Dig In: The Next Wave of Pizza in Pittsburgh
Now is the time to be eating pizza in Pittsburgh. Pizza makers are crafting pies in a variety of styles from New York to Old World. We round up our nine favorite destinations.
(page 1 of 3)
photos by Laura petrilla
Cities such as Naples, New York, New Haven and even Tokyo draw flocks of fans eager to embrace regional styles of pizza that have eaters ordering more even when they’re full.
Dominating the region is medium-thick pizza made from short fermentations of commercial flour topped with saccharine sauce, caked with a provolone and mozzarella cheese blend and cooked on metal screens in a gas oven.
The decades-old debate about which Squirrel Hill pizzeria — Aiello’s or Mineo’s — is better lumbers on. I’d half-tilt my hand to Mineo’s, but, the truth is I don’t love either. I get why people care, and I understand why people remain so heated about it — nostalgia is a legitimate ingredient. Carry on. Love your favorites.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t have choices.
When Ron Molinaro, Pittsburgh’s Dean of the Dough, opened Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon in 1996, he breached the tide of run-of-the-mill pizza parlors with refined Neapolitan techniques and quality ingredients. His fastidious commitment to the craft, best exemplified in his Margherita DOC pie, remains, two decades later, an example of how to do things the right way. Respect.
A handful of other pizza-focused chefs also elevated the craft. The legendary Italian-born pizzaiolo Roberto Caporuscio crafted Neapolitan pies in Pittsburgh from 1999 until 2006; he now oversees three locations of Kesté Pizza & Vino in New York City.
In 2005, Domenic Branduzzi started cooking thin, tasty woodfired pizza at Piccolo Forno in Lawrenceville in the same building, and oven, that previously housed a branch of Caporuscio’s Regina Margherita Pizzeria. Sonja J Finn opened Dinette in East Liberty in 2008, marrying seasonal, thoughtful combinations of ingredients with a well-formed crust.
Over the past few years, a new crop of pizza makers have emerged from the doughy shadows of flim-flam pizza parlours. They work in a variety of styles — neo-Neapolitan, New York, Detroit, grandma — to craft pies that rise above the rest.
These nine pizzerias are Pittsburgh Magazine’s favorite new wave destinations.
126 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty
Anthony Giaramita made his first pizza while he was in elementary school in the 1980s. He batched dough and formed pies with his grandmother and father at their pizzeria, which now is an extension of the family restaurant, La Tavola Italiana, on Mt. Washington. Giaramita continued to make his father’s old-world, gas-oven pies during high school and college but then decided to pursue a legal career rather than work in the family business. That didn’t last. He started playing around with pizza on the weekends and even traveled to New York in 2014 to take an immersive class with the famed Italian pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci. Giaramita opened Pizza Taglio in East Liberty in 2015.
Giaramita’s neo-Neapolitan pizza starts with a high-hydration dough made from organic, Utah-based Central Milling tipo-00 flour, naturally leavened and cold-fermented for up to three days. He bakes his 12-inch pies for two to three minutes in a screaming hot oven fueled by oak and other regional hardwoods. The light, thin crust is speckled black on the bottom, has a defined, airy rind with moderate to significant char and a warm, yeasty flavor. Giaramita’s sauce is straightforward: raw DOP San Marzano tomatoes and salt, uplifted with a post-bake drizzle of olive oil. He’s honest with toppings, too, a departure from the “anything goes” philosophy he had early on. Now, he prefers a minimalistic mix — three toppings, max — of high-quality ingredients. He stretches mozzarella in-house from curds delivered from Grande Cheese Company.
A perfect pizza: “I don’t know that it exists. A pizza is ⅓ the ingredients, ⅓ the oven and ⅓ the turn of the hand. If you think you’re making a perfect pizza, you don’t know what you’re doing. Warm, crust smells like bread, it’s just crispy enough, the sauce is sweet and the cheese — less is more, milky and salty is best. And simple.”
Style: GRANDMA/SICILIAN HYBRID; NEW YORK SLICE
NORTH SIDE & MT. LEBANON
Anthony Badamo started making pizza when he was 16 years old, working at a family friend’s pizzeria. It was a typical high school job, nothing that Badamo thought he’d pursue as a career. Still, when he was 27, Badamo decided to leave the corporate world and enter the culinary one. As fate would have it, the Mt. Lebanon storefront that housed Caruso’s, the first pizza place he went to as a kid, was up for sale. In 2010, Apizza Badamo — now Badamo’s Pizza — was born.
Badamo prepares two styles of pizza. He sells slices of New York gas oven from giant 18- to 20-inch pies stretched so thin they nearly are transparent in the center. The simple sauce — Stanislaus plum tomatoes, a touch of tomato paste and a little bit of salt — is thin and tangy. The cheese, a blend of mozzarella, provolone and “a couple of imported hard cheeses,” is laid on thick. Badamo’s square pie — a hybrid of Grandma and Sicilian styles — is more substantial, with a thick but not heavy base and a crisp bottom with a nice oily quality. Edges are crisp and light, with extra umami from specks of caramelized cheese. Rivers of thick, concreted tomato sauce flow between strips of his four-cheese blend. The New York pie is baked right on the stone in a Marsal double-deck stainless steel oven, and he uses an old-school Peerless oven for squares. He believes simple is better when it comes to toppings but is happy to accommodate customers who like to get wild.
A perfect pizza: “A good ferment on the dough that’s thin, airy and baked crisp in the oven. Clean tomato flavor and good cheese. I like it simple, and I want all the flavors to stand alone. I want to taste the tomato, the cheese and the dough.”
Style: grandma, old world
3615 butler st., lawrenceville
Neil Blazin started making pizza at home in 2012. Experimenting with sourdough bread preparation and frustrated with the sorry state of pizza delivery, he figured he might as well see what happened if he used his sourdough starter to make a pie. Success.
Over the next few years, he continued to develop his pizza and bread techniques at Legume in Oakland, where he worked as the restaurant’s manager. He and business partner Justin Vetter decided to leave the beloved eatery in 2015 and start Driftwood Oven, a mobile, wood-fired pizza shop serving naturally leavened neo-Neapolitan-style pizza. Early this year, the duo opened a permanent space in Lawrenceville.
Blazin now cooks in a brick-lined, double-deck gas oven. He feels that square pies, something he couldn’t make in the mobile oven, can show off a baker’s pure talent. True to his Legume ethos, the dough begins with a blend of locally grown grains, augmented with Central Milling flour to maintain consistency; the sourdough is fermented for at least 24 hours. The sauce is simple, Muir Glen whole-peeled tomatoes and salt, and the toppings change with the seasons. He stretches his old-world pies into 16-inch rounds that are baked for five to six minutes. The puffy rind is spotted with char and tastes of warm mornings by the oven. Blazin’s square — well, rectangular, pies are par-baked for 15 minutes before he tops them with a base of mozzarella and provolone, as well as ingredients influenced by the season. Then, it’s back in the oven until the bottom is crisp and chewy.
A perfect pizza: “It changes. But I really enjoy the corner piece of a square style. Super light and crispy, caramelized nicely in oil. Beautiful cheese, sauce and pepperoni. Fresh tomatoes are always nice in the summer.”