Anthony Bourdain is playing bocce in Bloomfield, eating sausage and peppers with Italian elders in a scene from his Pittsburgh episode of “Parts Unknown.” “I tell people, ‘when you come to Bloomfield, don’t talk about anybody because we’re all connected somehow,’” says one of his companions. The man is an old-time Pittsburgher repeating, in his own way, the city’s golden rule.
This is the old vision of Pittsburgh, of course, not the shiny new image that tends to get us national attention. And that old version is prevalent throughout the episode. The edges of pierogies are pressed to perfection and served alongside kraut and sausage. Lederhosen make an appearance in Deutchtown. Rusty old mills cast their shadows.
Still, the episode makes clear what “the new Pittsburgh” is all about, and why it’s America’s darling. CMU is lauded as the tech mecca it is. The faces of well-known chefs and their impeccably plated dishes flash across the screen as they’re served to Pittsburgh titans. The B-roll is rough and gorgeous. Bourdain drinks a lot of Yuengling.
But it’s important to remember that the whole conceit of “Parts Unknown” is to delve into the sides of a city that are rarely explored. The show wouldn’t be the show if it featured the Warhol Museum or Randyland. This episode isn’t, and wouldn’t ever be, a travel brochure for Pittsburgh. It’s a hard look, through the eyes of locals, at who we are.
Certainly, Pittsburgh isn’t a simple picture to paint, but to Bourdain’s credit, he examines the spectrum. He sits down with local author Stewart O’Nan at the Squirrel Hill Cafe, and over cheeseburgers, Bourdain asks him of Pittsburgh, quite simply, “What happened?”
O’Nan points out that Pittsburgh was once (he believes) the sixth largest city in the nation. Now we’re 63rd, he says. O’Nan waxes about what went wrong, citing our population loss, and with it much of our tax base.
Bourdain then asks “what went right” in more recent years. “What went right,” O’Nan replies, “was, weirdly enough, what went wrong.” He explains how attractive our city became to outsiders, how affordable we were and (arguably) still are, and how enticing that is to techy “pencil necks,” as Bourdain calls them.
Which hints at the heart of what the episode examines: Early on, Bourdain can be heard in a voiceover asking, “Are the new arrivals, new money, new ideas saving the city, or cannibalizing it?”
So it’s not surprising the inevitable question of gentrification comes up more than once in this episode, and in one case, it’s one of the hour’s most thought-provoking moments. Bourdain sits down with chefs/owners Sonja Finn of Dinette and Justin Severino of Cure and Morcilla to discuss Pittsburgh’s now-revered dining scene, and their roles in it. Both struggle with being labeled yuppie gentrifiers by some, but when it comes to whether or not they have an obligation to consider their surroundings when opening a restaurant, the two end up disagreeing.
“I definitely was thinking about the neighborhood when I [opened Dinette],” Finn says. “I’m not some egomaniac who thinks that just putting out my food is a reason — so that everyone can enjoy the ‘artistry’ of my food, that’s why I’m opening a restaurant. That’s not the point.”
Severino has a different take.
“I didn’t open Cure in Lawrenceville because I wanted to change the neighborhood. I honestly opened Cure for me. 100 percent. … Cure was all about satisfying me.”
True to Bourdain’s roots, food plays a prominent role in “Parts Unknown,” and this episode is no exception. He makes a trip to Braddock and is served Lake Erie Walleye by Kevin Sousa in the space soon to become Superior Motors alongside Mayor John Fetterman, his wife, local activist Gisele Fetterman, and Franco Harris.
But it’s not all glitz. He hits up Jozsa Corner with chef Jamilka Borges of Spoon and grabs late-night pierogies with a pair of local professional wrestlers. He also takes in breakfast at Grandma B’s with civil rights activist Sala Udin who, against a backdrop of a Hill District he doesn’t recognize, points out holes in Pittsburgh’s economic plan.
If this all sounds like a mixed bag, well, it is. And it’s fitting because Pittsburgh isn’t any one thing. It’s high and low. It’s cutting-edge and old-fashioned. It’s worldly and it’s down home.
Toward the end of the episode, Bourdain muses, “How do you move into the future, and hold on to what you love about the past?”
It’s an excellent question, Tony. We Pittsburghers are still working on an answer.
The Pittsburgh episode of Parts Unknown airs on October 22 on CNN.