Click photo to enlarge
Jeanette Navarro puts the famous Pittsburger into containers for the lunch hour on Wednesday, May 6, 2009, at Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg, Calif. Since the mid-1950s, Pittsburg High School students have feasated on the ground beef lasagna sandwich.

It takes a lot of love to make the dish that has long been a staple in Pittsburg.

Well, that and a bunch of dough and plenty of ketchup.

Since the early 1950s, students in Pittsburg school cafeterias have been dining on Pittsburgers — a baked sandwich made out of ingredients such as seasoned ground beef mixed with ketchup, onions, cheese and either bread or biscuit dough.

A Pittsburger is probably best described as a "cheeseburger lasagna," said Nicholette Miglio, a 2000 Pittsburg High grad.

Many schools have a trademark dish their students remember fondly, such as the Mt. Diablo school district's Zombie — a cheese-filled bread — served since about the 1960s, or Zamboni's Brickhouse Pizza, which Antioch schools started serving in 1999.

Seemingly all students have stories about the dishes they ate in school. The tales for Pittsburg students include gooey cinnamon rolls, soft, fresh-baked cookies and spaghetti.

However, most memorable for many was Pittsburger day.

"If the Pittsburgers were flowing, we would always eat in the cafeteria," said Mike Orlando, a 1989 graduate. He had "an advantage" because his mother worked in the district's kitchens.

"They were something that was unique to Pittsburg. They were unique, they were different, and they were ours," said Joe Canciamilla, a former state Assemblyman who graduated from Pittsburg High in 1973.

"No one left to go off campus" on Pittsburger day, said Anna Tellez. The 1974 Pittsburg High grad said the "lines were so long and people tried to leave class early to get there."

Antoinette Beck retired in 1983 after 32 years as a cook in the district but still fondly remembers working in the kitchen at Pittsburg High School, particularly making Pittsburgers.

Though she credits Katherine Simpson with its creation sometime in the early 1950s, Beck, 88, was among the first in a long line of cafeteria workers who have rolled the dough and added the cheese to the Pittsburgers.

The trick to making the Pittsburger is the ketchup, Beck said — lots and lots of ketchup.

The idea is to make a sandwich similar to a sloppy joe, only more moist, with golden brown crust, said Orlando's mother, Joanie. She worked in Pittsburg school kitchens for 30 years, including 17 at the high school, before retiring last year.

"Everyone thinks that there is a lot of ingredients, but it is very simple," she said, adding that a lot of cheese is used.

The Pittsburger originated when everything in the cafeteria was made from scratch and often with lots of dough. It evolved as cooks tinkered with the ingredients. The concept of making small sandwiches with baked bread evolved, as cooks spread the dough across large pans and baked the entire dish at once, Beck said.

"It was just to have something new. The kids loved them; they couldn't have enough," Joanie Orlando said.

She added that the school would get calls from police officers and firefighters putting in orders for Pittsburgers. "They had the school menu," she said.

Former students who lived back on the East Coast would call to get Pittsburgers shipped to them.

The menu at Tellez's 15-year high school reunion included Pittsburgers. She said they paid one of the cafeteria workers to make them.

Pittsburgers are sometimes mentioned on social networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace, while participants on the ContraCostaTimes.com message boards have tried to share recipes for the dish.

Sue Sanchez-Daniels, a 1982 Pittsburg High graduate who lives in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., said she "was shocked" when her sister told her they still make them and that they taste the same.

"I was like 'Are you kidding me?' I have to go back to the West Coast to try them again," she said. Sanchez-Daniels said she has taught around the country, and no where is there a dish "remotely close."

Some Pittsburg families cook the dish at home.

"It's Pittsburg's answer to comfort food," said Paul Flores, a longtime city employee and Pittsburg native. The greasier and oilier, the better, he said, noting that his daughter makes the dish.

School board trustee Vince Ferrante, whose mother worked in the district, said his wife makes a variation that uses Bull's-Eye barbecue sauce.

Mike Orlando said Pittsburgers have been requested on more than one occasion for holiday parties at USS-POSCO, where he works.

Tellez serves them for her family and other social events. The dish's popularity has spread among her relatives.

"My daughter-in law, who never ate them when she went to Pitt, wanted to learn how to make them," she said.

Miglio said that when she tried to make Pittsburgers at home, the unmistakable smell took her back to working in the cafeteria at Hillview Junior High.

Currently, Pittsburgers are served at the junior highs and the high school. Joanie Orlando said she found that most younger students aren't as fond of them, and that they would rather eat quickly and go to recess.

Pittsburg's cafeterias are "old school" because each site has its own kitchen, she said. "Without that, you lose that homemade touch, which is what the Pittsburger is all about."

May 6 was Pittsburger day in the district; the dish is served about once a month. At Pittsburg High School, head cook Rose Conklin made the mixture the night before and was at work early in the morning with baker Yolanda Orozco

Junior Jose Cortez said "he kind of got addicted" to Pittsburgers since moving to the district four years ago. He remembered hearing friends brag about them.

"It's definitely something to try," he said.

Sophomore Marie Rios said she enjoys it because "it tastes fresh while other cafeteria food seems fake." Junior Thania Lopez said she loved that it's a "mixture of toasty cheesy bread and sloppy joes."

"It's a lot easier to eat and enjoy, though," she said.

Reach Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164 or pburgarino@bayareanewsgroup.com.

PittsburgeR
Ingredients:
3 lbs. ground beef
Vegetable oil (enough to brown meat)
1 chopped onion
Salt and pepper
About 3 4 cup ketchup
1 lb. cheese, either sliced or shredded
3 lbs. dough (can use either bread dough or biscuit dough)
Directions:
  • Brown ground beef and onion until not quite done. Drain.
  • Add salt, pepper and ketchup.
  • Roll 11 2 lbs. dough thin and cover bottom and side of a 10-by-17 pan. Let rise while rolling out top.
  • Spread meat mixture, cooled to lukewarm, evenly over dough.
  • Cover with cheese.
  • Put the rolled top over filling and seal sides.
  • Let rise 30 minutes, then bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes.