Gretchen McKay

Adventure just around the bend on overnight kayak-canoe trip

gretchen mckay/post-gazette

BELLTOWN, Pa. — Every paddler has her moment when the only thing on her mind is placing her water shoes on dry land. For me, it came about five hours into the overnight kayaking trip my husband and I took a few weeks ago on the Clarion River.

We’d slid our boats into the water under sunny, late-morning skies about 12 miles upriver under the bridge at Arroyo, Pa. Having kayaked the family-friendly Clarion on a number of occasions, we figured we’d travel at least 4 mph — maybe 5 mph if we put some muscle behind the paddling — a pace that would take us through this tiny crossroads in Elk County not long after we’d eaten our picnic lunch on one of the many giant rocks at the river’s edge. From there, it’s be an easy 5 miles to camp at Clear Creek State Park, leaving us plenty of time for a walk through the woods before a grilled steak dinner.

Talk about miscalculations. We wouldn’t pull our boats to shore at Clear Creek until well after 6 p.m., more than three shoulder-aching hours off schedule.

Don’t get me wrong — it was a gorgeous, meandering ride as the Clarion zigzags through narrow valleys of old-growth hardwood forests bustling with wildlife. (We spied several hawks and a blue heron.) Virtually alone on the water, with nothing but the occasional ripple of whitewater or a jumping fish to break the solitude, we were totally immersed in its natural beauty.

It just took a bit longer than we expected.

Slowed by a strong headwind and stretches of shallow water, a GPS we’d carefully packed in plastic in a life vest revealed we were only traveling a little more than 2 mph. Thank goodness, then, I’d taken my father’s advice and thrown a pair of paddling gloves into my kayak, and remembered to pack plenty of water along with the Pringles.

Tired as we were, when we finally pulled our kayaks out of the water and carried-dragged them to the rustic log cabin we’d rented at Clear Creek, we also were pretty darn happy. If you’re looking to commune with nature while getting a little exercise and fresh air, an overnight paddling trip is the way to do it.

Luckily, you don’t have to own your own boat to take an overnight paddling trip. Several paddling outfitters rent canoes and kayaks for overnight adventures of varying lengths on western Pennsylvanian rivers, often with a shuttle service that eliminates worries about how to get back to your car when the trip is over.

Indian Waters Canoe and Kayak in Tidioute, Warren County, for instance, offers several two- and three-day trips on the Upper Allegheny (15 to 45 miles, $55 to $100 per canoe), with overnight tent camping at developed campgrounds or on public lands along the river. For more enthusiastic paddlers, there’s also a seven-day, 107-mile excursion from Kinzua Dam to Tionesta ($300 per canoe, with a three-canoe minimum).

Generally, two adults and two small children can fit in a canoe, while kayaks can have single or double cockpits.

All trips are self-guided. But that’s not as scary as it might sound to beginners because the Upper Allegheny, a Class 1 river like the Clarion, is fairly calm and slow; some spots are shallow enough that you can wade across without getting your shorts wet.

Heading south, Westmoreland County’s Youghiogheny Canoe Outfitters can arrange a two-day paddle on the Youghiogheny River ($66.50 per boat, three boat minimum). The 28-mile trip starts in Connellsville, with most boaters over-nighting in tents on Layton Island, and ends at its livery in West Newton.

Securing a kayak or canoe, though, is only one part of the equation. You’re also going to figure out what equipment and gear to bring on the paddling trip, what will work best for meals and how to best prepare for any emergencies that might pop up.

Obviously, it’s a bad idea to set off for a weekend trip without at least some basic paddling skills — say, how to get in and out of the boat without falling in the water and how to properly hold a paddle. (If you’re traveling in a group, it’s important to know every paddler’s limitations.) Keystone Sojourns in Ellwood City offers a two-hour class in paddling Tuesdays and Thursdays ($25) at Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park. You can also try your hand at paddling through Kayak Pittsburgh, which offers free kayaking 4 p.m. to dusk Monday-Friday in Lake Elizabeth on Pittsburgh’s North Side, near the National Aviary (10 a.m.-dusk Saturday and Sunday, $5 per boat).

You’ll also want to make sure no bad storms are brewing and that the river you’re paddling isn’t too swift or high for your ability (searchable at www.rivergages.com).

Piper Lindell, who with husband Josh runs Allegheny Outfitters in Warren, Pa., maintains packing for a paddling trip is no different that car camping or backpacking in the woods, especially if you’re traveling by canoe, most of which can hold upward of 800 pounds.

“You just need to rethink the space,” she says. Kayaks are a bit tricker, thanks to an enclosed cargo area. Her advice: Figure out what you want, and then “cut it in half.”

How much is too much? There should be a minimum 6 inches of freeboard (the distance between the water line and the top of the boat).

Must-haves include a life vest for each paddler, and a throw bag and rope that can be used for water rescues and to retrieve a boat pinned by the current. You’ll also need a sleeping bag and tent, unless like we did, you rent a cabin. Bring a flashlight, an adequate water supply and bungee chords for strapping everything down. That way if you flip, all your supplies won’t go astray.

Speaking of unintended dips in the water, you’ll want to make sure you dress properly in quick-drying synthetic fabrics that wick perspiration away from the skin, instead of cotton and wool, which have no insulating ability when wet, notes Dave McQuaid of Keystone Sojourn, a Western Pennsylvania guide service. Don’t forget rain gear.

McQuaid also suggests including a tube of topical aloe vera in your first aid kit to soothe mild burns, sunburn and insect bites, along with bug spray and non-water based sunscreen. To keep items like cell phones, toilet paper and iPods safe and dry, invest in a good dry bag (or two) because “plastic bags don’t work.” Except for gathering garbage, that is, so be sure to bring at least one along for your trash.

Other essentials include waterproof matches or lighter and a small ax or saw for cutting firewood. If you have room, a starter log also is a smart idea.

In planning your menu, it helps to make a list of ingredients for each snack or meal. Remember, there are no mini-marts in the middle of the river, so you’re out of luck if you forget sugar for your coffee or ketchup for your hot dog.

Remember, too, that in Pennsylvania it’s illegal to drink or be under the influence of alcohol while operating a boat. So wait until you’ve pulled to shore to enjoy happy hours.

The difference between a boat that stays on shore and one that disappears downstream can be a matter of inches. Be sure to pull your canoe or kayak onto higher ground when you’re setting up camp or secure it with rope. Also, don’t tempt critters by leaving food out in the open or tempt fate by pitching your tent under a dangerous dead branch.

Perhaps most important of all, let someone know where you’re going to be paddling, and when you plan to return because your cell phone may not work on the water.

Meet the ‘Blonde Elvis’ of Mount Oliver: Tribute artists are alive and well

Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

Dan Casne makes his living redesigning and rewinding electromagnets used on overhead cranes in steel mills. It’s a technical job, and not a bad-paying one. But his true calling just might be singing.

He discovered this when he was well into his 50s. Watching karaoke one night at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Mount Oliver about eight years ago, a member cajoled him to take his turn on stage.

“Sing some Elvis,” he remembers the guy telling him.

An affable man with a personality as outsized as his biceps — Mr. Casne is a former amateur weightlifter who could bench 350 pounds — he good-naturedly complied.

He can’t remember what song, exactly, came out of his mouth, just that it was good enough that partygoers asked if he’d do another Elvis number at an upcoming event. The one song he promised stretched into a set of seven or eight.

“I thought it would be the first time I ever did something like that, and the last,” he recalls chuckling. “But they loved it.”

Before he knew it, Mr. Casne, 61, who lives in Allentown, was not just getting all shook up in front of crowds, but became part of the Rat Pack-inspired musical act, The Legends. In the process, he was making many a middle-aged heart go aflutter with the swiveling hips and spangly costumes that marked Elvis Presley’s Vegas years.

The musical phenomenon known as Pittsburgh’s Blonde Elvis — he wears long yellow locks instead of a coal-black pompadour — was born.

It’s not as outlandish as it sounds: Elvis actually was a dishwater blond who dyed his hair black, thinking it looked better on film.

Given that Pittsburgh’s population is the oldest among large metropolitan areas outside of Florida, and that people tend to like the music they grew up with, it’s no surprise a tribute act to one of America’s greatest cultural icons — even one with the wrong hair color — would strike a chord.

“Oh, it brings back the memories,” says retired Port Authority bus driver Jerry Contristano of Baldwin Borough, who’s been attending Mr. Casne’s shows for five years.

Oldies are popular enough that tribute acts — it’s a diss to call them impersonators — abound in local venues. Gateway Clipper Fleet recently started offering Friday lunch cruises with rotating headliner “stars”: Chris Denem singing Neil Diamond, Cathi Rhodes as country music singer Patsy Cline, Randy Galioto as Elvis and Bo Wagner, who does a Frank (Sinatra) & Dean (Martin) revue.

Mr. Casne’s success is ironic because he paid no mind to The King while growing up and is married to someone who’d rather listen to anything but.

“I prefer Hank,” admits his wife, Jo Anne. As in country legend Hank Williams Jr., who Mr. Casne also imitates on occasion at the theater he built five years ago expressly for that purpose.

He’s not an impersonator per se. He sings Elvis “his” way and has his own moves.

“I just get up and do what I do.”

‘Little Vegas’

If the sight of a blond Elvis singing “Blue Suede Shoes” in a studded bell-bottomed jumpsuit and yellow aviators is a hoot, Casne World is a verified howler.

Needing a place where he and his buddies could perform, Mr. Casne in 2005 ended up buying the 20,000-square-foot VFW building on Hays Avenue in which he got his start and, working nights and weekends with the help of Charles Krebs, Elaine Mitts and Gail Mervosh, transformed its 22 rooms into a mini-Graceland.

Actually, it’s friends who’ve likened the 1929 hall to Presley’s famed mansion in Memphis: Mr. Casne prefers the term “Little Vegas.” Whatever its name, it can only be described as over-the-top.

Up top, there’s a performance hall with space for 275 guests (150, if you want people to dance), tiki hut-like bars and twin dressing rooms for the talent (his has the bigger star). Elvis posters and a display of sequined jumpsuits brighten the walls.

The hall’s original 25-foot bar is downstairs in the game room, along with a pool table, leather sofas and projection-screen TV. Still to come is a 20-by-50-foot movie theater, a library, a full gym, bedrooms for the kids and grandkids.

Then there’s the lush private living quarters, the centerpiece of which is Mr. Casne’s cathedral-ceilinged bedroom and Egyptian-themed office. The fruit of 16 years of collecting, it has 8-foot replicas of the columns of Luxor Temple mounted on the walls, shelves full of reproduction statuary and miniature obelisks etched with hieroglyphics. Wondering what a full-sized replica of King Tut’s throne looks like? He’s got one of them, along with an 8-foot sculpture of the jackal-headed god Anubis.

His performances are more down to earth, what longtime fan Nancy Stabryla of North Baldwin describes as “personable.”

“He comes to your table and welcomes you, and you almost feel like family,” she says. The singing, she adds, “is excellent.”

“He’s phenomenal,” agrees her husband, Ed, retired from Neville Chemical Co. “If we’ve been there 10 times, we’ve seen 10 different shows. I’m serious, you’d be shocked.”

“I just put on a costume, jump on stage and have a good time,” Mr. Casne says.

Other tribute acts

Singer/songwriter Chris Denem wins similar praise for his Neil Diamond performances. He did his first tribute show to the pop singer in 1976 at age 19, at the New Kensington Holiday Inn with a seven-piece band.

Raised in a musical household in Penn Hills — his father, Ralph Scherder, is a classical pianist — Mr. Denem was an early fan of Mr. Diamond’s work.

“When he first came onto the scene, I thought, ‘That’s me. I can do that,’ ” recalls Mr. Denim, who also plays and records his own music. “So I started picking up his songs, and everything else just happened.”

In the 30 years since, the Butler resident has done hundreds more for crowds who sometimes confuse him for the real thing.

“When he does ‘America,’ you get chills,” says Mr. Stabryla, who has seen him perform numerous times.

Like Mr. Casne, he shies away from the word “impersonator.” He prefers to think of his work more as a tribute than a copy.

“It was just a natural fit for my voice and personality,” he says.

The fact he just happens to also look like the guy and has many of the same mannerisms? Pure happenstance, he insists, the result of genetics rather than wigs and makeup.

Many of his fans are older, but not all.

“The young girls like him because he’s cute,” says Barb Tanski, owner of Buttercup Woodlands Campground in Renfrew, Butler County, where he entertains campers at least twice a year.

Nor are they disproportionately female. Jerry Harrison of Butler estimates he’s seen him perform more than 40 times over the years with his wife, Kathy, including a couple of times in his own backyard for private parties.

Mr. Denem’s take on Diamond is so good, there are certain times when, if you turned your back to him, you’d think the “real” Neil was behind you, he says.

“He puts his heart and soul into it,” Mr. Harrison says.

Cathi Rhodes’ tribute to Patsy Cline is similarly heartfelt and dead-on, which is why Barb Ragen traveled all the way from Latrobe to see her aboard the Gateway Clipper’s Majestic on a recent Friday and made sure she was the second one on the ship.

“I follow her around to all the county fairs, too,” says Ms. Ragen, who works for Excella Health at Latrobe Hospital. “She’s so friendly to everyone, and her show is outstanding.”

The host of “Polka Carousel Show” and “CrossRhodes’ Bluegrass/Folk Music” on WBCW and WHJB radio stations for almost 10 years, Ms. Rhodes, 58, has countless acting and dancing gigs under her white rhinestone belt. The South Greensburg native also can sing. Really well.

It’s tough, walking in the cowboy boots of such a country icon. (Ms. Cline was the first female solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.) Her interaction with the crowd, though, eases the way.

“I don’t want to have this big expanse between us,” she tells the crowd when she takes her place at the microphone, giving her red-and-white fringed shirt a little shake. “So shake a leg.”

Long before she reaches “Crazy” on the set list, people are dancing.

Other oldies but goodies

The Blonde Elvis performs with the Rat Pack at Casne World, 325 Hays Ave., Mount Oliver, on Aug. 21. Tickets ($25) include dinner and beer but must be purchased in advance by calling 412-481-3121; doors open at 6 p.m., with dinner at 7 p.m. Info: blondeelvis.com.

The Gateway Clipper Fleet’s Golden Triangle Lunch Cruise will feature Mr. Wagner’s Frank & Dean revue on Aug. 29 and select Mondays through December, and A Portrait of Patsy Cline by Ms. Rhodes on Aug. 27.

Tickets cost $36.37. Information: gatewayclipper.com. For additional Patsy Cline performances, visit cathirhodes.com.

Upcoming performances by Mr. Denem include free concerts at the Robin Hill Park gazebo, 1000 Beaver Grade Road, Moon, at noon Aug. 18, and at Leo & Sons Grill 31, corner of Diamond and Main streets in Mount Pleasant at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 20. Info: http://chrisdenem.com.

New River Gorge offers scenic outdoor challenges

West Virginia’s New River offers some of the best white water in America. On the Lower New, rafters can expect to crash through giant waves but still float through calm sections with spectacular scenery.

NEW RIVER GORGE, W.Va. — Teenagers can be hard to entertain, especially when the event is a no-texting, try-to-keep-the-iPod-to-a-minimum-so-we-can-actually-have-a-conversation family vacation.

If the kids don’t have fun after being loaded into the car with the suitcases, well, let’s just say it’s going to be a long and quiet ride back home.

Thank goodness, then, that there are so many recreational activities to choose from in this rugged, scenic corner of West Virginia. They include a world-class canopy tour that has you zipping and soaring through the treetops via a network of platforms and rope bridges, 120 feet above Mill Creek canyon, at speeds reaching 30 mph.

Plenty of people still travel to this neck of the “wild and wonderful” woods to raft the rapids on the Upper New (relatively calm), Lower New (moderate to raging) and Gauley rivers (famous for its annual fall releases from Summersville Dam, creating some of the biggest and baddest white water on the East Coast). Increasingly though, they’re rounding out their trips with adventure sports on dry land: guided rock climbing and rappelling, mountain biking and ambush paint ball, an extreme — and usually messy — version of the kids’ game Capture the Flag.

Adventures on the Gorge, an all-inclusive adventure resort on 1,000 acres on the rim of New River Gorge, offers all of the above, plus horseback riding, caving, guided hiking and disk golf, in which players use Frisbee-like disks instead of balls and clubs and throw for “par” at above-ground targets instead of into holes in the ground.

One of the most popular activities, though, is the aforementioned zip line, custom-designed by Bonzai Design in a hemlock forest to the tune of $500,000.

“People like the perception of risk,” says Dave Arnold, one of the founders and partners in Class VI River Runners, which was purchased by investors in 2008 and merged with Mountain River and Rivermen outfitters to create AOTG.

The Gauley and New rivers have long been considered among the best whitewater playgrounds in the United States. Yet as boomers have aged, the numbers paying to strap on PFDs and whitewater helmets while on vacation have tapered; the rafting industry last year attracted less than two-thirds of the number of visitors it did during its peak in 1995.

Resorts such as AOTG, then, are diversifying with activities that, while exciting, are a little kinder to middle-aged body parts. They can be purchased singly (rafting prices start at $104 for a rapid run on the New River, $79 for a half-day of rappelling and climbing and $79 for guided mountain biking) or packaged with lodging options that include the Paddle House, a four-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot rental home built to green standards. It’s tricked out with reclaimed heart-pine flooring, a cherry-and-granite kitchen, two fireplaces and a wrap-around deck overlooking the New River.

In other words, so long to ending a day in the woods or on the water with hot dogs cooked over a camp fire and bunking down in a pop-up tent. Unless you want to, that is.

While my daughters and I were lucky to overnight in a private house in Wild Rock — a new sustainable vacation community uniquely situated on the gorge — we could have slept in sleeping bags under the stars. Geared to families of all budget levels, AOTG offers traditional tent camping ($15/person) along with platform tents ($69/night) that sleep up to eight in bunks on its Millcreek campus. Vacationers also can choose among six styles of cabins, the most luxurious of which include hot tubs, glossy hardwood floors and fully equipped kitchens ($59 to $449/night May through October, and dramatically less during the “secret season” that runs Nov. 1 through April 30).

Because you might not have the energy to drive the three miles to historic Fayetteville after a hard day of playing (word to the wise: Don’t speed on Route 19), AOTG also boasts four “destination” restaurants serving everything from brisket and ribs smoked over applewood to gourmet pasta and grilled fresh seafood. Situated in a timber-frame pavilion with open-air views of the spectacular gorge that dissects the Appalachian Mountains, Smokey’s on the Gorge offers the fanciest fare, not to mention the best place from which to watch a Mountain State sunset. Plus, there’s a Pittsburgh connection: Food and beverage director Larry Poli ran the legendary Poli restaurant in Squirrel Hill before it closed in 2005.

Vacationers can dine a la carte or pair accommodations with a meal plan; adding breakfast runs $10 to $12 (kids 11 and under half price) and dinner, $19 to $25 (kids $10 to $14).

With everything in one place, saving you time and money, little surprise AOTG was named in 2009 as one of the “best adventure travel companies on Earth” by the editors of National Geographic Adventure.

Joe and Christina Barry of Ross ended up paying about $1,500 for an all-inclusive package that included four nights in a cabin, meals, two guided rock climbing sessions, a half-day rafting trip, the canopy tour, mountain biking and guided hike. They liked it so much, they’re considering returning in the fall with their two children, ages 25 and 22.

“We used to do the family week at the Outer Banks,” says Mrs. Barry, 49, a training manager for SilverSneakers, a fitness program for older folks. “But as we get older, we’re less and less interested in the beach.”

Summer is fast disappearing, but no worries, as fall is actually a great time to visit the New River Gorge. Cooler temperatures lend themselves to sweat-inducing activities such as hiking and climbing and biking, and the guided canopy tour, which has drawn tens of thousands of zip-liners since it opened last summer, might actually be more scenic when the old-growth eastern hemlocks have dropped their leaves and the terrain 85 feet below is dusted with snow. (It’s open weekends and by appointment Nov. 1 through April 28.)

Autumn also ushers in the state’s largest festival, the annual Bridge Day in Fayetteville on the third Saturday of October. That’s when up to 200,000 people are expected to crowd into town for a chance to watch hundreds of BASE jumpers leap off the New River Gorge Bridge in rat-a-tat, parachuted succession. The festival, which this year runs Oct. 15 to 17, also features teams of rappellers chosen by lottery who will ascend and descend from a rope fixed on the bridge’s catwalk.

Nearly as heart-racing is the opportunity for us regular folk to walk legally and safely across the steel structure, the second-highest bridge in the United States, and the longest single-arch steel span bridge in the Western Hemisphere. (This is the only day of the year traffic is shut down.) Still, you’d better not look down if you have acrophobia, because this 70-foot-wide state highway sits a whopping 876 feet above the water. It’s also spectacularly, oh-my-God-how-fast-can-I-get-across-it long, spanning 3,030 feet.

Possessed with nerves of steel? When the much-anticipated BridgeWalk tour ($69; bridgewalk.com; 1-304-574-1037) opens at the end of the month, you’ll be able to ratchet it up a notch with a guided walk over the gorge on a 24-inch-wide catwalk. You’ll be strapped into a safety harness, of course, so there’s no chance of falling. And the traffic on Route 19 will be safely over your head. (The catwalk is part of the bridge’s existing structure.) But still. We’re talking almost three football fields above the rocks and water.

“Some people will do it to conquer their fear of heights,” notes BridgeWalk manager Benjy Simpson, adding, without a touch of irony, “The views are outstanding.”

Whether I’ll have the courage to take that soaring walk above the New River remains to be seen. But my daughters and I certainly had a great time rafting the Lower New River with veteran guide Tom Wagner. And the canopy tour? An adrenaline rush like no other, it’s thrilling, scary and just plain fun all at the same time, and not just for me.

The girls gabbed the entire way back to Pittsburgh.

If you go

Adventures on the Gorge, Lansing, W.Va.

Getting there: The New River Gorge region is about 220 miles south of Pittsburgh, or an easy 3 1/2-hour drive on Interstate 79 south to U.S. Route 19 south, just north of Fayetteville. To get to AOTG’s canyon rim facility, take the Ames Heights Road exit (if you cross the New River Gorge Bridge heading south, you’ve passed it) and go about 1 mile.

Where to stay: AOTG offers a variety of lodging, from luxury vacation homes with gourmet kitchens and hot tubs to rustic cabins, platform tents and old-fashioned campsites. The most luxurious accommodation is Paddle House in Wild Rock (starts at $500/night; www.paddlehousewv.com), a new ecological 725-acre community on the New River. Outfitted with three master bedroom suites and a bunk room, it sleeps 12 and boasts a great room with a fireplace, hot tub and two decks overlooking the gorge.

Other area options include bed and breakfasts, chain motels and hotels and rustic cabin rentals.

Where to eat: In historic Fayetteville, you can’t beat the hand-stretched gourmet pizza at Pies & Pints (there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays) or whole-grain pancakes at Cathedral Cafe, near the Fayette County courthouse on South Court Street. It’s in a turn-of-the-century church with cathedral ceilings and stained-glass windows. Locals also swear by the pulled pork barbecue at Dirty Ernie’s Rib Pit on Keller Avenue and authentic tacos at Diogi’s Mexican Grill & Cantina on North Court Street, just off Route 19.

For more upscale dining, try the dinner buffet at Smokey’s on the Gorge, an open-air restaurant overlooking the gorge on AOTG’s campus. Rendezvous Lodge on the Millcreek campus features bison and chicken sliders on Thursday evenings and live music several nights a week.

What to do: It all depends on how you spell “adventure.” Activities include whitewater rafting on the New and Gauley rivers, all-terrain vehicle tours, paintball, horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing and caving. The area is also renowned for its smallmouth bass and trout fishing and whitewater kayaking. Treetop’s half-day canopy tour ($99, must be 10 years old and weigh at least 90 pounds) includes 10 ziplines, five sky bridges, one rappel and three short hikes. If you prefer a birds-eye view of the gorge, take a ride in a Bell 47-G2 helicopter ($60 person, www.wvhelicopters.com; 1-800-277-7727) or WWII era Stearman bi-plane ($135/person, www.wildblueadventurecompany.com; 1-304-574-1150).

Upcoming seasonal events include the 12th annual Oak Leaf Festival on Aug. 28 through Sept. 5 in Oak Hill, W. Va. (www.oakleaffestival.org) and the 31st annual Bridge Day Festival on Oct. 15 – 17 in Fayetteville, W. Va. (www.officialbridgeday.com). That’s when up to 200,000 converge near the New River Gorge Bridge to party while hundreds of BASE jumpers from across the globe parachute off the side.

Info: adventurewestvirginia.com; 1-800-252-7784 or newrivercvb.com.

— Gretchen McKay

Mall tattoo studio finds acceptance

Grace Patuwo/Post-Gazette

Getting a little ink etched into the dermis layer of the skin has become so mainstream that Pittsburghers can now get a tattoo at one of the most homogenized of American venues: the mall.

Two months ago, Get Inked … In the Flesh, a 1,500-square-foot tattoo and body piercing studio, opened its doors a few steps from Macy’s in the Mall at Robinson. And as co-owner Stephanie Vegoda expected, business has been brisk.

Many of its customers, evenly split between men and women, are Gen Y-ers who shop at Get Inked, the tattoo-related apparel store Ms. Vegoda opened last year on the mall’s lower level and recently relocated upstairs. But the studio also is finding an audience among aging baby boomers and 40-something professionals. Just the other day, Ms. Vegoda reports with a smile, they got a call from a woman who wanted to buy her mother her first tattoo. For her 70th birthday.

In other words, the studio draws the same clientele as most other stores at the mall.

More information

Get Inked … In the Flesh (store 60) is on the upper level of the Mall at Robinson. Hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Information: 412-787-2800.

“Tattoos have gone from something you cover up to something you expect,” says Ms. Vegoda, 32. “So the time is right for the concept. It’s a lifestyle.”

This isn’t the first tattoo studio in a suburban shopping center: Tattoo Nation paved the way in 2006 when it opened a studio near Bloomingdales in the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, N.J. (it has since opened a second store in a mall in Queens, N.Y.).

There are also a pair of tattoo and piercing studios in malls in Florida, with two more in the works. But it’s a relatively new concept for Western Pennsylvania. So new, in fact, that when Ms. Vegoda approached mall management, they didn’t exactly jump up and down with excitement.

“We were hesitant,” admits Beth Edwards, manager of the 150-store Robinson complex.

Needless worry, says lead needle artist Mike Anderson, who brought 20-plus years of experience when he relocated from West Virginia to Sewickley with his wife, Gina, a piercing artist. Since opening on May 7, the business has received nothing but praise from shoppers and other tenants, he says.

“We think it’s turned out great,” Ms. Edwards agrees. “It’s a good addition to the mall.”

Much of that can be attributed to the studio’s design. (Call it a parlor and you’ll quickly be corrected.) Ms. Vegoda and business partner Chuck Hornsby of New York clearly did their homework. With brightly colored faux-finished walls (she did the work herself), glossy wood floors and tasteful lighting, it’s more Miami Beach than Miami Ink, a Vespa instead of a Harley.

Hard-core tattoo fans may be put off by its mall-ness, and indeed, some competitors have dismissed the studio as too corporate. But they’re missing the point. A lot of people are intimidated by a traditional tattoo parlor, says Ms. Vegoda.

“We’re not trying to compete,” she says. “We’re trying to open up a new community to the art of tattoos in a place they feel comfortable. We offer good, clean work in a safe environment.”

Besides, she adds, anything that helps legitimize tattoos is good for the industry.

You have to be at least 18 years old to get inked, and there’s a minimum charge of $50, though prices can quickly climb depending on the intricacy of the design, size and use of color. A pair of screens offer privacy for the rare customer who doesn’t want to be on display, or is getting a tattoo on a body part no one but a significant other should see.

Recognizing that many first-timers don’t know what they want — 90 percent of its customers are walk-ins — Get Inked encourages them to page through large books of tattoo flash, or illustrations, at the front of the store. But it’s always best, says Mr. Anderson, to work with the artist to create a custom tattoo that has special meaning. (Word to the wise: “Tramp stamps” on the lower back are out; tatts on the side, rib cage and arms are in. )

Speaking of which, Ms. Vegoda has yet to get a tattoo of her own. She says there’s nothing she can think of that she’d want “for the rest of my life.” But body art is clearly in her blood. Six years ago, the Brownsville native started a company that provides face art, henna and airbrush tattoos for amusement parks across the country. Although her clothing store opened first, it was really just a clever way of getting the public used to an idea she’s had for a long time.

“We’re trying to change the mind of the public that a tattoo is a beautiful piece of artwork,” Ms. Vegoda says, “not something that you should try to hide or be ashamed of.”

Gretchen McKay explores her relationship with beef — the grass-fed kind — at the first MeatTHINK event

John Jamison is smiling as he prepares to open the door to his U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified meat slaughter and processing plant in Bradenville, near Latrobe. Our group of 15 is about to enter what’s known as the “kill floor,” and I’ll admit it, I’m kind of unnerved. Images of bloody beef carcasses flash through my head, sending my stomach into somersaults.

The famed lamb purveyor isn’t exactly reassuring.

Next on the Menu: Chicken

Lots of people like meat. But do you know why it matters if it’s locally pastured or killed humanely and cleanly? And how, exactly, is it butchered?

Slow Food Pittsburgh is offering a series of lunchtime classes aimed at giving consumers a better appreciation for the chicken, pork and lamb they put on their table. Taught by old-school and “new wave” butchers, chefs, farmers and meat purveyors, the “MeatTHINK” demos also will help consumers become more skilled in their home kitchens.

Last weekend’s on grass-fed beef was the first. The second, on chicken, will be held Aug. 29 at The Farmer’s Wife organic farm in Bessemer, just south of New Castle on the Pennsylvania/Ohio border. Students will explore plucking, cleaning and preparing chicken. Cost is $35 ($45 for non-members), and includes an organic picnic.

On Oct. 30, Ray Turkas Jr. of Strip District Meats on Penn Avenue in the Strip will break down a half hog from Heilman’s Hogwash Farm in Sarver, Butler County. Lunch follows at Ray’s Cafe next door; price and time to be determined.

Slow Food also will hold a class on halal and kosher lamb butchering at Salem’s Market in the Strip District. All details yet to come, but it’s sure to be a great party — a lamb roast follows at the market.

Each class is limited to 30 students, and pre-registration is required by getting on Slow Food Pittsburgh’s mailing list at slowfoodpgh.com. You also can send an e-mail to vredpath@aol.com for more information.

“The smell is not a great thing,” Mr. Jamison cautions as we pull on long white butcher coats and tuck hair under baseball caps.

Ugh. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t eat breakfast.

We’re at the Westmoreland County plant, one of just a handful of small, independently owned USDA facilities in the area, for a grass-fed beef butchery class sponsored by Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Using hand tools, a team of expert butchers will break down a side of beef into the major cuts, in the process explaining how grass-fed cattle differ from conventional beef, and the benefits of mom-and-pop butchering to commercial. Afterwards, the group will gather at Mr. Jamison’s bucolic sheep farm outside of Latrobe for PASA’s third-annual grass-fed beef cook-off (medium-rare Delmonico steaks, seasoned only with salt) and picnic.

Previous events were held in the eastern part of the state and focused on farmers’ methods and techniques for raising grass-fed cattle. Yet natural beef is still new enough, notes southeast regional director Marilyn Anthony, that many cooks aren’t sure what to ask for at the butcher’s shop or how to prepare it. So this year, PASA decided to make the Aug. 7 cook-off — also one of Slow Food Pittsburgh’s four meatTHINK classes offered this season to demonstrate why locally pastured meat and humane killing are important — a regional event with a focus on processing.

For me, the only slaughterhouse newbie among chefs, farmers and other food professionals, it was quite an education.

The smell’s not as bad as Mr. Jamison predicted in the concrete-floored kill room, just slightly … funky. But there are giant hooks hanging on chain hoists attached to the ceiling, as well as a scary-looking “splitter saw” above our heads used to cut the beef in half, butt to neck, after it’s been bled out, skinned and eviscerated.

Butcher Bill Marshall, 31, also points out in a far corner a “knock box,” or the pen in which the animal is contained while it’s stunned. Some things you just don’t want to think about, though if you’re going to eat beef, it’s important to understand how it arrived on your table.

Since the processed beef is sold, an inspector is always on site on kill days, both to verify the animal has been humanly stunned and bled and to make sure the carcass is free of disease and parasites. (If the animal is 30 months or older, its spinal cord must be removed as a precaution against mad cow disease.) The plant also must adhere to strict sanitation.

It’s tiring work, what with the endless lifting, sawing and slicing. But Mr. Marshall and fellow meat cutters Jon Hollick, 34, and younger brother Tom Marshall, 29, are hugely enthusiastic. Trained by staff at Ohio and Penn state universities’ meat labs and by old-time butchers, they’re also extremely skilled. On a good day, the team processes up to eight animals, or roughly one cow/steer every 90 minutes.

When Mr. Hollick opens the walk-in cooler behind the long work table and we’re invited inside, a blast of 38-degree air hits our faces. Nearly as chilling — at least to a city gal who’s watched way too many horror movies — is the sight of more than a dozen sides of beef dangling on stainless steel hooks from the 111/2-foot ceiling. They’re massive hunks of raw meat, covered in a thin layer of fat; the animal we’ll see get broken down hit the scales at 205 pounds per half.

Aging improves the tenderness and flavor of meat, so our side of beef — slaughtered on July 22 — has been hanging for 16 days, during which the temperature in the cooler was slowly lowered from 55 degrees. Chill it too quickly, notes Mr. Jamison, and you chance a phenomenon known as “cold shortening,” where the muscles shrink and the meat toughens.

Stocky and obviously strong, Mr. Hollick is the brawn of the operation, holding the beef as Mr. Marshall cuts between the 12th and 13th ribs, separating it into two pieces. Placing the 100-pound forequarter on the poly-top work table, Tom Marshall grabs a curved boning knife from his white plastic holster and, working with the natural seam of the meat, quickly separates the rib from the chuck.

Over the course of the next hour, it’s hard to keep up with the Marshalls’ knives, wielded with incredible accuracy, or the terminology of the primal, sub-primal and other cuts; to my untrained eye, much of the meat looks alike, even though PASA science adviser/veterinarian Susan Beal does her best to help us visualize the body parts. My head is spinning.

From the forequarter we get chuck eye and blade roasts, brisket, short ribs and flatiron steak, which until a few years ago was thought of as a waste cut of meat because of a thick tendon that runs through the middle. The hindquarter is equally bountiful. The short loin is broken down into porterhouse, T-bone and strip steaks, the sirloin and round sections into various roasts and steaks.

As they work, less desirable pieces are tossed into a large “chop meat” bin for grinding while scraps, fat and bones go into a garbage can destined for Valley Protein in Mifflintown, which specializes in the recycling of animal by-products. Unfortunately, I’m standing close enough to the blood-stained table that when tiny bits of red stuff spray into the air, they land on my coat.

Icky, but not as much as when Mr. Hollick cuts into the beef’s patella and it oozes some sort of pale, slick liquid. I must have made a face because Ms. Beal quickly points out slime is “appropriate.”

The class ends with a quick tour of the processing room and discussion of cleaning and sanitation. Gone are the days when a 16-year-old swept up after school; today’s clean-up guy is an expert in microbiology. As Mr. Jamison puts it, “There’s no way it isn’t perfect when it goes out because so many people are watching.”

That’s the processing side. But what about the reason we’re here in the first place?

To a nation accustomed to corn-fed meat, beef raised solely on mother’s milk, grass and sunshine might seem like a new idea. But virtually all cattle before World War II enjoyed a natural grass diet, notes Ms. Beal; it was only post-war, when — aided by federal subsidies — agribusiness produced large surpluses of soybeans and corn, and farmers realized it was not only cheaper to feed cattle grain but it also made them fatter, quicker. (Grass-fed cattle take between two to three years to bring to plate, while grain-fed are ready for slaughter in 16 to 18 months.)

The best breeds are the big, square cows on skinny legs depicted in early American pastoral landscapes: squatty Herefords, Scottish Highlands, Devons. Horizon View Farms in the Laurel Highlands, which won this year’s cook-off among 13 farms, raises Salers, a breed that originated in France. Cressbrook Farm, last year’s champion and this year’s Farmer’s Choice winner, raises on 60 acres in Lancaster Irish Blacks, a pure, thick-bodied breed that traces back to three sires imported from Ireland.

Grass-fed beef comes at a premium — Horizon charges $14.95 per pound for New York strip — but advocates say the health benefits are worth it. Lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than grain-fed beef, it also has three times more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Because grass-fed cows typically are individually butchered by skilled craftsmen, there’s also less chance of E. coli contamination. Also, grass-fed beef doesn’t receive growth hormones or unnecessary antibiotics.

What’s not so good for the consumer is that the taste, which is gamier than conventional steak, varies from farm to farm, season to season, and even cow to cow. It all depends on the type of grass the cows are eating, and whether they’re “finished” in the summer or winter, when their diet includes hay. The texture, too, is a bit less tender.

Sounds crazy, but I wasn’t sure if my first taste of grass-fed beef at the cook-off was beef or lamb, it was so different — in a good way — from what I was used to. But Big Burrito Restaurant Group’s Bill Fuller — one of 10 food professionals who judged the steaks based on appearance, aroma, texture, flavor and aftertaste — knew what to expect.

“Man, that’s beautiful,” he declares after tasting a particularly juicy-looking entry.

“It’s a taste that jumps out at you,” Larry Herr of Cressbrook Farm tells me afterwards. “When you eat it, you say, ‘That’s good beef!’ ”

The USDA has yet to adopt a definition of “grass-fed” for labeling, which complicates things. Some producers market their beef as raised on grass but actually “polish” them with grain in the last weeks to fatten them up.

“The words can be greenwashed a little,” Ms. Beal concedes, “because everyone is looking for something to make their product unique.”

To assure they’re getting a 100-percent grass-fed product, then, consumers need to develop a relationship with the individual farmers or suppliers. Which may be easier said than done: grass-fed beef still accounts for a tiny part of the $73 billion U.S. beef industry, so finding it at your local grocery store could be a challenge. (You may have better luck at a farmers market.)

Grass-fed beef also doesn’t abound on local menus. As Mr. Fuller and fellow cook-off judge Trevett Hooper, chef and co-owner of Legume Bistro in Regent Square, lamented while sitting under a tent, grass-fed beef often is sold by the quarter or half carcass, so you can’t easily order up 50 steaks for Saturday night’s crowd. Plus, because it’s lean, cooking cuts other than steak takes some know-how.

“I haven’t really figured it out yet,” admits Mr. Hooper.

Before the PASA butchery class and cook-off, I never cared too much where I bought my beef or how it was processed; afterwards, I started to reconsider. Grass-fed beef is better for the body, kinder to the animal, gentler on the land and just plain tasty.

With three teenagers and a husband who aren’t afraid to ask for seconds in the house, it’s unrealistic to think I’ll spend $30 or $40 on steak for a school-night dinner. But special occasions, or when it’s just me and my husband? Definitely a possibility.

No doggie bags needed: More eateries let you bring in your dog

Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

For some, it’s proof that the dining scene has, quite literally, gone to the dogs.

But to animal lovers such as Dan and Joan Huber of Observatory Hill, eating with your pet al fresco at a favorite restaurant is like the cherry on top of a sundae . . . or should we say a tasty piece of rawhide after a dinner of kibble. Whatever the language, it’s a treat.

It’s also savvy marketing, as Cassis on Western Avenue in Allegheny West has been pleased to discover. While dog owners are hardly taking over, the restaurant has drawn as many as seven dogs and their masters to its patio off Galveston Avenue since starting its Tuesday “Bowl and Biscuit Night” in July, and promoting it on Facebook. Regulars include the Hubers and their 2-year-old miniature schnauzer, Samson Amadeus.

Walking with your pooch to a neighborhood hangout is one thing. The Hubers load their wiry bundle of energy into their car, and happily so, for the 10-minute drive to the North Side. Why should neighbors be the only ones to enjoy owner/executive chef Dianne Porter’s good eats?

“Lady Di always has a beautiful menu,” says Mrs. Huber, who on a recent Tuesday was noshing on baked brie with roasted peppers and potatoes. “And he loves Tuesday nights.”

The dog, that is, who seemed equally pleased with his bowl of doggie chicken pate and steamed broccoli.

Cassis also offers a tofu option, but like his owners, Samson Amadeus isn’t a vegetarian, “so he’s never had it,” says Mrs. Huber.

Two-legged diners still are very much the norm at Pittsburgh restaurants, especially inside, where health codes ban pets other than service animals.

But a handful of places host four-legged diners outdoors.

As Americans fall deeper in love with their dogs — according to the trade group American Pet Products Association, pet owners are increasingly including their canine best friends on trips to hotels, restaurants and even spas — more restaurateurs are following in the Fido-friendly footsteps of their European counterparts, where dogs have long been part of the sidewalk restaurant scene.

At least three websites compile lists of eateries that welcome canine guests: bringfido.com/restaurant, dogfriendly.com and petfriendlytravel.com.

In 2006, Florida became the first state to enact a “doggie dining” law explicitly allowing restaurateurs to permit dogs in outdoor eating areas.

Dogs are permitted at any outdoor dining area in California, so long as they don’t have to walk through the inside of the restaurant to get to the outdoor seating. Since 2008, pets also are permitted on patios in Denver, provided the business applies for a special permit.

North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources is the latest to embrace doggie diners, revising its rules on Aug. 19 to allow dogs and cats in outdoor dining areas, so long as the animals are physically restrained, do not go in through the indoor section of the restaurant and avoid contact with food service items or food handlers/preparers. It goes into effect Sept. 1.

Whether the practice is banned outright by the Allegheny County Health Department, as spokesman Dave Zazac maintains, may be up for interpretation: Article III, Section 326.6 states, “Live animals shall be excluded from within the food facility operational areas and from immediately adjacent areas inside the premise.” Maybe the more important question is this: if no one complains, is it enforced?

Having pets on site does raise liability issues for patrons and staff. What if two dogs get into it or someone at a neighboring table is terribly allergic? Or worse, your pooch nips at a diner or decides to relieve himself? You also have to have faith that staff wash their hands after handling bowls that have been licked clean, and properly wash and sanitize dishes that also end up on their masters’ tables.

For those reasons and more, the New York City Health Department (somewhat surprisingly, given the number of dogs seen at sidewalk cafes and restaurants) joins Allegheny County in banning live animals in food service establishments (except for edible fish, shellfish or crustaceans), notes the department’s associate press secretary Zoe Tobin via e-mail. So does Washington state.

At Cassis, animals arrive and depart via the courtyard, and must be kept under control on a leash while their owners dine.

It’s always a restaurant owner’s prerogative to choose whether or not to allow dogs in permitted outdoor dining areas, of course, and whether to go the extra mile and offer a dog-centric menu, like Ms. Porter of Cassis, which will continue its Biscuit and Bowl night through fall. Double Wide Grill in the South Side is another that offers pet eats in nice weather on the outdoor dining area facing Carson Street. Served in a special doggie bowl, they include chicken breast or beef patty for $2.99, a tofu platter for $1.99 and an organic biscuit for 99 cents.

Some furry friends come so often during summer, says marketing coordinator Ashley Ryon, that the servers get to know them. The restaurant also held non-profit pancake breakfasts this summer to help raise money for Animal Rescue League and Animal Friends.

At other restaurants, dogs-night-out unfolds more informally. At Aladdin’s Eatery in Mt. Lebanon, for instance, it’s not unusual for someone walking her dog to decide to stop at one of the restaurant’s tables lining the sidewalk. Or request some water for said pooch in a take-out soup bowl. The same goes for Hartwood Restaurant in Indiana Township, where dogs are permitted on the patio and more than one owner has indulged his pet with filet mignon.

“Some people have called, but it’s really just word of mouth,” says Robin McCarthy, Hartwood manager.

Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon is another that keeps its dog-friendly patio on the down-low, if only because it’s a “rare occasion” when patrons bring Fido along.

“It’s a non-issue,” says owner Ron Molinaro.

That said, he’s happy to serve canine customers a bowl of meatballs, no sauce, should their owners request it. That’s what his own dogs nosh on on nights he works late.

Most dogs, Mr. Molinaro says, are more well-mannered than most people. “And there certainly are other things running around outside beyond our control.”

Raccoon and squirrel excepted, animals on the patio in Pittsburgh is still new enough that some restaurateurs don’t seem to realize it’s an option.

“Hey, do we ever have dogs on the patio?” Sean Casey, proprietor of the Church Brew Works, called out to a staffer when contacted by phone.

Turns out they have, for the past two years. It’s just that people don’t ask often enough for the privilege for the brew house to promote or even encourage it.

“It’s only about once every two weeks or so,” says Mr. Casey.

Four-legged customers are much more common at Jerry’s Curb Service, a drive-up hamburger joint in Bridgewater, Beaver County. General manager Fran Benedict guesses its car hops every day serve at least six $1.30 “mutt burgers” (it’s a chopped burger served in a special dog dish with no bread or toppings) and maybe twice that amount on weekends.

Not only that, but Jerry’s has been doing it for . . . well, probably since the restaurant opened in 1943.

“How long?” repeats Mr. Benedict when he’s posed the question. “Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that. But I’ve been here eight and a half years,” he says with a laugh, “and it’s been way longer than that.”

Doggiepate ala Cassis

This recipe is meant to be for the dogs.

2 pounds boneless chicken meat (trimmings or combination boneless thighs and breasts); leave the fat on for flavor.

2 ribs celery

1 large carrot, quartered

Cover chicken, celery and carrot with water in saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until carrot is tender and chicken is no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Cool. Transfer to processor and process until blended. Add cooked rice if desired. Form into decorative shapes, if desired, and serve.

Bone appetit!

— Dianne Porter, Cassis