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Marty's Market's food seeks to be like Pittsburgh: 'great, understated'

| Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 9:21 p.m.
Marty's Market in the Strip District offers a fresh secection of fruits and vegetables Wednesday, February 27, 2013. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Marty's Market in the Strip District Wednesday, February 27, 2013. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The cafe is next to a grocery section at Marty's Market in the Strip District Wednesday, February 27, 2013. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Flowers and fresh vegetables lead guests to the cafe at Marty's Market in the Strip District Wednesday, February 27, 2013. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The butcher shop at Marty's Market in the Strip District Wednesday, February 27, 2013. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review

People who come to Pittsburgh from elsewhere tend to complain about three main things: the weather, buying booze and buying groceries.

Well, changing the weather may be impossible, but it's probably easier than changing Pennsylvania's liquor laws. Grocery shopping, however, can be easily improved — in quality, cost and actual enjoyment — by learning how to use the Strip District.

Think of the Strip's multitude of ethnic grocers, vendors, purveyors and cafes as a neighborhood-sized grocery store without a roof. Everything's in there somewhere, you just have to find it. Some key spots have been there since before you were born, but others just seemed to have emerged whole out of the clutter of fresh-baked bread and bootleg Steelers gear on some brisk fall day.

Marty's Market is one of the latter places, but deserves to become a mainstay. It's on Smallman Street, where the well-intentioned but Whole Foods-priced organic grocer, Right by Nature, went out of business. Marty's looks fairly similar, just one-third smaller, with a takeout coffee window open to the outside.

Marty's Market is clearly it's own thing, though, if you look closer.

“We like great, understated food,” says owner Regina Koetters, who named Marty's after her father. “We believe we're using some of the best products around. It's not easy to find a venue like ours that's casual, serving food of this quality. We're making our own sausage, because we're butchering our own hogs. We're baking our own dough. Nothing is coming out of a package. It's all got a lot of love in it.”

After a long career in the Navy flying submarine-hunting aircraft, the Ann Arbor native decided to do something completely different.

“I moved here without a job and didn't know anyone,” Koetters says. “I researched for two years, and figured that the best place for an aspiring real-estate developer who wants to change the world was Pittsburgh. ... Here I can jump in. So many places, like people, get plastic surgery and want to replace what they are. It isn't a place of judgment, like D.C. or Boston.

“I was struck by how Pittsburghers can't see what non-Pittsburghers can see. This place is so amazing and dense with potential and opportunity, and, yet, folks here still apologize for their town. Yet, I was looking at other cities, and every place I went, I found a Pittsburgher and they couldn't stop talking about Pittsburgh.

In the vacant Right by Nature space, she envisioned a community center, building on the Strip's main strength: food. At Marty's, there's a grocer full of hard-to-find organic and natural foods, a fully-stocked butcher shop, a coffee bar serving the good stuff (Commonplace Coffee from Pittsburgh, Coava from Portland) with care, and a chef-led cafe.

Plus, there are classes and events of all kinds, from “Teach a Kid to Cook” to a tea tasting, to a “Whole Hog Dinner,” where one can learn to butcher a pig with the guy who raised it (at North Woods Ranch in Warrendale), and then eat a five-course meal made from it.

“I tried to build a stage for culinary artists to show up and do their thing,” says Koetters.

The regular cafe menu is simultaneously ambitious and simple — sticking to soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas and pastas. Yet, the quality of ingredients is often startlingly high, much of it made from scratch in Marty's butcher shop and/or bakery.

There's the Truffle Sweetbread Terrine Panini ($9) with arugula, pickled red onions, oregano and spicy aioli, and the Crispy Shiitake Panini ($8) with red pepper coulis, tomato, avocado and sprouts. Ginger Carrot Soup ($6), with crispy ginger, hazelnuts and lemon creme fraiche, is also good.

From the weekend brunch menu, the Breakfast “Sammich” ($8), with fried egg, house sausage and cheddar cheese, is hard to resist, as are the Ham, Cheddar and Green Onion Scones ($2).

Prices are pretty reasonable, given the quality of ingredients. This balance is achieved through a unique relationship with local organic farms.

“I studied it like I was an MBA student, and what I found was some inefficiencies in the food system,” Koetters says. “If you're a 2- to 3-acre farmer, not using pesticides, you probably are not yielding enough product to finance USDA organic certification. It's expensive. You might be practicing it, but you can't make that hurdle. So, you can retail the product through (Community-Supported Agriculture), or at a farmers market, but then you have to spend time away from the farm.

“There's this little sweet spot, where someone can maybe break even, but it's hard. I wanted to provide these guys an outlet. I'm not going to require USDA certification. I'm their neighbor.”

Marty's Market, 2301 Smallman St., Strip District. Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. Details: 412-586-7177

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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