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         A PITTSBURGH CLASSIC   small crimson logoSTORY
  STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM CARROLL
Tessaro's exterior as seen in American Publi House Review

The Bloomfield neighborhood is an old Italian stronghold, but like other neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, this one is changing as new people settle in and new businesses emerge from the mix.  TESSARO'S owner Kelly Harrington welcomes the prospect of newcomers, but his landmark bar has been doing just fine since he became owner in 1984.  The bar is surely a fixture of the neighborhood, and its original founder, Richard Tessaro, was a local guy, but only a small percentage of the current business is local.  In fact, Tessaro’s has become a destination bar for out-of-towners, and for people from other neighborhoods of the city too.  This says a lot in this city of rivers where people on the other side of the river are ‘strangers,' where marriages across river boundaries are discouraged, and where social networks are thick, and hardly porous.

Kelly Harrington as seen in American Public House Review
KELLY HARRINGTON
I visited TESSARO'S when I first landed in Pittsburgh, to do a consulting gig.  As soon as I walked in I knew it was a special place, but that feeling is hard to convey, and harder to describe.  The impression was so powerful that I thought, ‘I could live here.’  I did wind up living in Pittsburgh for a while, and spending a fair amount of time at Tessaro’s – but that’s another story.

Kelly recalls that he “always wanted to be in the bar business.  When I was growing up, instead of playing store, I played bar.  ‘What ya have?’” he’d say as a kid.  After he bought the bar, he says, “I got out front, I got behind that hardwood, I was in the kitchen.  And it turns out to be a family business.  My dad stops in on Monday – you’ve seen him.”  And Kelly’s mom is the host.  “She’s the buffer, the steadying influence.  She’s good with the employees.  Mom does all the scheduling, all the hiring and firing.  And my sister is here too.  She’s here 18 years.  So there’s a sense of certainty.”
 
The broad mahogany bar is set perpendicular to the entrance and extends nearly to the rear of the barroom.  The dark wood bar and painted tin ceiling are paired with dark wood tables and wood paneling all around.  Delicate white strings of light climb the walls and inch along the ceiling, which define the contours of the space and offset the darker tones of the wood.  But the wood hues really establish the mood of the place, which is intimate and warm.  When they expanded 13 years ago – Kelly says they badly needed room to spread out – his mother painted murals on the new walls depicting the bar, Kelly’s family (mom and dad and eight siblings), and the employees, many of whom still work there.  His mother paints herself into the murals, but never reveals herself.  Instead, she appears in silhouette, or with hands raised in front of her face.  “It’s kind of Hitchcockian,” Kelly notes, but the murals capture the charm of the place and underscore its warm mysteries. 

The grill at TESSARO'S as seen in American Public House Review

Tessaro’s is all about personal attention, specially prepared foods, and drinks made from established recipes.  The famed wood grille, visible behind a glass partition in the rear corner of the barroom, is a hallmark feature of the place.  Specials are posted on a blackboard in front, which consist mainly of fish entrees, salads, and sandwiches.  “The blackboard…people like it.  My sister works the fish angle to the max.  But 75% of the food we sell are hamburgers.”  Kelly recalls that, “We used to buy our meat across the street at House of Meats.  We didn’t know what to do when they went out of business.  A customer, a fireman, offered to cut meat for us at his house, but I said, ‘How about if I create a space for you here?’  So I built a place in the basement, a walk-in.  He cuts and grinds chuck, adds some filet, some trimmings.  A guy came in, ordered a 24oz steak, he went downstairs and cut it.  Now where else can you get that?  And the meat is fresh every day.”  

Kelly has always taken a low key approach to PR, but even so, “The place caught on, won awards for best hamburger.  We were mentioned in Pittsburgh Magazine, and also in the L.A. Times, the New York Times.  Travelers loved it, they talked and wrote about it…Out-of-towners come in, say they read about it on the Internet, on CitySearch.  We were listed in one publication as having one of the best four hamburgers in the country.  The Food Channel did a show on us…We’ve never done any advertising.  Business has been good, though.  It’s been a steady climb.” 

The bar at Tessaro's as seen in American Public House Review
Happy customers at Tessaro's as seen in American Public House Review

Most of the staff have been around a while, know the customers, and have learned the score.  Meaning that people who come to work at TESSARO'S tend to stay.  Deb Painter has tended the bar six nights a week since her son was one year old; he’s a junior in college now.  Courtney McFarland has worked the grille at TESSARO'S for more than 20 years.  “I’m strong on the idea that all the employees make the business,” Kelly says.  And he backs that up by paying well.  “It shows them that not all the money is for me.”  But employees have to earn their place.  “It takes a while to catch on, you can’t get away with loafing here.”  All wear the trademark Tessaro’s outfit:  black pants, black apron decorated with the TESSARO'S logo (a stylized hamburger), white shirt accented by a red bowtie.  


Painting in Tessaro's backroom as seen in American Public House Review

When I go there I always look along the bar for Debbie Painter, and then let my gaze wander to the back corner to find Courtney, a steady presence in the tiny, busy space surrounding the hardwood grille.  The place is always crowded.  People wait outside on the sidewalk for a table, some nestle just inside the door, while others spread out onto the main floor to fill all the available spaces.  The bar stools are full, with people standing two or three deep behind them.  Either Kelly himself, or Tee his mom, or Ena his sister are there to greet and accommodate, to put you down for a table or help you navigate the bar.  TESSARO'S is a place where friends and strangers mix it up and talk.  It’s a shared experience, generous and spirited enough to brew a powerful social mix.  Standing at the bar one night, passing comments along and absorbing the chat that was filtering by, I suddenly thought that if a heat sensing satellite were to pass overhead just then, the place would trigger the sensors and raise a glow on some far, faraway screen.




TESSARO'S


4601 LIBERTY AVENUE
PITTSBURGH, PA 15224-1922

(412) 682-6809




Tom Carroll is a folklorist and cultural worker, and writer.  Itinerant for more than 25 years, he has done fieldwork throughout the mid-Atlantic and New England regions, and in West Virginia, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  He works and travels extensively in this corner of North America with people from all over the world as well as with long established Anglo communities and Native Americans.  Working with Cambodians, he has studied Khmer and approached Sanskrit; working with Haitians, he knows a few words of Creole and French; working with Latinos, he understands a little Spanish.  Carroll was born in Paterson, New Jersey and now resides in Philadelphia, where he is active in The Kelpius Society.        

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