Food defines a culture. In Pittsburgh, we have our own dialect and language, traditional garb, our own Gods, music, poetry, and our own food.
Some local restaurants have become popular and highly publicized, like Primanti's, but the truth is most Pittsburghers do not eat one of those monstrous sandwiches every day. Some don't even like it. Some only eat it at 2:00 am. The Primanti's sandwich is an icon but it does not define our culture.
Many would expect me to say that Pierogi defines Pittsburgh best - a labor intensive dish made with lots of love, sweat and sometimes tears, kinda like our city. However, I point to another product with the same qualities, something everyone eats more often than they should, Kielbasa.
For those who are not familiar, or think Hillshire Farm's is good, true Kielbasa is a delicious sausage brought here by our Eastern European forefathers. It is usually made from pork leftovers, ground with a variety of spices and smoked, just like Pittsburgh.
Kielbasa can be served in many ways - as a cold cut, hot with kraut, grilled on a bun, or even glazed with ginger ale as an appetizer. It is present at almost every tailgate party in the city and pairs perfectly with an American pilsner style Iron. With the Super Bowl XIV pending, I'd be willing to bet that at least 80% of Pittsburgh will be eating kielbasa on February 6th. You can get kielbasa at any grocery store around 'da burgh, and some gas stations, but you need to have the best for the big game. As a connoisseur of all things Pittsburgh and Eastern European, I've tried many kielbasa and know which ones are the best (no offense to your Uncle Stush's basement brand, of course) :
Help! I'm in the grocery store and I need kielbasa!: Silver Star Polska Kielbasa, McKees Rocks. This is a good tasting, nicely spiced, kielbasa everyone will like. It is available in almost every grocery store in Western Pennsylvania. You can also venture out to their store in the Rocks - they make more than just kielbasa. My customers are big fans of the kiska.
Kielbasa Loaf (a slice of heaven on a sandwich): Stumpf's Meat Market, Etna. Right on Butler street at the light, across from the hardware store. Stumpf's has been there for almost ever and makes a more traditionally spiced kielbasa. My Polish cousins (like immigrated in the 80's, only speak Polish at home, cousins) insist this is the best. I just like the loaf sliced thin on a ham sandwich with some mustard and cheese.
Specialty food store, homemade: John McGinnis, Castle Shannon. John learned how to make kielbasa while working in the Strip and Southside in various meat markets. He grinds and smokes it himself. If you don't believe me, go to the market and look for the guy covered in blood with a pistol on his hip - he will tell you enthusiastically of his meat education. His kielbasa has more garlic than some, which my Aunt likes best - but she's Irish and so is John.....
MEAT WONDERLAND (and my favorite): Herb Brittner's Smokehouse (and radiator repair), Evans City. They won the American Cured Meat Championship in 1999. Its serious business, people. Don't let the appearance of the place scare you, just go in and get some meat wrapped in butcher paper. While they ring you up, get overwhelmed by the amount blue ribbons on the wall. If you want anything for the holidays, you MUST order ahead. I always get ham and holiday kielbasa for Christmas and Easter. The regular kielbasa is good but the holiday kielbasa is the best. Herb's is a destination, an adventure, and well worth the drive.
I don't live in Pittsburgh: Shame on you. I wish I could ship you some of Herb's but the USDA frowns upon it. However, you can go to my site, PolishPierogi.com, and we will ship you the next best, Silver Star Kielbasa, that was made in McKees Rocks. We have kielbasa burgers too. They are yummy and perfectly bun sized!