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.
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Della Terra Italian Bistro
100 perry hwy., harmony
Fiore Moletz didn’t make a single pizza while working for legendary pizzaiolo Ron Molinaro at Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon; from 2005 to 2010 he was the restaurant’s pasta maker. However, when he opened Della Terra Italian Bistro in Harmony in 2013, he moved into a space that already had a wood-fired Forno Bravo pizza oven. It was a natural fit for the curious, talented chef with an understated farm-to-table ethos and dedication to high-quality ingredients to apply the craft he learned through osmosis (and, later, practice) to preparing neo-neapolitan pizza built almost entirely from locally grown components. Even the cherry, oak, ash, elder and apple woods that heat the oven are harvested and cured for the restaurant.
Moletz uses a 2-year-old natural starter born from grains grown by Kretschmann Family Organic Farm to cold-ferment flours from regional growers (he also will use Antimo Caputo 00 pizza flour when he feels the locally grown flour isn’t up to snuff) for 24 hours, then proofs it at room-temperature for several hours prior to baking 12-inch rounds for 90 seconds in an oven that can exceed 1000 Fahrenheit at peak-heat. The thin crust is chewy and yeasty, with a blistered, salty rind. Moletz uses flavorful western Pa. tomatoes as both sauce base and topping during the growing season, and a simple puree of whole Stanislaus tomatoes and salt in the off-season. Cheese is hand-pulled from Grande Cheese Company or Caputo Brothers Creamery curds and other toppings are simple, highly seasonal and thoughtfully composed.
A perfect pizza: A basic margarita D.O.C. built on naturally leavened dough that’s finished with a healthy dose of Olio Verde olive oil and pepper flakes.
Stone Neapolitan Pizzeria
300 liberty ave. #100, downtown
The first time Rick Werner made a pizza for a paying customer was the day he opened Stone Neapolitan Pizza Downtown in late 2012. He was, like most of us, an enthusiastic eater of pizza, but, for him, Stone was more a result of a market vision — the need for a high-quality, low-price-point, fast-casual pizzeria in Downtown Pittsburgh — than from a passionate yearning to become a pizzaiolo. He took a five-day course with highly respected Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana in California, worked at a pizzeria in Boulder, Co. and spent several months practicing and away he went. Werner is able to keep volume up and costs down at his pizzeria by operating as a counter-service restaurant.
Werner’s pizza starts with Antimo Caputo 00 pizza flour, baker’s yeast and a little bit of sourdough starter. He cold ferments the dough for 24 to 36 hours before cooking 11-inch rounds in an inferno-hot Stefano Ferrara oven fueled with regional hardwoods — cherry is preferred for high heat and clean, bright flame. The crust and rind are a deep tan, speckled with char, though not as profoundly as many Neapolitan pizzas. The sauce is simple — San Marzano tomatoes and salt. Werner’s house pies are classic and feature fresh, hand-pulled mozzarella (except for the margarita extra, which gets mozzarella de bufala), but he does allow for levels of customization not often seen in Neapolitan-style pizzerias.
A perfect pizza: “That’s a tough one. It depends on my mood, really. There’s a place for that greasy slice, and there’s a place for something that’s lighter and more my style.”
Threadbare Cider and Mead
Style: Ingredient Driven
1291 spring garden ave., spring garden
Jay Wess says the customers at Dinette in East Liberty assumed he’d spent a career making pizza because he was such a visible presence in the restaurant’s open kitchen, where he worked as sous chef and front-of-house manager before moving to Threadbare in Spring Garden in 2017. Truth is, he had never professionally made a pizza before being hired at Dinette in 2011. His fondness for attention-to-detail and his desire to get back to basics with culinary techniques made it a natural fit, and he quickly developed a passion for the craft. Wess says he also is interested in the emotional history often associated with pizza, noting that people have a passionate connection to the pizza that they grew up with.
Wess uses two types of yeast in the crust fermentation — sourdough starter grown from yeast in the lees of Threadbare’s Farmhouse cider for flavor and active dry yeast for consistency. It’s a quick process, the dough is fermented for several hours at room temperature before 12-inch pies are cooked in a deck oven for six minutes. His Threadbare pizza is thicker and chewier than the crisp-crusted pizza he made at Dinette, but his ingredient-driven approach topping the pies remains the same. Wess is happy to make a classic pie, of course, but his menu also includes spinach pizza enhanced with blush onions, barrel-aged feta, cumin oil and sunny-side up egg and roasted apple pizza with mozzarella, thyme, housemade ricotta and honey. Look for more seasonal creations as Pittsburgh’s farming season picks up.
A perfect pizza: “I like a mix of things that are cooked on the pizza and things that are added fresh. The pizza oven as a culinary tool can be a sledgehammer — some ingredients need that, but it needs a fresh, light touch at the end to act as a counterpoint.”
Pizza Style Guide
NYC: Pies are hand-tossed to 16 to 20 inches in diameter and baked in a gas oven; often sold by the slice. The center of the pie is thin, chewy and flops when a slice is lifted (folding a slice is a common way to eat it). Rind of the pie is medium and cooked to a tawny brown; the base of the pie is the same color. Sauce is simple and thin, and there typically is a significant amount of shredded low-moisture mozzarella cheese.
Neapolitan: The small pies have strict rules. They begin with long fermentation of a high-hydration mix of tipo-00 flour and brewer’s yeast or a natural starter. Sauce, which trumps cheese in these wet pies, is a simple mix of DOP San Marzano tomatoes and salt, and the pizza typically is finished with a drizzling of high-quality olive oil. If there is cheese, it’s fresh buffalo mozzarella; other toppings are minimal. The pizza is cooked in a scorching hot, wood-fired oven for 60 to 90 seconds; charring of the base and the puffy rind is a signature.
Neo-Neapolitan: Similar to Neapolitan but with slightly more freedom in flour composition, oven temperature and toppings. Tends to be crisper than Neapolitan pizza.
Detroit: Created in 1948 at Buddy’s Rendezvous, this pizza style remained primarily a regional speciality until popularized at Emmy Squared in Brooklyn in 2016. Take a bite and it’s hard to see how the absurdly addictive style remained hush-hush for such a long time. The style’s signature is a lining of baked cheese — think the corner slice of mac and cheese — that caramelizes as airy dough bakes in an oiled, rectangular pan with sloping sides.
Sicilian: Known in Italy as sfincione, the square pizza begins with a spongy, air-pocket filled base similar to focaccia. Olive oil is a signature; it’s mixed into the dough and also lines the pan that the pizza is baked in. Sauce is pre-cooked and thicker than other styles of pizza. Cheese is optional (actually, it’s not traditional) and, if used, is placed below the sauce. Toppings are minimal.
Grandma: A cousin to Sicilian-style, likely originated on Long Island. These square pies are proofed for a shorter time than Sicilian, resulting in a thinner, denser and crispier crust. Crushed whole tomatoes are the base for the sauce, cheese isn’t just permitted, it’s encouraged and garlic often is highlighted.
Old World: Round, gas oven pizza similar to NYC style but thicker. Olive oil is added to the dough mix. Provolone is the cheese of choice, and it most often is placed under the sauce.