Video submitted by Emma Federkeil, Point Park News Service
By Lauren Ortego, Point Park News Service:
Tim Weber, a bartender at Big Jim’s restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Four Mile Run neighborhood, has one distinct advantage: he grew up there.
Big Jim’s greets visitors to the Run with a large brick building and the bar’s name along with – “Est. 1977” – painted onto the front in white lettering. The restaurant is one of the key buildings in Four Mile Run, and the eatery of choice for many of the citizens.
“Big Jim’s is like the ‘Cheers’ of the Run,” Weber said. “It’s a place where everybody really knows your name.”
Four Mile Run is a place one could get lost in: People don’t quite mean to end up there, but the hospitality of the locals, the charm of its establishments and the surprisingly rich history create an environment that’ll keep people coming back, readers said.
Big Jim’s is a restaurant made for the homesick. The staff seems friendly and welcoming, the food home-cooked, and the general atmosphere of a family gathering or picnic. It is a staple of the Four-Mile Run.
“Originally, it was a small bar, even before Big Jim owned it,” Blane Volovich, one of the three shareholders of Big Jim’s, said. “There are regulars in their late 80s and 90s that still come to Big Jim’s but will tell you stories of when it was something else.”
And while Big Jim, Vincent “Jim” Bochicchio, himself hasn’t been around since his passing in 1991, the new owners have made sure to keep the character of the restaurant intact, serving old-school Italian meals that are both hearty and reasonably priced.
“It was and is a successful business and the concept that he [Jim] had put together worked and we saw no reason to change it,” Volovich said of keeping the name and style after Jim had passed.
Though locals may not be the only people found amongst the Pittsburgh sports memorabilia of Big Jim’s, people come from all over the world to enjoy a hoagie from the kitchen.
As was mentioned to by every person interviewed down in the Run after talking about Big Jim’s, the restaurant was featured on the popular Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” with Guy Fieri.
“The credits hadn’t even stopped rolling, and they were already getting phone calls about the episode,” Ellen Gula, a resident of over 40 years, said. “There were people calling from all over the country asking where to find it.”
Despite the episode having aired almost 10 years ago, the regulars still see a traveler or two come through looking to eat at the spot Guy Fieri said made him feel like he was in Italy.
“Since we were on [Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives], we get people from all over the country,” Volovich said. “They come in with their book and ask you to sign the book. They take photographs in front of the restaurant. He [Fieri] has a whole culture of people from his show that just travels all over the country and goes to all his restaurants.”
Big Jim’s is one of the only restaurants in the area. The only “competition” is Zano’s pub across the street, but even then the two establishments are on two completely different wavelengths. One markets itself as a bar, the other as a restaurant that just so happens to have a bar. Any rivalry is therefore squashed, locals said.
But why aren’t there more restaurants and businesses in the surrounding areas like there had been in the past?
The Four-Mile Run is residential, and while many years ago it was essentially a self-sufficient neighborhood with everything from a grocery store to a Catholic school, now it’s mostly housing.
“It’s actually single-family residential, so all the apartments have sort of been grandfathered in,” Gula said while sitting on her porch. “The only businesses [now] are the Union Hall, Big Jim’s, Zano’s and Proctor’s, which isn’t currently operating.”
“And the Slovak Club,” John Gula, Ellen’s husband and a native to the Run, added.
The club is so elusive that it’s easily missed on a tour of the Four-Mile Run as there are no signs indicating its location. It resides in a building adjacent to Big Jim’s and requires Slovak heritage to join.
A funny story about the Slovak Club — it only just started accepting women, recently, and not for the reasons one would think.
The Club was lacking a women’s restroom. The members had never seen it necessary as there were no women. Therefore, a women’s bathroom was not needed. However, after a plumbing inspector from the city came in to check out the building, he found the lack of the second facilities to be a violation.
“Now they have a unisex bathroom,” Ellen and John assuredly said.
Union hall for meetings
The union hall is the home to the Pittsburgh chapter of International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) and has been the meeting place for its 2,200 members since 1995.
There, the union members hold meetings and conduct their business, dealing with skilled maintenance operating on boilers, air conditioning, electricity, and construction, but it’s also available for outside usage.
The building has frequently been a site for town halls regarding the many changes coming to the Run: a possible new road, a bike lane, and the many flooding issues the citizens have been experiencing in the past few years.
Its central location in the Run made it a perfect place for union members from all over the Pittsburgh area to come together and not have to travel too far.
“[The location] was one of the main reasons we purchased [the property],” Carl Luisi, education director for IUOE, said in a phone interview. “It’s a good location. Second Avenue comes right through here. People in Oakland just have to take a quick drive. It’s pretty centrally located.”
The union hall is currently undergoing renovations, as the building will be 100 years old in 2018. Luisi notes that the union has no plans to move location, and hopes the updates will keep the hall standing for another 100 years.
“That big church”
Aside from Big Jim’s, the Slavonic Club and the union hall, the biggest landmark is the large Byzantine Church that is highly visible from the Parkway East, which goes right over the middle of the Four-Mile Run.
It’s a token for the residents of the Run when people ask where they’re from.
“We always say, ‘You know that big church that’s all lit up that you see on the parkway? That’s us,’” Ellen said. “And people know what we’re talking about. Then they ask ‘Well, how do you get down there?’”
Among the houses, there are small playgrounds, one with a basketball hoop, another with a hockey goal. There’s a bright red swing set complete with a jungle gym right under the parkway’s large metal and concrete overpass.
Down the bike path, which was put in recently much to many of the neighbor’s dismay, is a soccer field installed by the city. Any farther than that, it’s considered a part of Oakland.
It’s a small, quaint area. One that can remind a person of the small town they’re either from or have only heard of in stories and television shows. After driving through the long stretch of road to the entrance of the Run, it feels like being transported into another dimension — one far, far away from the bustling city that resides mere minutes away.