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HAMBONE'S

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Pittsburgh's neighborhoods harbor many oases where the natives can indulge in timeworn rejuvenating traditions: eating, drinking, smoking, watching TV and "holding forth." In his overlooked masterpiece on the alarming disappearance of regular, no frou-frou Bar Bars, The View from Nowhere, Jim Atkinson defines "holding forth" as a particular brand of bar talk that springs from an indefinable marriage of the mundane and the bizarre, with roots in grandiosity and mild paranoia -- often blurted out apropos of nothing. So, when a guy walks into Hambone's and announces, much aggrieved, to nobody and everybody, "I remember when a 40 was a buck-twenty-five and shit," he's holding forth. When half a dozen other folks at the bar venture complaints, theories and suggestions about the price and packaging of beer, particularly emphasizing how things used to be, this is a community.

Hambone's has two small dining rooms in the back (accessible through the "family" entrance off the rear alley for delicate souls who'd rather not hear the price of a 40 being kicked around) but I like to dine up front in the bar. It's a narrow room, with a row of barstools and, inches away, a wall of old wooden booths. They hold four snugly -- and there will be a lot of unintentional footsies -- but the buzz from the bar about the Penguins or housing reassessments or Enron or a solution to any of the aforementioned problems trumps any minor loss of comfort.

As the name suggests, Hambone's menu offers a lot of pork. It's also one of those unselfconscious places where the slaughtered animal cheerfully advertises its own demise: The placemat features three pigs ready to serve you themselves -- a lady pig, Pat, who's waitressing, Billy, the chef with a mixing bowl, and Yunny, who's hustling a pitcher of beer. And porkers of all shapes and sizes, their piggy little eyes twinkling, beam at you from behind the bar, from the walls and from any available nook or shelf.

There's no doubt: I'm gonna eat some pig tonight.

The Jurassic Pork is a monster of a hoagie, a "volcanic size portion" of BBQ pork in a mini loaf of bread topped with melted provolone. What it lacks in unique BBQ-ness, it certainly makes up for in bulk. Even the bread can't hold in all the pork, which tumbles to the platter, de-evolving from a sandwich to a "need-a-fork" dish. A similar fate befalls the Ham I Am sandwich. The fresh bakery roll proves too fluffy to hold what must be a solid pound of sliced baked ham and melted cheese, which slides and shimmies in all four directions before another bite sends the whole set-up skating across the plate. I finish it off with my fingers -- still mighty tasty, and there are plenty of paper napkins.

Hambone Stew is available by cup, bowl or as a side dish, and is a hearty, stand-your-spoon-in-it offering of potatoes, carrots, ham and black pepper. Flavorful and filling, it's a good "regular" at this joint. Other reliable pig offerings are the pan-fried pork chops: two full-sized chops that are pan-seared so they remain juicy and tender within -- for $8.95 including three side dishes. The menu is deceptively "light" looking, since in fine print it explains how many of the dozen or more available side dishes you must choose.

While the menu offers Heart Smart platters (OK, just three), most of the line-up reflects an old-school kitchen unconcerned about recommended daily fat intake: You can "Buffalo-ize" the chicken in your salad here, and you betcha that already includes French fries and at least a half-cup of shredded cheese. Try it with Hambone's signature dressing, "Feta-lina" -- Catalina dressing with feta cheese added.

What's sacrificed in cholesterol maintenance is gained in comfort. Not just the spreading warmth (and girth) of a plate of hot wings and a cold Iron, but the Sensurround comfort such never-really-ordinary regular local places afford. No fake-o, funkified chain could ever match the years of accumulated pig art, the friendly murk offset by beer sign lights, the patina earned through many smoke-filled nights and the clatter of the neighborhood eased onto bar stools. And if my mouth wasn't totally full of cheesy baked ham, I'd have leaned over and told that guy about a place I know where the 40s are still pretty cheap. **1/2

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