It was just one of many, many Italian restaurants in Pittsburgh. But Papa J’s in Carnegie was simply the taste of home for a lot of people — and was almost literally home for plenty of others, including Michael Troiani who grew up working in his family’s restaurant business.
Then, on March 2, 2018, a fire broke out in an upstairs apartment. The flames spread quickly and within minutes, the historic building from 1900 was burning to the ground.
“I lost a friend and who I’d worked with for 25 years to smoke inhalation,” recalls Troiani. “It was just outright devastating to lose the building, the business and a friend.”
Now, Troiani has reinvented Papa J’s in the Twin Plaza building in the Strip District, formerly home to Smallman Galley. The odd L-shaped space (owned by the Troiani Group), has a barroom at one entrance on 21st Street, a restaurant entrance on Smallman and several other businesses in between.
No, it’s not the same. It couldn’t be. But somehow, it’s better.
“A lot of times people walk in the door and ask, is this the same as Carnegie?” says Troiani. “The answer is ‘Yes and no.’ Certainly, the spirit persists. The core of the menu persists. The same linemen are in the kitchen.”
Papa J’s is attempting a delicate balance between respecting tradition and offering new things. If you’ve got fond memories of Chicken Piccata and Wedding Soup, they’re here. But they’re not alone.
“We’ve got the best gelato machine in the world, the best pizza oven in the world,” notes Troiani. “We’ve got the best pasta maker here in Pennsylvania — there’s an Italian guy in Lancaster that fabricates all this pasta equipment. It’s super-intelligent and just creates the best extruded pastas, and we dry them for retail and serve them at the table.”
It’s nice to see old faces and new faces — and faces that have become older faces.
“The young kids who used to come to Papa J’s in Carnegie are adults now,” says Troiani. “You know, scent and taste are really important to memory. And all the good experiences and positivity in the past — to see people happy and enjoying themselves and reliving those positive times in the past.”
Gelato is a major draw in a town that clearly loves its ice cream. Papa J’s makes bold flavors like Blood Orange, Fiori di Latte, Cappucino, Tiramisu and Mango. The key is simplicity.
“Ice cream, they sell by volume because it’s whipped with air — that’s the way they make more money. They fill up the container with less product,” Troiani says. The gelato machine doesn’t mix in air.
“So you get this really dense, really smooth frozen dairy product,” says Troiani. “And that’s the real distinction between gelato and ice cream. Ice cream is this volumized product that’s inflated with air and has about 24% fat, whereas a dairy gelato is only 8% fat and is a much denser product … There’s no bases, there’s no mixes — our sweet cream gelato is nothing but milk and cream, sugar and nonfat milk powder to stabilize the solids in the frozen liquid.”
The pizza is Roman-style, which isn’t common in Pittsburgh. It’s a high-hydration dough that has to be shaped for two days and rested for another before it’s dropped into custom pans and baked on a 700-degree stone. It all adds up to something that’s new, yet familiar.
The Troiani family also owned Papa J’s Centro Downtown in a historic building (once home to a bordello and reportedly haunted) that’s been demolished. But the family has been in and around the Strip District for a long time.
“It’s over 100 years of life in the Strip District,” says Troiani. “My father in his lifetime opened up a great restaurant in the Strip District, Smallman Papa J’s Mercado. It was an 18,000-square-foot food emporium of sorts similar to what today would be Eataly, kind of glamorizing the excitement of food and, and the food-making processes.”
Now, it feels like coming home again.
“I’ve grown up in food service, worn out shoes in every position at Papa J’s and certainly enjoyed the camaraderie with the team and the ability to provide an honest meal to the public,” says Troiani.
“And frankly, I have two kids that are teenagers, and they’re still at the age where I can teach them a few things in the restaurant. So I couldn’t be happier to have my daughter Ella help and learn to scoop and serve gelato.”