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Go Italian in the 'Burgh for a great date

| Monday, March 1, 2010

The Steel City prides itself on its immigrants, those industrious souls who worked in Andrew Carnegie's steel mills, built churches, established fraternal organizations, opened shoe stores and groceries, and fought for their adopted country in the two World Wars.

Pittsburgh's 88 neighborhoods still reflect the culture of the people who settled them: Germans, Irish, Poles, Slavs, Czechs, Lithuanians, Hungarians and of course, Italians.

According to immigration records at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District, there were 74 Italians in Pittsburgh in 1870, 25,000 in 1910 and more than 50,000 in 1940. They settled mainly in the Hill District in the early 20th century and eventually dispersed to Bloomfield, Morningside, McKees Rocks, Penn Hills and other communities.

For a great date, consider immersing yourselves in our city's Italian heritage.

10 a.m.

Grab an espresso at Espresso A Mano on Butler Street in Lawrenceville. Open less than a year, it specializes in the sweet, caffeinated sorcery of the perfect cup of espresso. It always has two kinds of espresso available, including a customized blend. They don't recommend espressos "to go" because it's meant to be drunk within minutes of being brewed. They also serve capuccino, of course. Down a few of these espressos, and you'll feel like jumping on a Vespa scooter and blasting through a few alleys.

Espresso A Mano, 3623 Butler St., Lawrenceville. Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. 412-918-1864.

11 a.m.

Beat the noon rush at Sunseri Brothers restaurant and grocery in the Strip District. Brothers Jimmy and Nino are the third generation of the family to run the business. Jimmy Sunseri calls the shots from behind the sandwich counter, his trademark unlit cigar jutting from the corner of his mouth.

"We try to sell people things they can't get anywhere else," he says. As an example, he proffers a can of pasta con sarde sauce, a Sicilian specialty made with fennel, sardines and other ingredients. His own family roots go back to the Sicilian town of Tribia.

Sunseri Brothers also specialize in homemade meats such as sopressata, an Italian cured salami, and long stick pepperoni. Try their grated "Mystery Cheese," made with traditional cheeses and at least one you wouldn't expect. Another big seller is their Legendary Dipping Peppers.

"Back in 1901, people were eating the same flavored sauces that Nino and I are selling now," says Jimmy Sunseri, who says he's been working at the shop since he was 13.

"You have to be bred for this. Not only is it a way of life, it's the only way of life."

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sampled their pizza during a 2007 campaign stop in Pittsburgh.

Sunseri Brothers also carry premium virgin olive oil. To be like a real Italian, dab some olive oil on your wrist and rub it to warm it up and bring out the flavor, Jimmy Sunseri says.

They also make party trays and serve deli sandwiches and a soup of the day. Get there early on Tuesdays, because their wedding soup sells out quickly.

Sunseri Brothers, 1901 Penn Ave., Strip District. Hours: 6 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. 412-255-1100.

1 p.m.

Experience the daily lives of early 20th century Italian immigrants to Pittsburgh. Their history is documented in the Special Collections on the fourth floor of the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.

"The Italian-Americans did have such a profound influence, not only on the demographics of the city but the cultural landscape of Pittsburgh," says Deirdre Clemente, curator of the Italian-American collection at the History Center.

"We have a collection that would bring any old Italian grandmother to tears," she says. "We really have a lot of stuff that people brought from Italy."

They include a vintage wine press and a collection of cobblers tools.

There is also an archive where visitors can view old photos of Italian-American street festivals in Pittsburgh. They have church association rolls as well.

"It depends on how nerdy you are," Clemente says.

Senator John Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Sundays. The Library and Archives are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Other hours are by appointment. Admission: $10; $9 for 62 and over; $5 for students and children ages 4-17. Free to members and children under 3. 412-454-6000.

3 p.m.

Visit the Italian Room, one of the 29 Nationality Rooms in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland.

It focuses on Italy's role as an educational pioneer in Europe. One of the monastic benches is inscribed with the name of the University of Bologna, founded in the 11th century. Visitors also can view a portrait of the first woman in the world to earn a university degree. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia earned a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Padua in 1678.

"She didn't live long, but she was very, very unusual," says Maxine Bruhns, director of the Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchanges Programs.

Italian Nationality Room, 1209 Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh, Oakland. Hours: 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Admission: $3; $1 for children ages 8-18; children under 8 free. 412-624-6150.

4 p.m.

Walk over to Schenley Park and view the statue of Christopher Columbus. It's one of many public sculptures that were created by Frank Vittor, a native of Mozzato, Italy. On a 1917 visit to Pittsburgh, he was encouraged to settle here by astronomer John A. Brashear. Vittor taught art and sculpture at the Carnegie Institute and Carnegie Institute of Technology. He created more than 50 sculptures and war memorials for the city, including the 10-foot bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson at Jefferson Memorial Park in the South Hills. He also created the statue of Honus Wagner that now stands at PNC Park.

5:30 p.m.

No date would be complete without a visit to the Italian stronghold of Bloomfield. Italian groceries and restaurants beckon from nearly every block. One of the newer establishments, Stagioni, recently opened in the former Cafe Roma. Don't try to pin them down as specializing in northern or southern Italian cuisine: owner Cara DelSignore describes their menu as "seasonal cooking with Italian-inspired dishes. The menu changes four to six times a year depending on what's local, sustainable and fresh." They feature homemade pasta and potato gnocchi. Appetizers include their made-to-order mozzarella ($10), served with prosciutto, roasted peppers and arugula, or their spiced fig tart ($8) with Gorgonzola, prosciutto and balsamic reduction. Entrees include their Chardonnay braised rabbit with sage stewed cannellini beans and caramelized onions ($16). Their angel hair pasta ($12) is made with garlic, olive oil, radicchio, basil and fresh mozzarella. B.Y.O.B.

Stagioni, 4770 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 5 to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Brunch 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 412-687-5775

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