Tim Toy’s guide: What to do, where to eat, drink and enjoy volleyball-rich Pittsburgh

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Pittsburgh 12/16/2019
Pittsburgh's Clemente Bridge/Dave DiCello photo

Yinz better read this, because VolleyballMag.com asked our friend Tim Toy to tell us about the city he loves, which happens to be the site of this week’s NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship. Learn some Pittsburgh sports history, including volleyball, and where to go eat, drink and be merry:

By Tim Toy for VolleyballMag.com

I’m honored to be writing about Pittsburgh.

As a true Pittsburgher, I have seen the great triumphs and felt the sting of tremendous losses of our beloved sports teams and city pride. Heck, two weekends ago was one of them when Pittsburgh got upset by Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament. We sure hoped the Panthers would play here this week.

I was here for the Steeler Dynasty and the “We Are Family” Pirates, and worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins when Mario Lemieux arrived and changed this city into a hockey town. This proud tradition still lives on with Sidney Crosby and the current Penguins.

But it hasn’t all been victory parades. We mourned as one on New Year’s Day in 1973 when we woke up to the news that Roberto Clemente had died, and again on October 27th of last year when the Tree of Life synagogue massacre happened.

Through our cheers and our tears, Pittsburgh has remained strong. You will find Pittsburgh to be a very welcoming place. As your host, let me tell you a little more about our city and the local volleyball community, and give you a checklist of things to do while visiting. Later, I’ll explain a little more about my place in Pittsburgh volleyball’s community, and how you might be able to help me assist in “serving” it and enabling its growth.

Volleyball in Western Pennsylvania starts with a thriving high school and club scene. North Allegheny is a national high school powerhouse and Norwin High School won 12 state championships from 1974-1988, including an incredible eight in a row. Norwin’s coach back then, Sheron Watson, was considered one of the best high school volleyball coaches of all time. Like most areas of the country we are incredibly fortunate to have many quality high school and club coaches. Families like the Schalls, Millers, Pfeifers, Scahills, Browns, Phillips, Lashers and Ferragonios have contributed to the rich history of Pittsburgh volleyball.

Pittsburgh became the host city of the East Coast Volleyball Championships thanks to the hardworking people at SportsPITTSBURGH, an offshoot of VisitPITTSBURGH. SportsPITTSBURGH is constantly finding ways for Pittsburgh to be seen as the “ultimate sports destination” and this is one more credit towards that distinction. We’ll talk a little more about them later.

On the college scene, Penn State, coached by Russ Rose, has won seven NCAA national championships over the last 20 years. State College is 120 miles to our east, but the University of Pittsburgh is making strides to challenge the Nittany Lions. Despite the Panthers’ early exit, Coach Dan Fisher has the Panthers moving in the right direction and Pitt is on the rise. Yes, there is a rivalry between the two schools, but real volleyball fans hope that both are competitive. Having two quality programs in Western Pennsylvania only will help us to grow the game even further.

Other local universities such as Duquesne, Robert Morris, and Carnegie Mellon also have had successful seasons. Your host for the NCAA Championship in Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, is building on a strong year. Last fall, the NCAA Division III Championships were held at Duquesne. Eagles coach Jenny McDowell, who led Emory University to the 2018 championship after defeating Calvin 3-0, is a native Pittsburgher. She played her scholastic career at nearby Plum High School.

Christa Dietzen was a star at Hopewell High School in suburban Pittsburgh before becoming an Olympian

Of course, we have Hopewell’s own Christa Harmotto Dietzen.

Christa started her volleyball career at Hopewell High School and helped win a state championship in 2004, then moved on to Penn State where she was an important part of two national-title teams. As a USA Olympian, she won a silver medal in 2012 and a bronze in 2016. She captained the 2015 squad to gold in the World Championship in Milan, Italy. Christa and some of her Olympic teammates brought their elite level coaching back to Pittsburgh earlier this summer as part of the Give it Back Foundation camp. Quite a resume for a kid from the 412!

Christa Dietzen, Ellen Toy, Cassidy Lichtman and Alisha Glass-Childress/Tim Toy photo

Where do I come in and why is it my task to welcome you?

I run a foundation that provides financial support for athletes whose families are struggling with costs relating to club volleyball and camps. My wife and I founded “We Serve First” when we learned that her cancer was advancing. She passed away in February 2016 after a six-year battle with gastric cancer. Ellen was a high school and club coach here in Western Pennsylvania for 30 years. We Serve First remains a lasting legacy to her love of the game that you are coming to witness here in Pittsburgh. For more on our story and how you might help, please visit www.weservefirst.org.

I have recently been able to do color commentary for the TribLiveHSSN. The Tribune Review is one of our local news sources here in Western Pennsylvania and has developed a streaming platform that features a high school game of the week and covers the WPIAL playoffs. What I saw in the closing weeks of the season and during the two weeks of playoff coverage surprised even me. The level of play has improved across all classifications, and the spirit, enthusiasm, and excitement was inspirational. In the eyes of these athletes, Ellen Toy’s passion for volleyball lives on! I can’t wait to do it again, and I can’t wait for you to see, feel, taste, and experience my hometown, Pittsburgh!

As for that check list…

Pay attention as you come through the Fort Pitt Tunnels. Extra bonus points if you do this at night. As you come out of the tunnels and into downtown, the city explodes in front of you. Off to your left is Heinz Field, the home of the Steelers, and straight in front of you, PNC Park, home of the Pirates. As you get to the end of the Fort Pitt Bridge, notice Point State Park and the “confluence” of the three rivers. The city will be magically lit up for the holidays. In Pittsburgh we are proud of our post-industrial appearance.

The Roberto Clemente Museum

Things to Do — Pittsburgh has an abundance of interesting museums. The Andy Warhol Museum is a short walk from downtown for those who enjoy art history. If you bring the kids with you, the Carnegie Science Center is just beyond Heinz Field on the North Shore. Or if history is your thing, consider stopping at the Senator John Heinz History Center, close to downtown on Smallman Street in the Strip, to find out about 250 years of Western Pennsylvania history. My favorite is the Clemente Museum in the Lawrenceville section of town. There you can learn why Roberto still inspires to this day. To tour that museum, call to make an appointment.

If you want to work off some of tasty food and drink choices below, and you are staying at or near the Westin Hotel Convention Center, contact the front desk and ask for the RunWestin Concierge. The running Concierge, who happens to be my little sister, Amy Hutchison, will be glad to show you a little bit of downtown, but you’ll have to work for it. Email her at amy.hutchison@westin.com.

Stay outside to sneak in a quick workout and have a little fun by taking a spin around the outdoor ice rink at PPG Place. This ice surface first appeared for the holiday season in 2001. Rent some blades and make like Sidney Crosby. The rink is open Monday-Thursday: 11am to 10pm, Friday and Saturday: 11am to midnight, Sunday: 11am to 8pm. Click here for all the info.

Another great way to see our beautiful city is by riding the Duquesne Incline. This is a classic Pittsburgh tourist stop. The ride up and down Mt. Washington provides some of the best views of the Golden Triangle. A must see for first timers to the 412.

Pittsburgh has a thriving cultural district that neighbors the convention center and is close to PPG Paints Arena. There will be live music Friday, December 20 at the Backstage Bar at Theater Square. If you are interested in magic, Robert Ramirez will be performing at Liberty Magic through the weekend (get tickets early, these shows are wildly popular). One of our favorite music spots is the Thunderbird Cafe & Music Hall in central Lawrenceville. They will have the Affordable Floors with Dinosoul playing on Friday, December 20 at 8pm (doors open at 7pm). They have a small snacky menu but the grub is good and the venue is unique. While you are here, “get aht”and enjoy the Burgh’s nightlife!

Things to Eat — Foodies beware! You will find many great eateries within walking distance or a short Uber/Lyft ride from PPG Paints Arena or the convention center. Start your weekend off right with breakfast at Pamela’s Diner in the Strip–get there before 9am to avoid the classic grand wait time. Pamela’s Pancakes were made famous when President Barack Obama stopped in for a stack. Or try some other favorites — DeLuca’s Diner in the Strip for a hearty Pittsburgh breakfast, Geppetto Cafe on Butler Street in Lawrenceville for sweet and savory crepes, or Waffles INCaffeinated on 5th Avenue downtown for gourmet waffles and breakfast sandwiches.

Conveniently located not far from the Clemente Museum on Penn Avenue in lower Lawrenceville is one of my absolute favorites for food, wine, and friendly vibe. Piazza Talarico showcases Southern Italian cuisine like you would find on an Italian grandma’s table and wine made by Papa Joe himself. Try Grandma’s sauce and the Montepulciano wine choice! The restaurant truly makes you feel like family. And the best part — we spoke to Papa Joe himself, and he is excited to host the many volleyball fans coming to Pittsburgh. Mention this column and get 20 percent off the best “peasant Italian” meal you’ll find in Pittsburgh!

If it’s pizza you want, try Driftwood Oven. Justin’s wood-fired oven produces what is fast becoming Pittsburgh’s favorite pizza. Driftwood will have a 16 for 16 special (16″ CLASSIC CHEESE Pizza for $16) for anyone who mentions Volleyball Magazine! A little closer to the Arena (across 5th Ave.) is Pizza Milano, which features pizza by the slice (or pie) and a bevy of beers on tap for your post match enjoyment. Also short walks from most downtown hotels are the more upscale Butcher and the Rye recommended by Christa Dietzen, and the gastropub, Meat and Potatoes. Located at the foot of the 16th Street Bridge is Gaucho Parrilla Argentina, which features authentic wood-fired food “with an Argentine flare”–try this one for a late lunch to avoid the line around the block. Finally, for casual, communal eating with a choice of four unique restaurant choices, try Smallman Galley in the Strip.

Things to Drink –– For craft beer and spirits after the matches, there’s Cinderlands Warehouse and its neighbor, Kingfly Spirits, both nearby in the Strip. If you cross the 16th Street Bridge and head into the Deutschtown neighborhood, you will find Penn Brewery, which will remind you of having a beer in Germany. If you are staying on the Northside, near the stadiums, a better choice might be Southern Tier Brewing.

If coffee is more your vibe, you can find it on almost every corner, but a couple of our favorite picks include De Fer Coffee & Tea in the Strip and Espresso a Mano in lower Lawrenceville.

Pittsburgh is lucky to have two solid organizations who work tirelessly to bring quality events to the city. VisitPITTSBURGH is one of the best resources available for navigating all that there is to do and see in Pittsburgh, but in a city that prides itself on its teams, we also need a cheerleader! VisitPITTSBURGH has done this brilliantly with their “Pull Up a Chair” Champaign. Watch that video here.

SportsPITTSBURGH is VisitPITTSBURGH’s athletic sibling, and it’s largely the reason you are coming to Pittsburgh in the first place. If a sporting event is happening in the 412, SportsPITTSBURGH is helping the organizers promote it.

“SportsPITTSBURGH, along with Duquesne University and PPG Paints Arena, is proud to serve as the hosts for one of the biggest volleyball events of the year,” said Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of SportsPITTSBURGH. “We are proud of the city’s thriving sports community and its spirited volleyball fanbase. In fact, more than 50 percent of all NCAA women’s volleyball programs are within 500 miles of Pittsburgh, and our community has rallied around the sport’s energy. SportsPITTSBURGH welcomes the student-athletes, fans, and families to our vibrant city and is focused on providing iconic experiences for all.”

So I hope you come to my hometown, find the time to enjoy the sites, sounds, and tastes, take in the history, explore the neighborhoods, and feel welcomed by the people.

If you are coming for the AVCA Convention, look for We Serve First. I’ll be around and we’ll have goodie bags with maps, guides, and coupon books for the first 300 attendees to mention #choosetoserve, along with a sweet reusable tote from our foundation.

If this column has changed your mind about traveling to Pittsburgh, and you still need tickets, click here and use the promo code DEAL.

Safe travels. See yinz soon!

The Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh/Dave DiCello photo

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