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Pittsburgh's Sal's chain-like variety meets one-of-a-kind touches

| Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, 11:58 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Lunchtime at Sal's City Deli in Downtown Pittsburgh

Mike Tarquinio thinks it is a “high compliment” when customers think Sal's City Deli is part of a chain.

While not part of a chain now, if the owner gets his wishes, the Downtown restaurant will be the first link in one.

Tarquinio says many people think Sal's is a chain because of the menu's variety of sandwiches, wraps, burgers, salads, desserts and drinks many multi-site eateries offer.

That was Tarquinio's strategy when he put Sal's menu together just over a year ago. He also says it is part of the talent of chef Ron Herbinko, who once was at the now-closed Pennsylvania Culinary Institute.

In Sal's first year, business has become so steady, Tarquinio wants to add another site in the city's suburbs. But the big goal is to send Sal's south and set up one in Florida, “which has so many expatriates of the East and Midwest who like the kind of food we offer.”

Sal's is geared to the lunch trade, and Tarquinio thinks it has been successful in capturing it.

“We have so many repeat customers, the staff knows some of them by name,” he says.

The restaurant has 70 seats, with 30 more outside when weather warms up. Tarquinio says business has been so good, a bit of a wait is likely at noon, but can be avoided by arriving a little early or waiting until 12:30 p.m.

But he has been surprised at the growth of the dinner business from showgoers who are using it for a light — and inexpensive — stop before a night out. The full bar service is a pre-show attraction.

The restaurant's location at the corner of Liberty Avenue and Seventh Street, next to the Benedum Center, also helps.

Tarquinio is pleased at the developing breakfast trade. Mondays through Fridays, Sal's opens at 7 a.m., serving a bacon-and-eggs lineup of traditional, early-morning favorites. But he is even more surprised at the growth in the catering business, which he says is built around serving business meetings.

But the heart of Sal's is the lunch — and its lunchlike — menu.

Tarquinio is most proud of his Reuben ($8.79), which he says is a winner because of the thinness and leanness of its corned beef. Sal's only has one burger offering, called the “Big” because it is a half-pound behemoth, but it is customizable and cooked to order.

Also bearing the “Big” name is the quarter-pound hotdog.

The variety of sandwiches — called “sangwiches” on the menu — features some of the classics, such as the Pittsburgh-popular fish ($10.79), Italian hoagies ($8.79) and a grilled cheese ($4.99). But it also has some more individual offerings such as an albacore and smoked bacon wrap ($7.99), which is served either on whole wheat or as a panini on Ciabatta.

In the non-sandwich realm, the restaurant offers a hefty steak salad ($11.79), antipasto salad ($10.79) and a potato pancake Reuben, which has the ingredients of the sandwich between two potato pancakes.

After 3 p.m., Sal's moves a little toward dinner with appetizers that include pretzels with a craft beef dipping sauce and Chef Ron's “Almost Famous” Hummus Dip (both $5.99).

The soup of the day is sold by the cup ($2.99), bowl ($4.99) or quart ($6.99).

Sal's City Deli, 245 Seventh Ave., Downtown, is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. It is also open before any show at the Benedum. Details: 412-434-1100.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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