Pitt alumni look back on 60 years of The O

The+famed+60-year-old+Oakland+restaurant+had+an+empty+storefront+on+Saturday+evening.

Leah Mensch | Contributing Editor

The famed 60-year-old Oakland restaurant had an empty storefront on Saturday evening.

By Ashton Crawley, Senior Staff Writer

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When Chas Bonasorte remembers going to games at the old Pitt stadium with his dad and brother, he also thinks of something else — stopping by The O to grab some hot dogs.

“When there’s a game, all our fans from all over the City come to The O because it’s a tradition with their kids,” Bonasorte, a 1976 Pitt graduate and owner of the Pittsburgh Stop clothing company, said. “The O is historic.”

Essie’s Original Hot Dog Shop, better known as The O or the “Dirty O,” closed earlier this month after 60 years of being a community favorite. The shop, founded in May 1960 and located at the corner of Forbes Avenue and South Bouquet Street, was famous for its hot dogs and gigantic stacks of fries that were comfort food to many generations of Pitt students.

Not only was The O an Oakland favorite, but it also gained national recognition — The New York Times said it had some of the best hot dogs in the nation. Originally opened by brothers Sydney and Morris Simon, it has been owned and run since the mid-2000s by Sydney’s children, Terry Campasano and Bruce Simon. The siblings did not respond to requests for comment about the closure.

Many Pitt alumni were shocked to hear the news of The O’s closure and reminisced on their experiences at the restaurant. The closure of The O is just one of many famous spots in Oakland to close within Bonasorte’s lifetime, like Peter’s Pub and Forbes Field.

Bonasorte said The O was one of Oakland’s most iconic places.

“It’s sort of like when you go to Italy and you go to the Tower of Pisa or the Eiffel Tower in France,” Bonasorte said. “When you go to Oakland, you go to two places — the Cathedral or The O.”

Bonasorte, who played on Pitt’s football team, also recalled a time in 1972 when he walked into The O in his letterman jacket. During that year’s football season, the team hadn’t played so well — the Panthers’ final record that year was 1-10.

“The kid behind the counter said he wouldn’t wait on us,” Bonasorte said. “He said, ‘Yinz stink!’”

Bonasorte and his roommate eventually got kicked out of the restaurant. But now Bonasorte is good friends with one of the co-owners of The O, Bruce Simon. Bonasorte said Simon would drive down Forbes Avenue to Bonasorte’s shop across from the Cathedral of Learning, and surprise him with free hot dogs and fries.

“It’s just tradition. It’s plain tradition,” Bonasorte said. “Pro players come when they come into town. It’s unbelievable the way The O is famous.”

Tony Magnelli attended Pitt from 1979-84 for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and is another fan of The O. He said the closure of The O was shocking.

“That was one of those things like the Cathedral,” Magnelli said. “You always thought it was gonna be a part of Pitt.”

Magnelli said he used to go to The O with his father prior to attending games at Forbes Field, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ former stadium on the current site of Posvar Hall.

“We’d go there, stock up on The O dogs and then go watch the Pirates play,” Magnelli said.

Now that The O is gone, Magnelli said, Oakland will feel different.

“You know, that was like the ‘Welcome to Oakland’ sign. Some of the other things changed along the way, but you could always rely on being greeted by the Original Hot Dog Shop sign right there on the corner,” Magnelli said. “You kind of knew you were on Pitt’s campus when you saw that sign.”

Rick Gradisek, a 1977 Pitt graduate who later returned for his master’s in the ’80s, said the closure of The O was devastating.

“In my lifetime, we lost Pitt Stadium, Peter’s Pub and now The O,” Gradisek said.

Gradisek said it’s sad that future generations of Pitt students won’t have the same experience with The O as students have in the past. For many alumni and even current students, The O was a comforting tradition.

“I think alumni or longtime residents are gonna have a void when you walk by that corner and The O’s not there,” Gradisek said.

The O not only sold hot dogs and fries, but also had a number of other specials over the years.

“A lot of people forgot, but they created a gimmick back around 1980 — they would sell nine-packs of beer. You’d go to The O and get a large fry and a nine-pack,” Magnelli said.

Magnelli, who also played football for Pitt, reminisced about two of his teammates who rented a Forbes Avenue apartment above The O.

“They’d walk into the locker room while we were getting ready for practice and we knew we couldn’t eat until later,” Magnelli said. “These two came in after sautéing in the aroma of The O, and everyone got hungry and we’d start throwing stuff at them.”

Years later, Magnelli said he brought his daughters to The O just as his father brought him.

“I took the girls in, ordered my O dog and went and sat down,” Magnelli said. “I looked at the girls and they were just sitting there in shock. I think The O afternoon crowd just sort of blew them away.”

Magnelli, now a teacher at Quaker Valley Middle School about 20 minutes north of Oakland, remembered a time he brought a group of 70 students to The O for lunch while they were on a field trip to the Carnegie Museums.

“We go in and the kids order fries. But we ran out of time so we head back to the museum and they wouldn’t let the kids take the fries in, so they start shoving them in their pockets,” Magnelli said. “The rest of the day kids are pulling fries out of their pockets as we’re going through Polar World in the museum.”

It’s small and simple moments like those that made The O so special, Magnelli said.

“At the time, you don’t think you’re making a memory,” Magnelli said. “When you sit down later and look back at it, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that was a fond memory there.’”

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