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Feast: Pennsylvania Macaroni Company

January 19, 2011

"the strip"

It is literally impossible to duplicate the smell of a real Italian market without everything that lives inside. The spicy anise pizzelles mingling with the salty olive brine, the fruity notes of the Parmigiano Reggiano tapping against the earthy stench of cured meats hanging from the ceiling. You can’t bottle it, there’s no “Italian Market” candle from Glade, and the bracing smell hits you as soon as you walk in the door.  But the sensory experience of Pennsylvania Macaroni Company (Penn Mac, to the locals) isn’t just about scent.

DoSB at Penn Mac

Penn Mac is a long-time resident of Pittsburgh’s Strip District- one of those eclectic ethnic neighborhoods filled with markets, restaurants, and street-wares. On the main drag, Penn Avenue, you can buy whatever your heart desires- gloves, dog bones, tea cups, baklava, sausage, doormats, or anything emblazoned with a Steelers, Pirates, or Penguins logo. Inside Penn Mac, your purchase options are even broader.

When you first enter the market you can take a left into the fresh foods room, a right into dry grocery, or mill about in the center with the spices. You have to make your decision quick as there is usually quite a crowd, and Penn Mac folk are pushy. I suggest speeding through the spice section and banging a quick left to grab a number for the cheese counter.

There’s no shortage of cheese at Penn Mac, much of it imported. Barrels of feta and mozzarella sit next to jugs of a wide variety of olives. Romano, provolone, taleggio, cacio cavallo, all available. True, Penn Mac is not the place for a fancy triple cream, and when I asked for burrata on my last visit I got a blank stare. But they have every variety of the Italian classics, at their highest quality. On my last trip the barrel-aged feta made an excellent lunch, sprinkled with oregano and drizzled with olive oil.

The meat counter is packed with favorites- sopresseta, mortadella, prosciutto, salami, salami, salami. Don’t leave without picking up at least two or three options.

And, they sell a little pasta.

just a small portion of the pasta section

The dry grocery section of Penn Mac is stuffed with pasta noodles- every brand, shape and size. There’s an eight foot section of olive oil, boxes of salt cod, and jarred tomato sauce for every taste. Vats of olive oil – pour your own- sit around the corner next to the fresh pasta counter. Multiple varieties of imported cookies, pannetone, panforte, and torrone are all represented.

And it wouldn’t be an Italian store without that flea market-y corner. Oddly placed plates, anyone?

Penn Mac is one of those places that makes you feel a little bit Italian, even if your ancestors didn’t come from Calabria (like mine).  Stop in for the smells, the tastes, the people watching, or to buy a plate or two.

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