Restaurant Review: Della Terra Italian Bistro
Fiore Moletz's Italian restaurant is a hidden gem tucked away in a Harmony minimall.
PHotos by Laura Petrilla
It’s in here? No way?”
My friend Arielle looked at me with bewilderment as I turned into the low-slung Creekside Plaza off Perry Highway in Harmony. Nestled alongside minimall companions H&R Block, Subway and Snap Fitness is one of the region’s few hidden dining gems: Della Terra Italian Bistro.
The 50-seat restaurant, which opened in October 2013, is owned and operated by Fiore Moletz. He also owns Burgh’ers, the excellent hamburger restaurant adjacent to Della Terra. City dwellers take note: Burgh’ers is opening in Lower Lawrenceville this summer.
Moletz is a lifelong restaurant veteran who now firmly is finding his own culinary voice after working with chefs such as Craig Richards (former executive chef of Lidia’s in the Strip District, now executive chef of St. Cecilia’s in Atlanta) and Ron Molinaro of Il Pizzaiolo. He runs Della Terra as a no-brag farm-to-table restaurant — nobody will tell you that all of the eggs he uses are from his own chickens, but they are — that melds old-world Italian tradition with a sprinkle of Italian-American red-sauce joint.
From overseeing only-two-of-us-in-the-restaurant Tuesdays to busy Saturday nights, Moletz consistently is making destination-dining pizzas and calzones. They begin with naturally leavened dough that’s heavily salted and left to ferment for 24 hours. The cold, slow, salty fermentation makes the yeast struggle to reproduce, and the result is a soft, slightly sour and pliant crust enhanced with the right amount of char from a wood oven. My favorites are the classic (margherita, prosciutto and arugula, salumi piccante) preparations. They’re a steal at $10 each.
You’ll forever look askance at other bar snacks after getting a paper-wrapped cone of fried chickpeas and crushing the crunchy legumes nuanced with rosemary and just a touch of heat. If you’d like a meatier item with which to start your meal or drink a beer, the fluffy, crispy and peppery pork rinds are easy to love. Have one with a Negroni, one of the better choices from the strong-for-suburbia bar menu, which is overseen by Della Terra’s congenial general manager Lucas McConahy.
Share a couple of starters. If you’re smart, you’ll ask for bigger plates, because apparently nobody in Pittsburgh (see: many previous reviews I’ve written) seems to be interested in giving diners plates large enough to stack more than a few bites. Here, you’ll be using tiny — though adorable in a from-grandma’s-pantry way — teacup-sized plates. That’s a shame, because you’ll want to load up on many of Della Terra’s sharable dishes.
Softball-sized pork and beef meatballs, served over a bed of polenta and topped with tomato sauce and grana padano cheese, are fabulous. A tasty bowl of beans and greens created a little frenzy at the table on one of my visits. Mixing Sea Island red peas with the cannellini beans was something we all noted as an odd twist from a chef who tends to stick to traditional preparations, but everyone enjoyed the combination. Lines were drawn, however, on the question of whether the kale was too toothsome or just perfect. (Perfectly toothsome, I said.)
Carrot and rabbit gnocchi — light-textured dumplings mixed with tender rabbit, earthy resonant mushrooms and spicy sweet carrots — is a standout on the largely successful pasta menu. Bucatini amatriciana, if not thrilling, is prepared exactly as it should be, and it’s a dish I’d come back for even if I don’t feel the need to laud it with superlatives. Conversely, penne alla genovese couldn’t ever seem to get its mojo rising. I love the nod to Italian tradition with the inclusion of small diced potatoes. On one visit, though, the pasta was underdone, nearly crunchy; on another visit it was less underdone but still not al dente. That time the potatoes were missing and the pesto too salty (whereas it was perfect on crunchy pasta night).
Undercooked pasta was small sailing next to the roasted duck entrée. The duck was chewy, both under- and over-cooked at the same time. Worse was the brown slick of walnut-beer-fig butter served with it. I suspect it was meant to be a sauce, but the hyper-sweet and mealy mess managed to taste even worse than it looked.
Better were the meaty Lake Erie walleye special and the roasted half-chicken with rosemary-infused white-wine sauce and creamy polenta. Both dishes were comforting, but, unlike the pizza and most of the pasta, neither is worth going out of the way for.
A peppy but unpolished server (aside from McConahy, service needs a tune-up) got so giddy recommending the chocolate-salted pork rinds for dessert that we ordered them. I still don’t understand why she was so stoked about the dish because, as a friend said, “these are two great tastes that don’t go great together.”
Despite a few unrefined details, if you live nearby, make this your new neighborhood favorite; even if you don’t, it’s worth the drive to try it. Let other cities have their hidden taquerias or sushi counters (kidding, I want those too), I’ll take Della Terra as Pittsburgh’s secret hideaway.
100 Perry Hwy., Harmony; 724/473-0630, dellaterrapgh.com
Executive Chef/Owner | Della Terra Italian Bistro
What’s your background?
I worked in pretty much every Pittsburgh Italian restaurant when I was young. I got serious about it when I worked for Lidia. I was just the hot apps guy because I didn’t really know how to cook, but they were desperate for employees, and I was young and eager and they worked with me. It turned out I was pretty good at this thing. I was there for about four years. I moved all around the kitchen, and then I was in charge of pasta. The pasta chef had a lot of respect in Lidia’s group. After Lidia’s, I travelled for a bit, and then I got a job at Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon. I was hired there to help with their pasta production.
What’s the secret to a good pizza?
We use a Forno Bravo oven that we kept from the restaurant [that] was in the space before us. It’s in poor condition, but we’re working with it. I worked for (Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon owner) Ron Molinaro. I regard him as one of the best neapolitan pizza makers in the country, but I didn’t take the aspect that he took with importing everything from Naples. We use locally milled flour that’s thrown in the dough very quickly from the time it’s milled. The (canned) tomatoes are from Stanislaus, Calif., and in my opinion they are the best tomatoes there are. We don’t need to bring DOP tomatoes in from Italy. In the summer, we use local tomatoes and make the sauce ourselves.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I don’t want to change things to make them more popular. We let the ingredients talk on their own. Nothing has more than three or four ingredients. We let the food do all the work. We pay attention to technique and detail and let the food do the rest. Della Terra is sourced almost entirely from Butler County, but we don’t talk about it a lot. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do, not because we want to brag about it.
Why open in Harmony?
In 2009, we started a search for where the burger concept (Burgh’ers) would be, and I really wanted to be in Lawrenceville. But that’s when the boom started to happen, and we couldn’t cut it. My friend was talking about a place available in Harmony; I didn’t even know where it was. We’re a little ahead of the curve doing what we’re doing. But people are starting to get it now.