Sunday, January 6, 2013

New Year's Eve - 'Burgh Style
by Nick Kratsas

I just read that Pittsburgh has been chosen as one of the top cities in the US to travel to in 2013, and that got me thinking about how little time I spend in my own city. So, my resolution for 2013 is to start enjoying our city more, and I kicked this off right by spending New Year's Eve Downtown for my first First Night.


My wife and I met up with another couple and started our evening with dinner at Lidia’s Pittsburgh. This upscale Italian restaurant features homemade pastas and hearty Italian fare that is inspired by Lidia Bastianich, the famous TV chef of “Lidia’s Italy.” The restaurant has an open warehouse feel that matches well with the Strip District, and features a modern style decor with high, open spaces, a roaring fireplace, and white tablecloths. The wait staff are very accommodating and knowledgeable of their menu.

We started with appetizers of seared chicken livers served with corn polenta, and the Fritto Misto, which was the crispy fried calamari and shrimp, and tempura fried zucchini, carrots, onions, and other seasonal vegetables that came with a tasty tomato sauce for dipping. There was also a bread basket with fried bread sticks, thick slices of Italian bread, and focaccia style bread that was lightly oiled with Italian seasoning. These came with two spreads, one of which was made with olives that I practically licked off the plate.  Next came the beet salad, which had roasted beets, apple slivers, and goat cheese with a light oil dressing that was light and fresh. 

For my main course, my friends recommended the famous pasta trio. The waiter brings you an empty plate, and then suddenly three other servers appear with heaping pans of three different pastas that are chosen that day. I felt like I was in a Disney movie, because the servers come in quickly, one at a time, and toss pastas on your plate, and then another server magically swoops in with a cheese grater for fresh Parmesan - at least it felt magical, although that could have been from my second espresso martini, which was made with espresso and vodka, and even had coffee beans for a garnish! My three pastas included goat cheese and mushroom ravioli, a shell like pasta with Italian sausage, and a noodle pasta with a tasty red sauce.

The idea is you get an unlimited amount of the pasta you like best, but it was so hard for me to choose, that when the servers returned for seconds I just got all three. With that said, my favorite of the three was the ravioli, which had a delicate and thin pasta shell with creamy goat cheese and a light white sauce on top. I also was able to sample my wife’s chicken caccitore, which featured very moist chicken and a robustly seasoned red sauce. We also tried some of our friend’s quail which was surprisingly moist, and the manicotti, which was two giant tubes overflowing with ricotta filling that was thick and creamy.

Highmark First Night

After a delicious meal that featured quick service and did not leave too much of a dent on my wallet, we layered on our coats and slapped on our Highmark First Night buttons that allowed us to partake in the city festivities. This family-friendly event produced by The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, takes place on Penn Avenue and adjoining streets, which are shut down and filled with stages and entertainment including art shows, comedy acts, theater presentations, and much more, taking place either on the streets or in many of the Cultural District’s venues.
Fire Dancer at First Night
On many Downtown buildings, there were projected images of art or spinning 2012’s, which added to the fun and artsy displays and tents along the streets, and Equitable Gas had steel drums with roaring wood-burning fires placed on most corners, so we had a chance to warm up in the 20-something degree cold night. I particularly enjoyed the Fire and Ice
Plaza, which was a big stage on 8th Avenue where ice artists and performers put on shows that included ice carving, acrobatics, fire eating, and much more. Street vendors sold fun light-up glasses, neon mohawks, funny hats and boas, and lots more to get you in the mood. There were also food trucks from Dozen bakery, BRGR, a truck with all kinds of pierogies, and another truck that sold fried apple pie rings, among other trucks. The fried apple pie rings looked like a combination of apple pie filling and funnel cake, and while I was tempted to try one, I had to restrain myself for our next reservations of the evening- 10:00 p.m. dessert at Meat & Potatoes. 

Panna Cotta with Cranberries
Absinthe & Sloe Gin Fizz
Meat and Potatoes
Meat & Potatoes, in the heart of the Cultural District, is one of the hottest restaurants in town, with very trendy food like their bone marrow, where they serve you a big cow bone cut open with bread to scoop the marrow out like a dip. It sounds phenomenal, so that gives me an excuse to come back for dinner in the future.

For this night, we went with drinks and dessert. I tried Absinthe for the first time, which was chartreuse liquid that reminded me of black licorice- it was almost like a tangy ouzo or Sambuca. My friends had Irish coffee and a sloe gin fizz which were also very good. My dessert was panna cotta, which reminded me of a thick and sweet yogurt, and had reduced cranberries on top, and it was served in a small mason jar. My wife had cheesecake that was baked in a short mason jar and was one of the best cheesecakes I've ever had, and one of my friends had a gingerbread cake with a thick caramel sauce. Since the desserts change all the time, I’ll have another reason to come back to Meat & Potatoes. 

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Back to Highmark First Night

With an hour to go until midnight, we sauntered off into the streets of Pittsburgh for more Highmark First Night fun. After peaking into a few of the theaters, dodging pedicabs that were decorated with colorful papier-mâché art that resembled psychedelic dinosaurs, and of course fun people watching with revelers that included young kids, twenty somethings decked out for the evening, families of all sizes, and the occasional partied out adult, we slowly made our way to the main stage by the Highmark building to watch the Dirty Dozen Brass Band lead up until midnight. The band is from New Orleans, and played brass band jazz music that was fun to dance and sing to.

The countdown began to midnight as 'Burghers and out-of-towners merged into one cheering mass to watch the “Future of Pittsburgh,” a giant led-covered ball, rise up its pole atop the old Hornes Department Store building. It was a beautiful sight when at midnight, the crowd shouted Happy New Year as the ball reached the top of its pole, fireworks shot off the top of Downtown buildings, and hundreds of people embraced for a New Year's kiss. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band played on for a half hour more as the fireworks rained down from on high for nearly twenty minutes straight as the projected 2012’s turned to 2013’s. Next year, I’ll be coming back Downtown again for New Year's Eve, and I hope to see you there as well. There’s nothing more fun than hanging out in our beautiful city and seeing it vibrant and filled with people having a good time. 2013 is going to be a great year, and I am  looking forward to finding out why so many people are talking about our little 'Burgh.

About the author: Nick Kratsas is a life-long Pittsburgher who currently lives in the South Hills. As one of the rotating bloggers for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, he is very much looking forward to experiencing what Downtown has to offer!

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