Updated 10:06 a.m.
It’s Friday night at St. Alphonsus in Wexford.
The line of people waiting to order their fish dinners starts in the school cafeteria and goes up stairs to the door. A second line of people waiting for seats is almost as long.
Nearly every seat in the cafeteria is taken. Along the far wall, one classroom has transformed into an added dining room, another is full of drink choices — homemade iced tea and lemonade, as well as coffee — and a variety of donated desserts, $1 each. Between classroom doors, teen volunteers wait with trays to serve the next order or bus the next table. Lines of volunteers dish food.
It’s crowded. But the volunteers and attendees don’t seem to mind.
“I love the sense of community. … It’s almost like a reunion,” Eileen Donnelly said as she waits in line with Amy Madonna, a fellow St. Alphonsus parishioner.
Over five weeks, nearly 60,000 votes were cast in The Incline’s Ultimate Pittsburgh Fish Fry bracket, embracing light-hearted rivalries and bragging about the the best fried fish and tasty sides across the Pittsburgh area.
But in the end, it was St. Alphonsus’ simple, homemade menu offered only at dinner, that won with 57 percent of the vote in the Championship. The North Hills church beat out St. Joan of Arc’s elaborate lunch and dinner menu that includes beer and wine.
Frank McSorley has been at the St. Alphonsus fish fry from the start ten years ago and has helped organize fish frys around Pittsburgh since the early 1980s.
The key is good food and a good price: Customers rave about the fish and homemade cole slaw. “We serve what people want,” McSorley said of the menu.
Once, he said, they tried a broccoli and cheese soup instead of the regular clam chowder, but no one wanted it. And while it would be nice to add pierogies to the menu, McSorley said, there just isn’t the space in the cafeteria.
The fish fry has a la carte prices, but it’s one price for dinner — $10 for adults and $2 for kids.
That means a family of four can all eat for under $30, McSorley said, adding that the fish fry is not only a fundraiser for the church and school, but way to bring young families and young adults into the church community.
How to organize the Ultimate Pittsburgh Fish Fry
St. Alphonsus offers dine-in or take-out fish for three hours every Friday — from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. — but behind-the-scenes work takes much more than a few hours. Here’s a breakdown of the week, as outlined by McSorley and Audrey Dunn, who coordinates fish fry volunteers:
Saturday: It’s the day after the fish fry. Time to start thinking about next week. McSorley takes inventory and shops.
Sunday to Tuesday: Generally quiet.
Wednesday: Volunteers thaw the cod. Part of what makes the fish so good is that it’s only frozen once between the time it’s caught and the time it’s served, improving the taste, McSorley said.
Thursday: Work ramps up. Volunteers cut the fish, make tarter and cocktail sauces, and mix the iced tea and lemonade.
Friday: This is the big work day. Volunteers start early, making cole slaw and mac ‘n’ cheese and breading fish and shrimp. Parishioners bring in dessert donations. There’s set up, cooking and phone orders to take before the fish fry opens. Then it’s about taking orders, serving food and more until they stop serving at 7:30 p.m., when volunteers grab food for themselves and clean up before going home.
By the numbers
Per McSorley, each Friday during Lent calls for:
- 750 pounds of cod
- 70 pounds of shrimp
- 60 pounds of mac ‘n’ cheese
- 200 pounds of cole slaw
- 60 gallons of clam chowder
- 40 gallons of tomato florentine
The second week of Lent is typically the busiest, McSorley said. This year, St. Alphonsus served more than 1,700 meals on March 10. His guess is that’s the week that people remember to go to a Friday fish fry. They hear people talking about the first fry, so they make a point to go, he said.
Path to the Championship
In the first two matchups, St. Alphonsus pulled in 69.5 and 75.8 percent of the vote, respectively. But in overall votes, the North quadrant lagged behind the East, home of the only two fire departments to advance out of the first round.
But then, in the Elite Eight, the North quadrant got the most votes. From there, whatever race St. Alphonsus was in attracted the most votes.
The Wexford church got 79 percent of the vote in the Elite Eight over Saints Simon and Jude in Scott Township and 73.2 percent in the Final Four over Holy Angels in Hays.
The finals was the lowest vote percentage for the Wexford church, showing a tight final race where the vote tally more than doubled the previous round.
In the Championship, St. Alphonsus won by *just* 57 percent of the vote — its closest race in the entire bracket. The Championship had more than twice the votes cast in the Final Four.
If you go:
St. Alphonsus is at 201 Church Road in Wexford.
The fish fry is open 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. on April 14 for Good Friday.
You can eat there or order takeout. Here’s the menu.
A previous version of this article misspelled Frank McSorley’s last name.