings of dough are boiled, then baked in a 75-year-old Italian oven. They come out delicious — with a dense, slightly chewy interior and a little bit of crisp crunch to the exterior, so toasting is superfluous.
The shop itself is in a narrow, weird spot on Fifth Avenue that’s easy to miss (and it’s Oakland, so parking is tricky).
3. Brooklyn Bagel at Arsenal, Lawrenceville
To toast or not to toast? Bagel connoisseurs hate it…BUT toasted bread is definitively delicious. Of course, toasting changes the flavor and removes a bagel’s signature chewiness — which makes both bad and good bagels taste more or less the same. So when they asked if I wanted my bagel sandwich toasted, I blurted out my first instinct, which was “Yes.” (Have I mentioned that I love toast?)
So that’s kind of not fair to this very clean, polished shop in the new Arsenal apartment complex in Lawrenceville. Despite the name and decor, this isn’t a chain, and apparently, they get their bagels from New York, which means they’re not quite fresh out of the oven. But their sandwiches are terrific and there are a lot of options — I’ve never considered putting hash browns, sausage and egg on a bagel before, but I know exactly what lox, cream cheese and capers are capable of (greatness).
4. Farmer x Baker, Aspinwall
This curious little shipping container perched above the Allegheny River in Aspinwall is turning into one of Pittsburgh’s best, most distinctive vegetarian places to eat. Just about everything is sourced locally (some of it is grown on owner Jen Urich’s farm).
But for our purposes, it’s the bagels here that are exceptional, and the organic-grain bagel sandwiches are pretty much the ultimate. The Veggie Beast features all the fresh or roasted or pickled veggies that they can find (just trust them). The Vegan BLT features pickled green tomatoes, greens, aioli and “sweet potato bacon.”
The menu is always short, but everything is worth trying (bagel or otherwise). They also make some of our favorite sandwiches in town.
5. The Bagel Factory, Squirrel Hill
This was the only real game in town for a long time if you wanted fresh bagels — so kudos to them for keeping the bagel dream alive. They’re still pretty good, in a pinch. Again, I go for their bagel sandwiches (did I mention that I like sandwiches?) — Nova Lox bagel with cream cheese and capers, and a quart of matzo ball soup to go. Bonus: they’ve got Chocolate Babka!