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Pittsburghers are just crazy about pizza, but one of the most fascinating qualities of Pittsburgh pizza is that there's really no such thing. Unlike Chicago, New York, Naples or New Haven, the word Pittsburgh doesn't describe a specific style of pizza. Instead, Pittsburghers embrace pizza in every possible style, as well as a few that defy categorization.
When asked last May to recommend their favorite pizza places, readers offered up names of more than 57 pizzerias.
And it's no wonder. Traveling from pizzeria to pizzeria, some no more than a few blocks from my apartment, others more than an hour away, it became clear that their recommendations had only scratched the surface.
Reader opinions, of course, varied. Some raved and others hurled insults at Vincent's Pizza Park in Forest Hills. Vincent's pizza is in many ways the opposite of a Neapolitan pie with its thin crust and restrained use of intensely flavored ingredients. At Vinnie's, restraint just might be a dirty word. A thick, bubbling cauldron of cheese and toppings is encircled by a thick, fluffy crust that functions both as a container and as a way to sop up the steaming liquid that seeps out of each slice and yet somehow doesn't make the pizza itself soggy. Here, toppings are a necessity, and sausage and onions prove to be moderately successful additions, insofar as they help cut through the overwhelming taste of cheese. Though the atmosphere is more absent than anything else, the pizza is memorable. Whether you love it or hate it, I don't know if you can call yourself a true pizza lover if you haven't at least given Vincent's a chance.
According to some readers, I needed to try Ambridge-style pizza, purportedly unique to the Pittsburgh area. It is a square-cut pizza where requested toppings (including extra cheese) are simply arranged on top and handed over to the customer, no additional heating required. I didn't believe it until I saw it with my own eyes. Although I found the atmosphere charming -- Little League players and their parents practically stormed the take-out counter during my visit -- the pizza base was forgettable, and canned mushrooms hardly benefit from being served cold.
Although these pizzerias are more extreme examples of the varieties available here, I was constantly impressed by how many pizzerias make pizzas distinct from their neighbors'. One of the wonderful things about pizza is that while specific kinds have strict rules for everything from the kind of flour to use to the size of the crust, pizza itself is a blank slate, ready to be transformed by every pie-maker or pizzaiolo.
Pizza has deep roots in Pittsburgh. Both Frank's Pizzeria in Ambridge and Mineo's Pizzeria in Squirrel Hill (with a second location in Mt. Lebanon) are celebrating 50 years of business, an impressive number in any industry. In 1954 Giovanni Mineo moved to Pittsburgh from Sicily, where he had worked as a baker. He opened Mineo's in 1958, making the same thin crust pizza his sons, Giovanni and Dominic, make today. They added the Sicilian pizza to the menu about 30 years ago and the white pizza about 20 years ago.
Mineo's is the oldest of the Squirrel Hill triumvirate that includes Aiello's and Napoli's and inspires rivalries among customers, even if the businesses themselves have more of a live and let live attitude. Mineo's is probably the most popular of the three, but for pizza alone, I preferred a spinach and onion pie from Napoli's, and I loved the old-school charm of the Aiello's shop.
Frank's Pizzeria founder Frank Aloe left the Calabria region of Italy and moved with his wife to Ambridge in 1948. After working in the steel mills and starting a fish shop, he read an ad in an Italian newspaper about a New York pizza supply business that would sell you all the equipment you needed and teach you how to use it. Today the Ambridge storefront is run by Aloe's sons, Sal and Robert, but Frank still frequently works in the store, making the same style of pizza on the marble-topped counters that he made when the shop opened in 1958.
The pizza has an intensely crispy crust, more cracker-like than dough-like, with a nicely balanced layer of cheese and sauce -- at Frank's, the cheese is underneath the sauce, so it stays moist and sticks to the crust.
I was impressed by Frank's Pizzeria's focus. The miniscule menu offers regular pizza and white pizza as well as calzones, all in only one size, with a choice of only seven toppings. But some restaurants with extensive menus also made impressive pizzas. I loved the rustic pizza at Papa J's in Carnegie, with its slightly sweet, chewy dough, topped with sauteed leeks, fontinella cheese and fresh tomatoes.
Mario's Woodfired Pizza in Beaver also offers a range of pastas and other Italian specialties, all prepared in its wood-fired oven, but the "Pizza Speciale" is hard to resist. Although it isn't 100 percent Neapolitan -- the dough is slightly thicker and chewier, and it's cooked at a lower temperature -- Buffalo mozzarella, home-grown grape tomatoes, fresh basil and basil oil contribute the freshness and intense flavor of the best Italian-style pizzas.
At Little Chicago Pizzeria on the South Side, the deep dish was too dry, but a traditional pizza topped with sausage, onions and peppers was surprisingly good. Red rather than white onions lent a pleasant sweetness; the sausage was moist and had plenty of fennel flavor. The traditionally American pizza crust was chewy, while a coating of cornmeal on the bottom lent a nice crunch. Despite the rather dank atmosphere of the pizzeria, I would happily order this pie again.
Of the 57 pizzerias suggested, this summer I made it to 30, based on the number of readers who recommended them, online comments from other diners and advice from local pizza lovers. Given the volume, I was able to visit each pizzeria only once, which meant tasting one or two pies and occasionally a single slice.
I liked the majority of the pizzas I tried, but some stood out from the pack, though for markedly different reasons. Neapolitan, Connecticut-style and traditional American are all represented here, because while I think some pizzas are better than others, I don't believe that any one style is greater than all the others. All of these pizzas are created by passionate pizza makers who are determined to consistently produce the finest possible product, despite rising commodity prices and razor-thin profit margins.
Here are my favorites:
If the best wine tastes of the sun and soil where it is produced, then the best pizza, at least the best Neapolitan pizza, tastes of Italy. Close your eyes as you bite into the DOC Pizza Margherita at Il Pizzaiolo and you will be transported by the intensely fresh tastes of San Marzano tomatoes, Buffalo mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh basil and extra-virgin olive oil.
Owner Ron Molinaro admits, "I've been obsessed with pizza my entire life ... I don't know why I love it, but it is just the only thing I can do and would do." This love inspired him to travel whenever he could, so he could experience the most delicious, most authentic Italian pizzas. It prompted him to import a true Neapolitan oven about 18 months ago, one of only a few in the United States. He believes that without love, no pizzaiolo can master the delicate art of cooking pizza in a wood-burning oven, which takes only 60 to 90 seconds, but involves intricate judgment calls and physical manipulation of the pizza.
The main dining room, upstairs wine bar and inner courtyard are all beautiful locations for a meal, but true pizza aficionados will always try to land one of the coveted seats around the pizza oven, so they can watch the action and bite into their pie as quickly as possible.
703 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon, 412-344-4123.
The menu may change over time, but former executive chef Chris Jackson has left his mark on Six Penn Kitchen in the form of a pizza recipe. New executive chef Keith Fuller explained that the secret to the pizza is the honey in the dough, as well as a bit in the sauce, made from roma tomatoes, basil, onions, salt and pepper, all cooked down for a couple of hours. The sauce is topped with Buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil from the roof garden and shaved parmesan.
The pizza is cooked in a gas oven with a stone bottom, giving it a beautifully crisp crust and allowing the flavors of the toppings to meld together.
146 Sixth St., Downtown, 412-566-7366, www.sixpennkitchen.com.
Jioio's pierogi pizza was probably the most memorable pie. The combination of the sweet, flaky crust and the savory mashed potatoes, onions and cheese was absurdly delicious. Owner Tony Jioio explained, "You really have to be trained well on how to cook our pizza properly. It's a very thin pizza, and we cook them in steel pans in a stone-deck oven. It's really tricky, and you have to be really good to get it just right."
The dough is a secret family recipe created by Jioio's father and his grandmother, whom he described as "an excellent baker." Once you've tried it, you can't help but crave it.
939 Carbon Road, Greensburg, 724-836-6676, www.jioios.com.
Fiori's pizzeria looks like dozens of others in the Pittsburgh area, with its rows of plain booths and tables, bare walls and galley kitchen. But this pizzeria is almost always crowded, thanks to its strong word of mouth.
A small pizza is about 12 inches across, with a cracker-like crust and chewy edges. The distinguishing characteristic of this pizza is the sauce -- the sweetest sauce with the roundest flavor in Pittsburgh.
Fiori's, 103 Capital Avenue, Brookline, 412-343-7788, www.fiorispizzaria.com.
The menu describes the pizzas as "Napoletana Italian Thin Crust Pizza," but a number of fans describe it as Connecticut-style, a type of pizza that uses many of the same ingredients as Neapolitan pizza but is typically larger, not quite round, with a slightly thicker crust blistered from the heat of a coal- or wood-fired brick oven.
Harry's pizza is made in a regular oven so it doesn't have the blistered crust of a true New Haven pie, but it does offer a more than credible white clam pizza. The plentiful baby clams, fresh garlic, onions, capers and oregano gave the pizza a balanced, yet intense flavor. The pleasant interior, straightforward, reasonably priced menu and friendly service make Harry's pizza especially appealing.
4133 Washington Road, Peters, 724-969-0444, www.harrys-pizza.com
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1198.