If you still operate under the assumption that Pittsburgh is predominantly the “Steel City” belching out columns of thick, smelly, black smoke, a place that Boston writer James Parton is said to have called “Hell with the lid off” during a visit in the 1860s, your notion is so 19th century.
Given that Bill and I lived in Pittsburgh for 13 years prior to moving to Charlotte four years ago, I can say with first-hand knowledge that Pittsburgh today is clean, green, and a thriving international city mixed with a quaint small-town appeal.
In recent years, Pittsburgh has ranked at the top of America’s most livable cities. It’s netted many “the best” or “one of the bests” accolades – all-around vacation, location to retire, affordable, resilient, place to pursue the American dream, green-certified building space, smart, secure, well-read, place you haven’t visited and should, happiest city to work in, ultimate urban hike, world-wide destination, and unexpectedly romantic, to name a few.
When it comes to designations and nicknames, though, I’m partial to one that Pittsburgh-Post Gazette writer Brian O’Neill used for the book he wrote a few years ago – Pittsburgh, the Paris of Appalachia: Pittsburgh in the 21st Century.
I find correlating Paris with Pittsburgh intriguing, especially having traveled to both in the past four months. So what are my favorite Paris references in Pittsburgh? I have two and, no surprise, they relate to food.
Opened last year, Gaby et Jules, with its shiny candy-apple red facade, exquisitely captures the refined elegance of a modern French patisserie. Lined up like polished gemstones in display cases are 17 flavors of macarons (not coconut macaroons), the delicate, quintessentially French treat made from almond flour, confectioner’s sugar, and egg whites, filled with variations of cream and looking more or less like a little hamburger.
Requiring perfect humidity and four days to prepare, the colorful macarons come in such flavors as sea salt caramel, chocolate, lemon, and white chocolate basil. They share space with perfectly crafted high pastries, including éclairs, le royal chocolat, tartelettes, bavarois, millefeuilles, and even a special hazelnut confection called Paris-Pittsburgh, a play on the traditional Paris-Brest. Next to them are the more humble – but just as essential – palmiers, baguettes, and croissants.
Paris 66, Fred’s first venture, evokes an ambiance of an earlier era, say Paris of the 1920s. The iconic posters and art, old photos of the Eiffel Tower and café society, daily specials handwritten on a chalkboard, and the large clock from a Métro (Paris subway) station clearly speak French — as do the chef and wait staff who prepare and serve the bistro’s everyday French cuisine.
The menu at Paris 66 includes steak frites, mussels, steak tartare, shrimp Provençale, trout meunière, and duck breast with raspberries. Since 2011, Pittsburgh Magazine has named the bistro “Pittsburgh’s Best French Restaurant.”
Enter either place and you’ll swear you walked in from Avenue des Champs-Élysées or Boulevard Saint-Germain. They’re that authentic. Just ask Fred. He rhapsodizes about Pittsburgh and his unofficial role as a French ambassador.
“Pittsburgh is a hidden gem,” he said. “It has a lot to offer – the most beautiful museums, the universities, the hospitals. People from all over the world come to Pittsburgh. The city deserves to have an authentic Parisian-style patisserie and bakery and restaurant, and I’m happy to present them. Gaby et Jules and Paris 66 are destinations and are where Paris meets Pittsburgh.”
During my recent trip to Pittsburgh, Fred treated me to lunch at Paris 66 while we chatted about his culinary enterprises. Bill and I have done business with Fred for years – we lease our cars from him, even now that we’re in Charlotte. A native of France, Fred came to the U.S. as an exchange student at Penn State University, where he met his wife, Lori. They lived in France for 10 years, and moved to Pittsburgh in 1999.
The fact that Fred is both a car salesman and a restaurateur is integral to his story. Part of his family in France is involved in car dealerships, and part is in the restaurant business, so perhaps an inevitable destiny fuels his two passions. For years, he nurtured a dream to open a French bistro in Pittsburgh.
With no investors, he and Lori opened Paris 66 in 2009. The 66 is significant. Fred was born in 1966, Pittsburgh Penguins great Mario Lemieux’s number was 66, and Fred is fascinated by the cultural phenomenon of U.S. Route 66. When Bill and I first frequented Paris 66, it offered casual foods like crêpes, quiches, and salads.
Soon customers demanded more. To become a full-fledged restaurant, the kitchen needed a range hood. Fred sold his 1989 Porsche 911 with 45,000 miles to pay for it.
Fred recruited his friend, master pastry chef David Piquard, to move from France to become head pastry chef. He brought his signature macaron recipe and an uncompromising belief in using the highest quality ingredients.
Realizing his talents needed to claim a more prominent stage, the Rongiers and Piquard established Gaby et Jules and named it in honor of both men’s grandfathers, who themselves had dreamed of opening patisseries in France. In a weird coincidence, the former storefront Fred acquired for Gaby et Jules had housed a florist for – you guessed it – 66 years. A second outpost is scheduled to open in downtown Pittsburgh later this year.
“David has golden fingers,” Fred said. “Every single dessert he makes is art. You almost don’t want to eat it because you don’t want to break it.”
Eat it you will, however. If you can’t make it to Pittsburgh, er, Paris in Pittsburgh, you can order Gaby et Jules macarons online. The hard part will be stopping at just one. Then again, why would you?