It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Nope, not Christmas. It’s Greek Food Festival season!
Most Pittsburghers have their favorite festival but each one should be experienced at least once. The season kicks off with the 52nd Annual St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral’s Festival in Oakland – the biggest in the city. I selflessly went to taste-test the food and had the pleasure of meeting the church’s priest, Father Christopher Bender. He appreciates “the ability to share our culture with everyone. Our food and dance are living parts of our tradition.” The festival will see 30,000 people walk through their doors and will gross more than $400,000 for the church. So, while you eat the delicious spanikopita (spinach and cheese pie) and dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and drink that shot of ouzo, you’ll feel good knowing the money is going right back to the church.
While I’m not Greek, I find these food festivals full of all walks of life. They bring people together over a shared love of good food, music and sense of community. I looked over to my right and sitting at one long table were an elderly couple, a 30-something couple with two kids, and a priest – all eating and talking to one another. I realized that table was a microcosm of Pittsburgh. Yes, we have a higher-than-average population of seniors but more and more 20- and 30-somethings moving to – or moving back to — the region to raise families of their own. So, if you haven’t already, spend an evening with friends and strangers and enjoy the Greek food festivals now through August. Opa!
New York, Chicago, Philly, Boston. Innovative chefs and restaurateurs are increasingly flocking to Pittsburgh as a place where they can not only afford to open their dream business, but also to live and raise a family. As one new arrival recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Melissa McCart, “Easy living, affordable everything and a burgeoning food scene: This is an area that will soon get attention on a national level.”
McCart cites what we like to call “the power of Pittsburgh” – that friendly willingness to share information and nurture the economic growth of others to the benefit of the whole community – that’s given rise to such welcome additions as Notion, Bluebird Kitchen, Cure, Root 174, Fukuda, Stagioni and Franktuary.
The key reunion scene in the opera Madama Butterfly is heartbreakingly sad, but the reunion that director Crystal Manich is experiencing is a joy.
Raised in Peters Township and Mt. Lebanon, Crystal Manich is back in town to direct the Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Puccini’s opera of love and betrayal. It runs at the Benedum Center from Saturday, March 16 through Sunday March 24.
“My home base has been in New York since 2006, and I’m on the road all over the country for about 10 months a year – the typical theater gypsy’s life,” Manich said. “Still, every time I come back home, that’s how it feels – like home.”
A fan of musical theater as a child, Manich, at 15, saw the Terrence McNally play Master Class about legendary opera soprano Maria Callas. “Her character fascinated me,” Manich said. “I went to library and picked up the CD of Tosca. It had this little booklet with the lyrics in English and Italian. I became enamored of the form and started buying CDs like crazy.”
“Hearing opera for the first time opened me up to the great possibilities that arise when music and drama are fused together in a very big way through the relationship between voice and orchestra.”
She entered Carnegie Mellon University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in drama, although opera was always in the back of her mind. A semester spent in Italy studying opera history and the language cemented the connection. Back at CMU, she found opportunities to direct scenes in the university’s music department and at the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s Summerfest, ultimately earning both a bachelor’s degree in drama and a master’s in arts.
She began apprenticing for a small, newly created company, the American Opera Project, in New York, building her skills. She assistant directed at Pittsburgh Opera, for a time working as resident director. Her directing work now takes her all over the country, although she has been back to Pittsburgh, directing at the Pittsburgh Opera now for the fourth time.
Manich’s parents were both born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to Texas when her engineer father accepted a job in the energy industry in Beaumont, Texas. The family moved to the Pittsburgh region when her father joined Ansys Inc., as an engineering software developer in Canonsburg. Joe Manich is a long-time board of the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
How was it growing up as a Latina in Pittsburgh, a region with a traditionally small Hispanic population?
“To be honest, I never really thought about it,” she said. “We’d go visit Puerto Rico every year, and I spoke two languages at home, but I thought that was normal. It wasn’t until later, though my dad’s involvement with the chamber, that I became aware that there was a community of people in town with this common thread. I realized that life was a bit unusual, but it was also really cool.
“I see that arts organizations are valuing diversity and bringing it onto their boards of directors – seeking out African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and others to be more influential in the arts.
“I see that happening around the country and in Pittsburgh, too. There’s a great arts scene here. For a mid-sized city, Pittsburgh has a pretty amazing number of cultural offerings,” she added. “There’s a unique history here with the arts, and they seem to thrive.”
The Pittsburgh Business Times “Fish Sandwich Chronicles” may well be on its way to becoming a Lenten tradition for the Pittsburgh business community – not unlike the meatless meal itself is in a city steeped in Catholic tradition.
Served up on Fridays during Lent, the “Chronicles” is a seasonal Business Times feature and is back on the menu for a second year. This “Lenten special” provides insight into where to get some of the area’s most delish fish while serving a satisfying helping of Pittsburgh pride and nostalgia as local executives and entrepreneurs lunch with Business Times Senior Reporter Patty Tascarella and the conversation flows. “It’s a “slice of life, albeit centered on some sort of white fish.”
Today, Allegheny Conference CEO Dennis Yablonsky is featured – sharing slices of his life with a side of reflections on the people, places and opportunities he’s encountered along the way.
It all went down at Market Square’s The Original Oyster House where a “Famous Jumbo Fish” [sandwich] can be reeled in for $5.75. It’s Yablonsky’s favorite among Pittsburgh’s fish sandwich fare.
But when it comes to Lenten fish fries as fundraisers, St. Bernard Church and School in Mt. Lebanon had quite a catch in Yablonsky who was one of the founders, back in the early ’90s, of a successful “gourmet fish fry” money-maker. You might call them the brains behind the batter.
An evening of dancing and schmoozing, replete with lots of latkes and vodka, await the hundreds of young – and young-at-heart – planning to attend Pittsburgh’s hottest Hanukkah party. Cleverly called Vodka / Latke, this annual “Festival of Lights” celebration hits one of downtown Pittsburgh’s leading venues – SPACE Gallery at 812 Liberty Ave. – this Saturday, Dec. 15, from 8 p.m. to midnight. It’s sponsored by Shalom Pittsburgh, a social group for young Jewish adults.
What do vodka and latkes have to do with Hanukkah?
Latkes are easy. For those unacquainted with these crispy potato delicacies, latkes (or potato pancakes) are a traditional treat enjoyed throughout the eight-day festival. Some people prefer their latkes the conventional way – grated potatoes, onions, salt, eggs, perhaps some matzo meal – fried and served with a dollop of sour cream or a side of applesauce. Others get a whole lot more creative.
Yet, however you take your latkes, one thing’s for certain: by eating them, you are paying homage to the miracle of the story of Hanukkah. As the tale goes, after a series of events in the second century B.C. that left the Jewish temple in Jerusalem defiled, one day’s worth of oil miraculously kept the temple’s menorah lit for eight days – the time needed to spiritually purify the temple. Thus, this miracle of oil is remembered today by eating fried food such as latkes and donuts (called sufganiyot).
As for vodka’s connection to the Hanukkah story, well, let’s just say its ties to the Hanukkah story are a little less agreed upon… (Perhaps it was Judah Maccabee’s spirit of choice during his competitive dreidel spinning sessions).
Either way, Shalom Pittsburgh’s Vodka / Latke 2012 is bound to be blast. Advance tickets are still available for $15 by clicking here. You can also show up at the door and pay $20. Tickets include an open bar (with plenty of vodka), a dance floor (music requests available) and more latkes and other fried Hanukkah treats than your heart (and arteries) could ever desire.
If you are — like me — geographically unaware, you may not realize that the popular vacation getaway Cancun is located in the heart what used to be entirely populated by Mayans. I recently spent my honeymoon there, on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. With a rare opportunity to visit ancient ruins – amid exhausting days of drinking Negra Modelo on the beach – Mallory (the new Mrs./Dr. C) and I decided to check out Coba, one of the four major cities (and the capital) of the Mayan civilization.
We rode bikes through what is left of this city (once home to more than 55,000 people) to Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid on the peninsula, standing about 50 yards high. One of the unique aspects of this ruin is that visitors are allowed to climb it. Feeling feisty, Mallory and I decided to scale the not-quite-built-to-code stairway to the top. As we embarked, we struck up a conversation with a young woman who was also making the climb. The following conversation ensued:
Us: Really? How long were you there? What did you see? (Imagine these with a few heavy breaths taken given the height.)
YW: Only four days, but it was beautiful. Everyone was so friendly. And have you ever been to The Mattress Factory?
Us: (Giggling) Yes, we definitely have. (Our wedding reception was at the Mattress Factory.)
The woman turned out to be from Paris and was effusive in her praise of our city. Mallory and I were just floored that — while scaling a pre-Columbian ruin nearly 1,500 miles from home — we met someone from perhaps the world’s most glamorous capital waxing eloquent about Pittsburgh. I think it’s a small but powerful illustration of how events like OYW offer unique opportunities to turn visitors into heartfelt ambassadors for the Pittsburgh region.