One would think that if you were selling great cheese — perhaps the world’s most perfect food — you’d want to do it everywhere throughout the city. You’d shoot it out of cannons at Pirates’ games. You’d float it on barges down the Mon. You might even fill Heinz Field like a gigantic fondue pot.
But, no. The truth is, Pittsburgh’s strategic reserves of good cheeses are actually not that easy to find.
Fortunately, we’d got you covered. On the next cheese-hunting expedition you undertake, bring this list along. We’ve got specialty retailers, grocers, even names to look for on the label. All you’ll need to remember is to pick up some bread and a bottle of wine along the way.
Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, Strip District
There are certain places of almost sacred significance to Pittsburghers: the hushed echoes of the Cathedral of Learning’s great hall, the tense buzz of the crowd before the Pens take home ice, the shrieking joy of kids splashing in the Point Park fountain.
For some of us, the chaotic din of the cheese room at Penn Mac belongs on that list. Take a number, look at the board, pick from dozens (hundreds?) of cheeses from all over the world, jabber with your family, watch some Italian soccer highlights, chat with complete strangers and wait for your number to be called. Ask for a sample, or a recommendation — we’ve recently tried and loved Ossau-Iraty, a French-Basque sheep’s milk cheese, and Malvarosa, a rich, buttery-sweet Spanish cheese. If you’re overwhelmed with choices, just go with what you know. (For us, that’s usually Pyrenees with Green Peppercorns.)
We know it’s not the same since “Dearheart” retired, but the distinctively gruff generosity of Penn Mac’s usual cast of characters lives on. Bonus points: You don’t have to leave the building to grab freshly baked Breadworks bread, a hundred kinds of olive oil, prosciutto, and really anything else you need (except the wine).
Goat Rodeo Farm & Dairy, Allison Park
As a big dairy state (fifth in dairy production), Pennsylvania has plenty of top cheesemakers. Goat Rodeo is one of the best. Their Hootenanny goat’s milk gouda made from spring and summer milk — with notes of hickory and wildflowers — recently won second place from the American Cheese Society. This Allison Park dairy’s cheese — from a herd of more than 100 goats — can be found at dozens of local grocers, restaurants and breweries, from Altius to Market District to Whole Foods.
Their goat’s milk cheese absorbs the terroir of Western PA’s bountiful pastures to perfection. Check out the rich, nutty Cowboy Coffee, hand-rubbed with Commonplace Coffee’s Perpetual Blend Espresso, and Chickabiddy, a goat’s milk cheese with hints of mushrooms, wildflowers and white peppers, with a crumbly center and white bloomy rind.
East End Food Co-Op, Point Breeze
East End has a terrific selection of Pennsylvania cheeses, with everything else you need to go with it. Lots of crackers and other good crunchy things, in particular. If you’re looking for cheese that’s free of antibiotics and growth hormones, they’ve got it here. Unpasteurized, raw cheese is a specialty.
Stamoolis Brothers Co., Strip District.
Some days — okay, just Saturdays or before a holiday — the chaos of the crowds at Penn Mac is a bit too much. Luckily, you can actually get a terrific selection of cheeses next door at Stamoolis, at typically low Strip District prices. This long-time (since 1909!) Greek grocer is the best place for feta — and it’s where we discovered that Bulgarian feta might be the best. It’s also pretty great for cheeses from Greece, Spain, France and Cyprus. Pair a block with some olives, fresh pita bread and baklava for the perfect picnic.
Wheel & Wedge, East Liberty and Lawrenceville
A mainstay at the late Pittsburgh Public Market and the East Liberty Farmer’s Market, Wheel & Wedge is a cheesemonger with a pedigree. They sell only American-made cheeses, and most of those are made in Pennsylvania, with more than 50 options. Recently a new location opened at EngineHouse 25 Wines in Lawrenceville (a converted firehouse that also houses The Clemente Museum), which seems like a pretty smart pairing. They’ll also make cheese cake (not a cheesecake) — made up of giant wheels of cheese stacked on each other — for an extremely cheesy wedding.
Family Farm Creameries, Downtown and various farmer’s markets