Homemade Primanti Sandwiches

I really enjoy cooking foreign, exotic cuisine for dinner—Indian, Thai, Chinese, French,…Pittsburghese? Yes. Several foods common to the area around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (where I grew up and went to college) are foreign in New Hampshire. Pittsburgh cuisine might even be more foreign than the other foods I enjoy cooking because making them at home is the only way to get them here (whereas I can walk to one Indian, two Thai, and three Chinese restaurants; one of the Chinese restaurants is actually good, too!).

So, I thought I’d share some notes on a few of these, in case you, dear reader, have enjoyed Pittsburghese cuisine in the past but now find yourself far from the steel city, or if you are just curious and want to try making them yourself. I’ll start with the most iconic food: the Primanti Bros. Sandwich:

As you can see, two thick slices of fluffy Italian bread embrace fresh-cut french fries, melty provolone cheese, tomatoes,  and sweet-and-sour coleslaw. What else occupies the space between the bread varies. Could be steak, corned beef, ham, tuna, blackened chicken, fried fish, fried egg, more cheese. The list goes on, but the essentials are the fries, the slaw, and the bread. Joe Primanti created these massive beasts at his sandwich cart in Pittsburgh’s strip district in the 1930’s. There are now five Primanti Bros. locations in the city and 8 in the suburbs around the city. It’s taken me a bit of experimentation, but I now have a recipe that does a pretty good job to recreate the original.

If you can’t make it to the Pittsburgh area, I  highly recommend making these yourself. They are so good, they could make you make this face:

Not many recipes get an endorsement like that! Sadly, I don’t think many readers who haven’t already tasted one of these will want to try making them. But if you would, read on…

Recipe:

  • 1 loaf Italian bread (recipe follows)
  • sweet and sour cole slaw (recipe follows)
  • French fries (3 large potatoes worth of hand cut, or a bag of seasoned, hand-cut-style, frozen Ore-Ida)
  • 8 slices Provolone cheese
  • Tomatoes
  • Meat of choice, if any

Cut the Italian bread into 1″ thick slices. Place the meat on a hot griddle for about a minute to warm up. Then add the provolone on top to make the cheese melty. If you make these without meat, just put a handful of fries on the griddle or frying pan, top with cheese, and wait for the cheese to melt. Place the meat/cheese/fries on one slice of bread, then a handful of coleslaw, two slices of tomato, then the final slice of bread. Cut in half and serve on a sheet of wax paper.

To give an idea of scale, here I pose with my sandwich:

The bread:

  • 2 1/2 cups warm water
  • 2 packets active dry yeast
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 8 cups (32 oz. or 900 grams) all-purpsose flour, sifted
  • butter
  • yellow corn meal
  • 2 tsp salt

Pour the warm water (80°F) into the bowl of a stand mixer. To the water add the yeast, and a teaspoon of sugar. Wait 5 minutes to proof the yeast, then add two cups of flour and the salt. Stir to combine.  This is the biga. Now, if you want the best flavor and texture (and to use the real Italian bread process), you should cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let the biga live for a least a few hours or overnight. The yeast will eat the sugar and flour, make some alcohol, some CO2, and lots of trace flavorful byproducts. If you’re in a hurry, wait an hour then gradually add all but about a cup of the flour. Knead with your mixer’s dough hook (or by hand) for about 10 minutes, adding more flour if necessary to form a soft but not sticky dough. Knead until the dough is very elastic, then transfer the dough to a lightly buttered bowl. Let rise until doubled. Transfer to a floured work surface, and cut the dough into two equal parts.

Roll each half of the dough into a 16×8″ rectangle about a half inch thick. Roll up the rectangle tightly, starting with short side. You want to form a tight skin so that the loaf will stay tall, not spread out. When you get to the end, lightly wet a finger and run it along the edge to seal the edge along the seam. Taper the ends slightly by rolling the loaf with your hands until it is 10 to 11 inches long. Place loaves seam side down on greased cookie sheets which have been sprinkled with yellow cornmeal. Cover each loaf with a very slightly moistened tea towel; (I use a spray bottle to mist them), and place the loaves in a warm place to rise for about one hour. The should roughly double in bulk. Preheat the oven to 375°F, and place shallow pan of boiling water on the bottom rack. Filling the oven with steam is the key to getting great crust. Just before the loaves go in, shallowly slit the top of each loaf three times diagonally with a razor blade, or a serrated steak knife. Bake for 35-40 minutes until well browned. The loaves should sound hollow if you knock on the bottom.

The slaw:

  • 1/2 head of cabbage, finely shredded (I use a box grater)
  • 1/3 cup white rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons of canola oil
  • freshly ground black pepper, and kosher salt to taste

Mix everything together and let sit in a bowl in the refrigerator for at least two hours before using. (The two hours are really key here).

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2 Comments on “Homemade Primanti Sandwiches”

  1. erin Says:

    I wish I had found this a few hours ago! I just drove all over Portland, OR looking for an Italian bakery so I can make sandwiches tomorrow for the Super Bowl. This is my first post season outside of the Burgh. Needless to say I spent way to much are an artisian loaf that I’m pretty sure is going to fail me!

    This bread recipe is now written down and will be use in the very near future!! Thank you!!

    • bpatricksullivan Says:

      Glad to hear it will be useful in the future, Erin! We’ve already had homemade Primantis for dinner twice this week in preparation for the Superbowl. Go Steelers!

      Do you like pepperoni rolls? I just learned that they are only produced in WV, OH, and western PA. I’d always thought they had them everywhere.


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