One Big Fat Greek Treat

The way we see it, all items on the menu of the Square's newest eatery is all Greek to us — from the super-sized gyros stuffed with a whopping one-half pound of succulent lamb meat to the flaky, tasty spanakopita and oh so sweet baklava. Which is exactly what you would expect at My Big Fat Greek Gyro shop, the local chain's sixth shop in Western Pennsylvania and first in Downtown.

"We want every day to be a Greek food festival when people come in to eat," says MBFGG boss Michael Ference, who started the business with his wife Kathleen in 2005. To accomplish that mission, Michael serves up every menu item just the way he likes them — with generous helpings of fresh cooked meats, homemade sauces and a giant smile. "When we started out, I figured I could either spend money on advertising or add on a few more pieces of meat on each gyro. I think I made the right choice because every sandwich we serve is our best advertisement."

And we'll admit that we were sold almost as soon as we entered the Square and caught that first scent of slow-cooked lamb. But the inside of the MBFGG is a feast for the eyes, too. The front counter is open and airy, with a giant fork and spoon decorating the back kitchen wall. Three large squares of glass allow light to wash over the dining room and give diners street level views of the Square. On the other side of the space, three different hues of blue ripple along the wall like waves of the Aegean Sea, the body of water that laps at Greece's eastern shores. The acrylic counter underneath literally glows with LED lights that flash, fade and blink in more than 160 colors, as does Michael's own special creation — the "amniotic cloud" that floats above the room. "We can make the lights green for St. Patrick's Day, red for Valentine's Day and red, white and blue for the Fourth of July. There's a color for every mood, holiday or any other occasion."

A big fan of Downtown's vitality, Michael he had his eyes on a space in the Square even before the renovation. "There were a billion different reasons to open here," he'll tell you. "First, everyone worked together to do a fantastic job in transforming Market Square. Second, there is a built-in lunch crowd here that's continues to grow. And with more people moving to Downtown, plus the new hotel opening, the Square is going to be the place to go when people want to eat. Another reason is that many of our customers know us from our suburban locations and are glad to see a familiar restaurant here in the city."

Always looking ahead, Michael points out that the MBFGG will be able to seat up to 60 people outside during the spring, summer and fall thanks to the shop owning the longest storefront in the Square. He also hints at authentic Greek entertainment and a special place for Downtown students to showcase their talents in the weeks ahead. Speaking of students, they can get a price break on food with valid IDs. Sports and news fans will be able to keep up with their favorite teams or the day's breaking events once a giant HDTV screen is installed. During special times of the year, he'll change up the menu a bit to fit the season, such as serving fish during Lent.

While Michael and Kathleen will be on hand during the location's first few weeks, store owner Richard Machel will manage the daily operations all the time. A retired business exec, Richard decided he needed a challenge to keep him busy. After a very good first day, Richard positively beamed as he enjoyed the rewards of joining the growing family of international culinary treats in the Square. To get a taste of your very own big fat Greek gyro, the store is open Monday-Thurday 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and even on Sundays with hours yet to be determined. And remember to bring your great big fat Greek appetite.


Pilates for the People

Seriously, you could say this week's post is a stretch for us. After all, most times we're visiting one of the Square's many hard to resist dining spots and taste testing the monster sandwiches at DiBella's, the tasty tacos at Moe's, perfect pastas at Anna's La Cucina Flegrea or a sizzling angus burger at the New Diamond Market Bar & Grill. And with more new eateries like My Big Fat Greek Gyro and Vallozzi's set to open in the next few weeks, you could say our plates will stay full in the near future. Which is exactly why we huffed and puffed up the stairs to Moxie Mind & Body, the new Pilates palace that's nested above Nicholas Coffee.

Owned and operated by Aubrey Johnson, Moxie Mind & Body packs a lot of Pilates punch in its compact quarters. With her high-watt energy and irresistible passion for Pilates, Aubrey is dedicated to helping people of every age maximize their strength, flexibility and self-esteem through this more than a century-old exercise program. Through group and individual sessions, Aubrey can tailor a program for anyone from teenagers to senior citizens. A graduate of Point Park University's dance program, she'll readily tell you that Pilates improved her on-stage performance, and believes that everyone can benefit from this workout program that enhances a person's balance, strength and agility through exercises based on resistance training using various machines and devices.

Aubrey readily admits that not everyone "gets" Pilates. That's one reason she invites anyone who works or lives or even shops or dines Downtown to visit the Moxie studio, which offers individual and group sessions during the week and the weekend. Along with a tour and descriptions of the exercises and devices, she'll explain how Pilates differs from yoga — "you're constantly moving during Pilates" — and help personalize a training program just for you. She'll also set you straight about Pilates being for "women-only." "Joseph Pilates created the program to help deal with his asthma attacks. Many of my clients are women, but a lot of men take Pilates, too. Many professionals dancers, both men and women, do Pilates. It's a challenging workout for anyone."

As for her new home in the Square, Aubrey is thrilled to be part of what she calls the "core of the new Downtown." "When I was a student at Point Park, there wasn't much to do in Market Square, especially after dark. To be here in the center of all the renovation is wonderful. I can't think of a better place to be right now." We're glad to welcome Aubrey and Moxie Mind & Body Pilates Studio to the Square. To arrange a visit or schedule your first group or private session, just call 412-261-2299.

And, by the way, when you visit Aubrey at Moxie, you might just notice a liquor license application on the doorway next to NOLA. That's the one that leads to Walt Harper's Attic. Stay tuned here for what looks like one of the next new hotspots to hit the Square soon.


The Skinny on Fat Tuesday in the Square

You don't have to miss New Orleans to be part of the Fat Tuesday fun at NOLA, which just happens to be celebrating its first Mardi Gras in Market Square. Even though the Creole-accented dining spot opened for business just about a year ago, NOLA's created such a strong buzz among its loyal and growing following that it seems to have been in the Square much longer. So as it prepares to celebrate its first anniversary, NOLA's also introducing a new tradition in the Square with its inaugural Mardi Gras party.

The fun starts early in the A.M. That's when members of the NOLA krewe will be passing out fresh-roasted Chicory coffee from its next door neighbor, Nicholas Coffee, and the Crescent City's favorite pastry — beignets — to passersby on their way to work or a even a Downtown Carnival party. Hey, we're open for invitations on that one. You can pick up a cuppa java and a sweet treat from eight in the morning until two that afternoon. Speaking of sweets, our good friends at Prantl's will get you in an office party mood with an assortment of Mardi Gras cupcakes, cookies and even that grand old New Orleans tradition, the King Cake. Now if you're not up to speed on your Mardi Gras customs and traditions, the King Cake is a tasty concoction that contains a tiny figure of a baby inside. Whoever is lucky enough to get a piece of the cake with the tiny toddler in it is said to receive special privileges for the rest of the year. Keep that in mind if you just happen to dine at NOLA.

Now, we don't know what you might "give up" during Lent this year, but until Fat Tuesday's over, why not stop by NOLA for one last night of feasting before the fasting starts. Before the Cajun classics come to the table, you might want to whet your whistle with one of the evening's specialty cocktails. Maybe you're in a frosty Blue Hawaiian mood or want to get artistic with a Toulouse Martini. And we're sure you'll be blown away by a Classic Hurricane. Or perhaps a Sangria Bloody Mary will put you in the mood for a Crescent City Stomp to the jazzy blues sounds of John Gresh's Gris Gris Band. And if you happen to stop by NOLA this coming weekend, your receipt will get a complimentary Mardi Gras sangria on Fat Tuesday.

While everyone's getting into the Mardi Gras spirit, chef Len Pisano will be busy in the kitchen creating some N'Awlins style dishes such as a spicy wild shrimp boil, duck and oyster gumbo, Louisiana crawfish étouffée and fried chicken with biscuits. And that sounds like a "croc" of good eats, there's no better way to start off than with a platter of crispy, spicy fried alligator that's got plenty of bite. And don't forget that King Cake on the dessert menu. If you happen to be the lucky one to get the baby, you'll enjoy some tasty discounts on future visits to NOLA.

Of course, there are plenty of places around the Square to dig in for one last culinary blast before the party's over. Whether it's a monster pastrami sandwich at Primanti's or a sampling of Italy at Bella Sera, there's a place for every taste in the Square. You might even get some beads tossed your way.


Straight from the Heart

Hey folks, Feb. 14th is just around the corner. As luck would have it, so is the answer to your last-minute rush to treat your sweetheart on this day when love is in the air and everywhere else. Just follow us to Market Square, where your best intentions will hit the bull's eye when Cupid shoots his arrow this Valentine's Day. First of all, let's think about a romantic dinner. Here's where your options are four Square, with a quartet of dining options that run the range from classic, homestyle Italian dishes and feisty, spicy Mexican meals to traditional American surf and turf with a twist and a heaping helping of New Orleans style dining with a Creole accent.

If you're looking to spice up your romance a bit, then head to higher ground for a special "two-fer" dinner at Las Velas.  Once you're seated in this cozy cantina, you'll enjoy panoramic views of the Square from Las Velas' second-floor perch. As you soak in the sights below, choose any two entrees from the regular menu, plus one shared appetizer and dessert and two house drinks. We think that the prices for this package we'll have you saying "Ole." Save the date and a window seat today by calling 412-251-0031.

Just below Las Velas, you'll feel like you left your heart in the old time Burgh. Step into a revival of the classic American tavern with a menu big on burgers and wholesome "Born in the U.S.A." comfort foods at Diamond Market Bar & Grill, . For all those hungry hearts out there, the chef will serve a three-course dinner: 1. a choice of salads, 2. roasted mushroom risotto or grilled petite filet and shrimp entrees,  and  3. flourless chocolate cake or lemon sorbet for a sweet finish. Paired with craft beers, you can treat your date to all this for $29.95 per person.  Make your reservations now by calling 412-325-2000.

They might just be playing a Cajun love song at NOLA, where the V-Day menu will feature a prix fixe menu simmering with more choices than there are ingredients in a steaming pot of gumbo. Of course, a hearty jambalaya with sea scallops, wild shrimp, andouille sausage and rice will get most hearts racing. On the other hand the Cajun pork chop with tasso lyonnais potatoes and braised collard greens seems as though it was born on the bayou. For a taste of Crescent City cuisine — and a Mardi Gras sneak peak — call NOLA at 412-417-9100.

Love Italian style is always the main course at La Cucina Flegrea, where owner and chef Anna Felova adds a little "amore" to every meal. To win your hearts over this Valentine's Day, she will prepare a five-course feast of her favorite southern Italian specialties such as pan-seared veal with prosciutto and mozzarella or filet of halibut with asparagus. And because it's true that good things come to those who wait, Anna will certainly leave your love struck with her amazing heart-shaped chocolate cake dessert. Before you enjoy a post-dinner stroll around the Square and other parts of Downtown,  why not order a glass of house red to keep two hearts beating as one. For a taste of Anna's Italia, call 412-521-2082.

Hold on. We're not finished yet. Dinner's just the start. To really treat your Valentine, there's got to be a gift or two for that special someone. Now, we know for certain that your sweetheart will enjoy a bit of pampering at Denham & Co. The styling experts at this intimate salon above the Nicholas Coffee Company are ready to give the love of your life a new 'do or freshen up a classic coif. And to make it easy, they'll even put together a gift bag that's sure to please.

Finally, show her you have a heart of gold with a bauble or two from the Square's chicest boutique. Yes, we're talking about Serendipity, where you'll find the latest in women's accessories. Dangly heart-shaped earrings are a must. But you can warm her heart and feet with a pair of Betsey Johnson fuzzy slippers. And if you can't quite decide which gift is best, the friendly staff is always at hand to help.

We can't forget the men! In this age of enlightenment the gifts go both ways.  Stop in to Heinz Healy's for something he can't resist... We mean, something other than you.

And, oh yeah, that little sweet heart at the top is one of the tasty Valentine's Day treats baked fresh at Prantl's. We know you'll love it. And so will your Valentine.


The Attic and All That Jazz

Yes, the Square is alive with the sound of music these days. Whether it's a free lunchtime concert in the summer or bands entertaining during the evenings at NOLA and other night-life hot spots, you can tap your feet to the beat year-round in the Square. And if you listen closely enough, you almost hear the sweet sounds of Walt Harper tickling the ivories coming from the space above the current Bruegger's Bagel shop in a magical place Pittsburghers once knew simply as "the Attic."

From 1969 to 1976, the Steel City's very own piano man ruled a musical kingdom that drew loyal followers from rank and file Downtown workers, local political and business movers and shakers, and sports superstars like Roberto Clemente, Terry Bradshaw, L.C. Greenwood, and basketball great Connie Hawkins. And on any given night, jazz greats such as Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley or the Modern Jazz Quartet would headline at the Attic. The music might start on the downbeat, but it was always an upbeat experience at the Attic with Walt Harper and his Quintet, described by music critics of the day as one of the tightest jazz combos in the entire U.S.

What's especially noteworthy about the Attic is that it was one of the few Downtown jazz clubs in the country owned by an African American. But there was never a color line at the Attic as far as the talented Mr. Harper was concerned. With a following of loyal white fans who first discovered him when he entertained at the legendary Crawford Grill in the Hill District, Walt proved that music transcended race and other differences between people.

Now, according to old news stories, the Attic is part of a story of a revived Market Square, drawing people in with exciting evening activity. Hmmm...kind of sounds familiar, doesn't it? Don't forget, the Market Houses came down only eight years earlier and were replaced by a flat park, leaving fewer reasons to come to the Square and less foot traffic for other businesses in the area.  Back then, a state liquor store did its business in the Bruegger's location, and the Attic moved into the second floor above it, formerly the inscrutably named Mystic Tea Room (pictured here). With two dance floors, the Attic was designed to look like... a real attic. But whatever the decor, Walt and his musical guests shook the rafters with a specially designed sound system. For a lucky seven-year streak, Walt struck the right chord night after night and helped kick start one of the earlier transformations of the Square.

The state store and many other businesses that were in the Square back then have long disappeared. But, the memories of Walt Harper, who died in 2006, still resonate within the hearts and minds of so many Pittsburghers who climbed the stairs to the Attic. Nearly 40 years after the final coda, Walt Harper fans remember a musical giant who lived his life the way he played jazz — with many a grace note.

For more information on Walt Harper's life (off Market Square), we recommend checking out the Old Mon Music blog.