Eating and driving is an all-American pastime. Although today it’s more common to chow down on a doughnut or bagel while stuck in morning traffic (especially in cities like Los Angeles), the origins of steering and chewing are rooted in blue-collar industries and jobs nationwide. For proof of this, look no further than Pittsburgh’s Primanti Bros. restaurant and its dubious fry-filled sandwich.
This regional icon is best described as a big lunch stuck between bread: meat, provolone cheese, fries, tomato slices, and tangy, sweet slaw squished between two cuts of soft Italian loaf. The story goes that it was embraced by late-night truck drivers, who enjoyed it while behind the wheel. Is that truly how the sandwich grew into a legend, though? Perhaps a better question: Is it even possible to eat this tangled mess of a sandwich while driving?
The original Primanti Bros. location, which opened in 1933, sits snuggly in the Strip District of Pittsburgh. Back then, this area was a bustling place for warehouses and mills. Steel, glass, and iron were all produced in the Strip at one time, but it also became a lasting hub for wholesale produce, meat, and poultry. A few grocery stores from this era are still there today, including Stamoolis Brothers, a Greek market that opened in 1908. As the Strip became a thriving place for wholesale business, it also became crowded with truck drivers transporting these goods.
Hungry drivers on the go. Enter fries on a sandwich.
Per the “Our Story” section of Primanti Bros.’ website:
The story might be half hazy memory, half lore - but it’s all true. According to Joe’s nephew John DiPriter: “One winter someone drove up with a load of potatoes. He brought them over to the restaurant to see if they were frozen. I fried the potatoes on our grill and they looked pretty good. A few customers asked for them - so I tossed them on the sandwich.” The sandwich was an instant hit - allowing all of the drivers working near the restaurant to eat with one hand - and drive their truck with the other.
Maybe your first question is also mine: “Ya’ll didn’t have time to take a break? To sit down and eat a sandwich?” Sheesh.
In this Saveur article, Allie Wist writes that there seems to be some confusion surrounding the mythology of this sandwich. Specifically, Wist aims to debunk the idea that the sandwich was developed as a “lunch for rushed steelworkers on a quick break from the mill,” citing the fact that the original Primanti Bros. was open from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m. rather than during any conventional lunch hours. But I have never heard that origin story at all. I had always heard the one about truck drivers, as the website states. The odd hours of the original location only reinforce the idea that these dudes had somewhere to be.
I love the sandwich for what it is: a nearly religious food relic that captures the character of an entire city. In terms of flavor and structure, though, french fries don’t make a lick of sense in between bread. The other ingredients rock—the bread is soft and squishy, the provolone sharp, and the shredded slaw a perfect alchemy of tangy and sweet. The fries at Primanti Bros. are fresh cut, but they’re also bland and soggy. A roadblock. They add next to nothing other than a perceived sense of utility for these fabled truckers.
“...allowing all of the drivers working near the restaurant to eat with one hand - and drive their truck with the other.”
Hey, I have a truck. I drive a 2009 Toyota Tacoma, so I decided to take this delicious, unmitigated mess to driving school. I went to the original Primanti Bros. location in the Strip District, ordered a capicola and cheese to go, and then ate that sucker while driving around the city.
The interior of the original Primanti Bros. is awesome. To the right is a colorful mural of Pittsburgh celebrities. To the left are bar seats that seem to house the same Pittsburgh kin as they did the ’30s. At 11 a.m. (which would have been closing time 90 years ago), I saw two men enjoying Iron City beer near their half-eaten sandwiches served directly on wax paper. No plates, no utensils. The vibes here are awesome. I wanted to sit down and eat, but that’s not what this forensic test was about. I paid $9.59 for a sandwich (nice) and strolled out the door.
Seated comfortably in my truck, I decided to spread out the brown to-go bag on my lap as a giant napkin/paper table to catch any sandwich drippings. The plan was to follow the website’s instructions and do as the truck drivers did in the ’30s and ’40s: eat the sandwich with one hand, drive the truck with the other.
But this is simply not driving food. The problem, as I suspected, is that this sandwich is filled with fucking fries and coleslaw. It’s just too big to eat with one hand. Try to pick up half of the sandwich with a single grip, and it will flop limply, dumping out its contents. Coleslaw, fries, and tomato fall everywhere. I had to pick up the sandwich with two hands while steering with my knee, or wait to take bites at a stoplight.
The good news is that while this sandwich is a unruly, there aren’t any condiments to spill—a relief, since mustard and mayonnaise are big-time stain culprits. Structurally, no, you can’t eat this sandwich while driving, but I’d much rather have a few french fries on my pants than a glob of mayonnaise or some olive oil from a hoagie.
What’s most perplexing about the Primanti Bros. sandwich is that its legend is entirely at odds with reality. It’s much harder to eat a sandwich stuffed with french fries than simply eating both separately out of your lap. As such, I think it’s safe to say that it’s mostly fabrication.
French fries remain a perfect food to eat while driving, since most of them require immediate consumption so they don’t go soggy. But putting them on top of a sandwich is far from the ideal way to consume them.
That’s okay, though, because the Primanti Bros. sandwich is best enjoyed at the restaurant. Let the transparent wax paper spread out on the table comfortably. Eat sloppily. Get a beer. Open up packets of ketchup and mustard to squirt on there. That last part is actually integral to the Primanti experience: alone, the fries suck away the flavor from the sandwich’s other fillings. It needs condiments to tie everything together.
The sandwich is just more practical to eat in house, especially in the Strip District. Sit down and enjoy the mural on the wall, which features Pittsburgh legends like Roberto Clemente and Michael Keaton (complete with puckered lips and a Batman costume). Embrace the ambiance of colorful employees wrapping your sandwich, locals and lifers streaming through the door, and thick Pittsburgh accents wafting around the restaurant like the smell of fryer oil. Experience the lore, just not entirely. Do not eat the sandwich in your car, or even at home. To do so would rob you of the most important Primanti Bros. experience of all: Pittsburgh itself.