We caught up with Mayor Bill Peduto at Tootie’s Famous Italian Beef in the Southside for a very Pittsburgh conversation over a sandwich.
Tootie’s Famous Italian Beef looks like it’s been there for decades, but the small sandwich shop actually opened in 2012. While waiting for Mayor Peduto, I asked the young woman behind the counter if it was a quieter-than-usual day. She said that late nights are the most popular time at Tootie’s and that Saint Patrick’s Day is probably the busiest day of the year – she couldn’t even begin to guess how many hundreds of sandwiches they sell on March 17th. Mayor Peduto arrived a few minutes later and ordered his regular, the Italian Beef Sandwich, before we sat down at the only two seats at the only table at Tootie’s.
What do you like about the sandwiches here?
I was introduced to Tootie’s about four years ago and before that I had never had an authentic Italian beef Chicago-style sandwich. I didn’t know such a thing existed and the first thing I said was “wow, that’s delicious.” And it’s not only the meat but it’s everything that comes with it – it’s the pickled vegetables, the wonderful juices, the bread. And it’s the combination of all of it that make for a really delicious sandwich. I only found out later in life that this is the standard fare in Chicago. Everyone knows a Pittsburgh sandwich – Primantis, that’s our signature. And everyone knows about the Philadelphia cheese steak but I don’t know if everyone knows the Italian beef sandwich of Chicago. The owner of this place goes back generations in the butcher industry in Chicago and he’s using his family’s recipe to make this incredible sandwich. When I got your request – I figured you’ve been to Primantis and Gaucho – so I thought I’d take you to Tootie’s. And any excuse I can find to get an Italian beef at Tootie’s, I’ll take.
What was your first job ever?
I was a paperboy for the Pittsburgh Press from 1973 to 1983. Ten years.
That’s a long stint.
Yeah, I still have dreams that I forgot to deliver the papers so that job still haunts me. It’s where my interest in government came from too because I was in 4th grade and I was reading the local news.
And you were a DJ at one point – right?
I saved up money from the paper route and bought a DJ system in my senior year of high school and I partnered with my best friend and created “Music to Go,” that’s what we called ourselves. We did a lot of dances at the high schools in the South Hills.
Everything. All kinds of dances. We did fraternities at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. Dances at Chatham. And one wedding. But we weren’t really prepared for the wedding. A wedding has a whole different dimension of expectation. And it required a record collection that went beyond ours.
If you could go back in time to any point in Pittsburgh history, where would you go?
I love Pittsburgh history and I would be really interested to see what this place looked like around the French and Indian War. This was before the forests were deforested and when the rivers were full of fish and the water was pure. This had to have been a utopia of natural beauty and it would be really interesting to see it in that pristine condition. Imagine what it would look like when all the trees were two or three hundred years old. But then you’d also have the mountain lion. You’d have to deal with that.
If an extra billion dollars suddenly appeared in the Pittsburgh budget, what’s the first thing you would do?
I’d provide every child over the age of two with pre-k education all the way up to kindergarten. It’s a very simple question for me. There’s bipartisan support. We know that if we give children an opportunity earlier in life, they succeed later in life. That critical time between being born and entering 3rd grade, you’re learning how to read and then from third grade on, you’re reading to learn. And if you can give everyone an equal opportunity to learn how to read, then you give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed in life. Without a question, that would be where the first part of that billion would go to.
What’s a project or initiative that you’re proud of and one that was disappointing?
I have an amazing team so it’s very hard to pick one project. But one project we took on really early and have had success with is the Learn and Earn summer project. We used to hire about 150 kids every summer and we’d put them to work cutting grass and painting fences. We decided that if we partner with corporations and large institutions, we could exponentially increase it so now we have kids working at PNC Bank and UPMC and University of Pittsburgh and all throughout the city. Now we employ over 2,000 kids. That’s something I’m very proud of. One thing that didn’t get the results we were hoping is this program that we call Bridges Beyond Blight. We have 17,0000 abandoned buildings and lots and vacant properties and I want to see a strong partnership between the city and non-profit institutions. The city would give those groups the property and they would create employment programs within that neighborhood to teach people how to hang drywall or teach people to do electrical work or roofing and then they would bring the property back, sell it at a low price and then it’s back on the tax roll. And I still don’t have that program institutionalized where it’s easy and seamless for community organizations or faith-based institutions to get those properties. So I’m disappointed that we have not made it the priority that it is for me on a citywide basis because it involves so many different departments.
What’s your favorite ride at Kennywood?
When I was a kid it was Le Cachot, that ghost house. As an adult, I would say the Jackrabbit.
That’s a great one. And I think it’s 99 years old this year.
Is it really?
What’s your favorite Pittsburgh hangout spot?
I’ve been hanging out at Cappy’s since 1987. It’s the neighborhood bar though I no longer live in the neighborhood but I still come back. All my friends are there so I catch up with people and we watch whatever game is on that night. And it’s a chance to be out without the sense of going out. It’s like a shared living room of about 20 of my good friends.
Are there any new restaurants or shops or bars that you’ve checked out recently?
The one that I’m excited about that I haven’t been to is right down the street – it’s the return of Dish Osteria. Dish was one of my favorite restaurants in Pittsburgh before it closed. And I’ve heard from everybody that its almost exactly the same – down to the same staff members being back. So I’m looking forward to re-experiencing Dish. A hidden gem I haven’t been to in a while is Jozsa Corner in Hazelwood. It’s a Hungarian restaurant where everything is made from scratch, including the noodles. He makes them right there. I’m not sure what the hours are now. It’s a single person operation but I’ve invited everyone from my family to Ben Folds to have dinner with me there.
I’m sure people are always coming up to on the street to tell you something. What sort of things have people shared with you?
It’s a mixed bag. Politics is so polarizing right now. It’s almost become a spectator sport. People are passionate about what they believe so if you agree with them, they’re very excited to tell you how much they support you. And if you don’t agree with them, they’re very excited to tell you exactly how they feel about you. It’s unfortunate because it provides a division amongst us. You see it on a national level but now you’re starting to see it on a local level. It’s sort of like Sunday. On Sunday mornings we gather and we do so in a way that is the most narrow way of defining ourselves. It’s not just that we’re in our places of worship but the people in there are generally all the same color. And then we walk out of there and everyone puts on black and gold and cheers on the Steelers. I wish that politics could be more like the latter where we all cheer on Pittsburgh and agree to disagree on what the best way to do it is. And we just get more concerned about the betterment of the city or the country. I just wish we all wore the black and gold but I realized the reality.
You’ve had a lot of interesting facial hair as mayor. Is there anything else you’d like to try?
As I see the widening of my bald spot on the stop of my head, I’d just like to try not to go bald. But this is it. I’ve been blessed to have a beard that comes in very full so I like going with the Czar Nicholas II look. I don’t think there’s anything left to experiment with.
Entry #546 into the Time Capsule, Pittsburgh’s own Mayor Bill Peduto! Thank so much for being a part of this public art piece for the future of Pittsburgh. #Pittsburgh #history #PublicArt #art pic.twitter.com/5zkOTvjGfw
— toby atticus fraley (@tobyfraley) June 14, 2019
As I walked Mayor Peduto out of Tootie’s, a young man stopped him on the sidewalk. “Are you who I think you are?” They chatted for a couple minutes about various Pittsburgh neighborhoods before Mayor Peduto was headed back to the Pittsburgh City-County Building for an afternoon of meetings.