By Dan Gigler / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The root of the word is unclear: It may have come from British slang meaning “the best,” or perhaps it was from a Roma word meaning strong. The Latin root of sugar — saccharum — is a possible source, as are the archaic English words “rumbullion” and “rumbustion,” which were slang for “tumult” and “uproar.”
But it was in the Aug. 21, 1794, edition of the Hartford Gazette in a poem called the “The Happy Man” that rum’s link with the unseemly was established:
How happy is the man,
Who has a quiet home,
Who loves to do what good he can,
And hates the demon rum.
But to paraphrase a popular meme: Has this happy man even tried the demon rum, bro? Because treachery, malfeasance and iniquity are not the words that come to mind during a visit to the Pirata Caribbean Cuisine & Rum Bar. The Downtown spot opened in mid-October in the new Tower 262 building and features more than 200 bottles of the “Barbados water.”
Rum has a historical association with rogues of the high seas — which are used in marketing campaigns to this very day — and Pirata plays on that theme with a colorful and campy mural worthy of Blackbeard or Captain Kidd and a lot of distressed wood that looks like it could’ve come from an old sloop.
If your predisposed notion of rum is that it’s merely something to be mixed with pop, make a point to visit Pirata and get some education, as head bartender Greta Harper and her staff have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the molasses and sugar cane-based spirit. Ms. Harper recently spent time in Jamaica as a guest of Appleton Estate, learning about the history and production of rum, and she can guide tipplers through tasting flights that include the excellent and locally made Maggie’s Farm and Stonewall rums, as well as collectors’ grade offerings such as an El Dorado 50 year.
Local mixology mogul Spencer Warren assisted with the cocktail menu, which features 16 tropical cocktails and includes rummy versions of a Manhattan and mint julep. The pan-everywhere-south-of-here menu features Caribbean, Central and South American fare.
The Smoked Pineapple Guacamole ($12) is among the more unique preparations of the world’s favorite avocado dip. Pineapples are smoked, then dehydrated and added to the mixture, giving a smoky flavor that a bartender accurately described as “pineapple bacon” and served with plantain and malanga chips.
At $16, the Cubano is a pricey sandwich to be sure, but to its credit, it is a perfectly executed classic. The juicy roasted pork and sweet ham topped with gruyere, pickles and mustard are on a proper Cuban bun made for Pirata by Mediterra bakery and pressed to crispy consistency. It’s also the size of a first baseman’s mitt and comes with a stack of shoestring fries and a spicy Jamaican ketchup.
The Jamaican Street Corn ($6) is served in a bowl rather than on the cob, and with jerk seasoning, toasted coconut and Scotch Bonnet peppers all mixed together, there’s an interesting, almost cinnamon-like taste to the crunchy kernels.
A side of the Bahamian Macaroni Pie ($6) was almost like a slice of mac-and-cheese lasagna: baked together and bonded with a top cheese layering and cut into a brick with just a note of spice. Not bad, but it could stand to be a little gooier and with a little more heat.
Despite the ominous tone of the 18th-century poem, it seems difficult to leave Pirata as anything but a happy man, especially after quaffing some of its delicious demon rum and decent grub.
Pirata: 274 Forbes Ave., Downtown; 412-232-3000; www.piratapgh.com.