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.


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.

But, Pittsburgh?

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. 
 

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.”
 


 

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.”
 


 

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.”
 

 

Dave Anoia was between kitchen positions in 2005, so he picked up a job making pizza at Three Brothers Italian Restaurant in Ocean City, Md., to pass the time. He found a lot of joy in making pizza but dropped it from his professional repertoire when moved to Pittsburgh in 2007 to work for chef/mentor Brian Pekarcik at Steelhead Grill and later at Spoon. He never lost his passion for the craft, though, and when he and his wife, Aimee DiAndrea, opened DiAnoia’s Eatery in the Strip in 2016, he added old-world style pies to the menu. The all-day restaurant offers pizza until 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with additional takeout hours Tuesday through Thursday as well as brunch pizza on Sunday. They will open an attached pizza shop later this year. 

Anoia’s pizza begins with detailed attention to dough work. Antimo Caputo 00 pizza flour is mixed with dry yeast, olive oil, salt and a pinch of sugar and left to bulk ferment for 24 hours. It then is formed into balls and fermented again for an additional 24 hours. It’s baked in 18-inch rounds on the third day directly on the surface of the restaurant’s four-deck Peerless baking oven. The crust is crisp, with a little chewy give in the center, and a warm, breadstick-like rind. Anoia’s sauce is an uncomplicated blend of whole San Marzano tomatoes, salt and a pinch of sugar — it’s layered on thicker than other styles of pizza. Unless you order a margarita, which is topped with fresh mozzarella, provolone is the cheese of choice here. Anoia prefers classic Italian toppings such as prosciutto and arugula or hot soppressata and mushrooms but says he’s happy to use anything he has in the restaurant’s deli case. 

A perfect pizza: “The number one thing is the crust. If you don’t have a good, crispy crust on the style that you’re making, you have a flimsy pizza. Slow fermentation and cooked properly in the oven.”
 


 

Pete Tolman is making the buzziest pizza in Pittsburgh right now, yet he’s a relative newcomer to the art of the pie. A visit to Brown Dog Pizza in Telluride in 2015 inspired Tolman, then executive chef of Giant Eagle Market District, to start experimenting with Detroit-style pizza. He felt confident enough in his ability to craft a lofty, cheese-ringed crust that he entered the competition to become one the second cohort of restaurants at Smallman Galley. Not only did he land a stall in 2017, Iron Born draws huge crowds and now is the preeminent space at the Strip District restaurant incubator.

Tolman’s pizza hews close to Detroit-style, though he’s augmented his dough to make a crust that is fluffier than what’s typical of the style. He builds the airy base of the Iron Born rectangle with a two-day fermentation of Central Milling high-gluten flour. Tolman breaks from tradition by adding cheddar to the brick cheese most associated with Detroit-style’s addictive baked ring of cheese that lines the outside of the rind. He cooks his pies in a convection oven lined with additional steel plates for faster heat recovery time, but he feels like he still could get the bottom crisper in a different oven. Most pizzaiolos strive for purity over complexity, but Tolman isn’t afraid to get wild with his topping builds, using his culinary background to think about complementary flavors and textures, as well as whimsical builds such as deconstructed Buffalo chicken.

A perfect pizza: “Perfectly cooked, with a crispy bottom and topped with thought. Not over heavy, not too many ingredients.”
Update: Iron Born opened a second location [413 Grant Ave., Millvale] in October 2018]

Josh Sickels had two career goals as a teenager in the 1990s: make a living as a touring musician or, if that didn’t work out, open a pizza shop. Well, he did make a living in music, touring with bands such as The Takeover UK and 1,2,3. But his infatuation with NYC-style slices, particularly the cheese-heavy variety served in Queens, was intense. Plus, he felt western Pennsylvania was lacking in this style of pizza, and, even in New York City, it was a dying art. With no formal training, he plunged into obsessive research, relying heavily on sense memory, advice from members on the respected message board pizzamaking.com and even YouTube videos to develop an NYC pie he felt proud to serve. One year later, and 20 pounds heavier, he opened Rockaway Pizza in White Oak at the start of 2017.

Sickels’ 18- to 21-inch pies cook for about nine minutes in a Bakers Pride Y600 deck oven and hew close to the prototypical Queens ideal. However, Sickels breaks from the local custom of same-day, room temperature fermentation by cold-proofing his General Mills All Trumps unbleached, unbromated flour overnight; he feels this best-of-both-worlds approach builds extra flavor while still retaining the desirable, slightly leathery chew of an NYC slice. His thin sauce — Stanislaus 7/11 tomatoes and salt — is simple, tangy and a little sweet. Sickels goes all in with cheese, a base of full-fat whole milk mozzarella that’s blended with pecorino and 18-month Parmigiano Reggiano. Therein lies some controversy — studious pizza lovers will notice screen marks on the pizza base. Although many consider cooking on mesh screens a no-no, Sickles says that, after a significant amount of experimentation, cooking on heavily sanded screens for the first 30 percent of the bake, what he called “The Queen’s Melt,” gives the cheese fat a chance to melt and unlock the flavor of its butterfat, and that cooking directly on stone for the rest of the time still gives it a classic finish. 

A Perfect Pizza: “I like so many different styles of pizza. I love Detroit style. I love Chicago deep dish. I love pizza when it’s done well. But, that New York slice that’s thin, but not too thin, and has a good chew and a crispy end crust.”
 

 


 

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. 
 

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.”
 

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.
 

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