Pittsburgh has a lot of traditions that are kind of quirks. Old people sweep their sidewalks as a carry over from the days of steel mills. Every time it snows, stores run out of bread, milk, and toilet paper. The theory is that you’ll be stuck at home without these crucial supplies to survive. Older houses will have a toilet in the basement known as the “Pittsburgh Potty” which the mill workers used when they got home so they didn’t much up the house before dinner. The Lenten Fish Fry may not be a distinctly Pittsburgh tradition, but the phenomenon has a distinct regional flavor.
For those unfamiliar, the original premise is that because Lent is the period leading up to Christ’s death, and ultimate suffering for humanity by giving his life. So the Christians who participate in Lent sacrifice to remember. Long ago, it was a time of fasting. But in modern times, it has translated into “no meats on Fridays”. This does not disallow fish. And in even more modern days, especially in my hometown, this means you go to a church’s hall and have a large battered and fried fish, plus sides that usually involve butter and starch, plus if you go to some locations you can also have a beer with your meal, and there is usually a bake sale and raffle.
It is the sheer fact that a time of sacrifice is celebrated with big, flaky, delicious fried things and lots of butter, and isn’t really suffering at all that draws me into this ritual (being raised Catholic and in my adulthood being… something else).
Last year my work schedule prohibited me from enjoying any church’s delicious fried offerings. This year, my schedule is much, much more open… So I’ve decided to partake of as many of these as I can. I’ve enlisted friends to join me in my crusade of hedonism for a good cause. And I’ve decided that I would document this in the form of a review.
It all begins on Ash Wednesday, March 5th. We started with St. Rosalia Parish in the neighborhood of Greenfield (411 Greenfield Ave). This adventure was shared with TJ. We got our sandwiches and sides to go.
The fish was a generous portion on a decent bun. Cost of a meal with 2 sides was $8. The batter was nice and light and crispy. Both of us got haluski (egg noodles with cabbage and onion). I got fries and he got the coleslaw. Both of us found the haluski to be disappointing. TJ described the coleslaw as “very-lightly-dressed cabbage salad”. For those curious, my fries were fairly standard (in the good crispy way), but as always is the challenge with fries to go, they were pretty cold. Adding in that the fish made up for the sides, I will give it 6 out of 10. And I would go back there at any point for a sandwich.
My next stop was at St. Joseph’s in Bloomfield. It’s actually St. Mary’s fish fry, but they use St. Joseph’s space (these places are across the street from each other, mind you). This flight was solo.
This was the Friday after, March 7. The meal was $10 (also including 2 sides). Also their bake sale was better stocked and really cheap for the goods provided.
I spent about 2 more bucks on the sweets, so it was $12 total. I was happier with the sides, garlic noodles and steamed broccoli. The fish was also a generous portion, and the bun was good. The batter was a little heavier, a little crispier, but not displeasing at all. The brownies with dark chocolate dollop on top, and the thumbprint cookies with the kisses were excellent. I would collectively give it a 6.5. Add on points for better sides and desserts, but minuses for being more expensive and I liked the other sandwich a little bit better.
The third stop was this Sunday at St. Mary’s on 19th St in the Southside neighborhood. I was accompanied by TJ and Xavier.
My total ended up being $12.50 before we got to dessert. The haluski was definitely better. The mac and cheese was good, but I always find homemade mac ends up with over cooked noodles. I was most disappointed with the fish. But the main pull of St. Mary’s is the homemade pierogies.
Since today was Pi day (3.14), I was most excited to see the pie, which was in demand. I was even offered a dollop of Cool Whip, like grandma’s house. I wanted to give them higher points because homemade pierogies and pie, but the fish was not at all my favorite. I’ll say 5.5, and I feel pretty comfortable that my friend’s would agree.
Some things I noted: Why do all of these church functions have the most confusing layout known to man? It’s like you have to be in the know to be in the know. No clear labels or signs to direct you where to go, or where to put your tray, etc. Also, they really pack the tables in, but I have yet to see it so full that they needed all of them. There are tables to the detriment of mobility at times. Also, part of me kind of feels bad that the average person working any of these is probably at least in their 70’s, with a few exceptions. But it is what it is, local flavor; shabby curtains, and drop ceilings, plastic tablecloths, and all. I don’t think I’d really want it any other way. It’s what I know and a part of what I call home.