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'Taste of America' investigates the Union Grill Devonshire

| Wednesday, June 21, 2006

He's eaten Moose head soup in Alaska. He fled a giant, kerosene-fueled fireball that provided the unnerving finale to a "fish boil" on Washington Island in Wisconsin. He declined to sample some Rocky Mountain Oysters in Denver, something his cameraman won't let him forget.

Such is life when your name is Mark DeCarlo and you're the host of "Taste of America." The show, which airs on the Travel Channel at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, takes a smart-alecky look at unique regional cuisines in all 50 states.

"That's one of the few remaining bastions of regionality," DeCarlo said. "It's even more so than cars and houses. It goes way back to your parents and grandparents."

Tuesday, DeCarlo and crew came to town to investigate the history of the Devonshire, a dish that purportedly was invented here. Their first stop was the Union Grill in North Oakland. The Turkey Devonshire -- an updated version of the original open-faced sandwich of toast, cheese and chicken, turkey or crabmeat topped with bacon that was invented by restaurateur Frank Blandi in 1934 -- is one of the restaurant's signature dishes.

"The Devonshire is something that's been a Pittsburgh item for many, many years," said owner Theresa Jenkins. "From what my customers tell me, we're supposed to be the best. "

Her staff serves as many as 100 of the sandwiches per day, she said.

The crew also planned to film on the incline to Mt. Washington, where Blandi opened the landmark LeMont.

For the record, they already did a segment on pierogies, at the Pierogie Festival in Whiting, Ind.

DeCarlo, hulking and rumpled in jeans and an untucked shirt, ambled into the restaurant as a crew member affixed a tiny microphone to the lapel of chef Jim Dillon.

"We always try to find the mom and pop places," DeCarlo said. "That's where the people and the stories are. Hamburgers don't talk."

But DeCarlo does. As the cameras roll, the stand-up comic comes to life. He grills people in a friendly, hectoring style that might be summed up as "are you gonna eat that?" He does little research on the dishes he'll be encountering, saying he prefers to be surprised. His approach is ironic and irreverent but not, he insists, disrespectful.

Asked to sum up the show, field producer David Floyd said: "I'd say it's travel first, food second and comedy third."

The Pittsburgh Devonshire segment will air next year during the series' third season. It will be one of three separate features that typically make up a single show. The trio of segments usually features places far apart from one another, Floyd says. In one, DeCarlo slurps peanut soup in Alexandria, Va., eats rattlesnake at a rodeo in Texas and learns how to harvest dates in California.

Today, DeCarlo and crew travel to Latrobe, where they'll interview Joe E. Greubel, owner of Valley Dairy and its chain of ice cream stores, for a feature on the history of the banana split. The Latrobe city fathers claim the ice cream belly buster was invented there in 1904 at Tassel's pharmacy.

The crew also will film at the Shack snack bar at St. Vincent College.

Wilmington, Ohio also claims to be the birthplace of the banana split, although theirs didn't enter the picture until 1907. The fact that Taste of America chose Latrobe over Wilmington must be sweet vindication.

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