Pittsburgh pizza continues to embrace regional styles

People will vehemently defend the pizza they grew up on. For natives, it's the Pittsburgh-style pizza with a thin, yet spongy crust, sweet tomato sauce and a three-cheese blanket of dry mozzarella and two types of provolone.

In nearly every neighborhood in the city, you'll find this style at mom-and-pop pizza parlors that have been around for decades.

But lately, a handful of regional styles have been infiltrating the city's pizza landscape -- and the options are growing.

They include the benchmark for superior pies around the country, wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas, with a focus on artisan crust and meticulously procured ingredients, applied sparingly.

Pittsburgh-Style Pizzas

The quintessential Pittsburgh-style pie can be found at Mineo's Pizza House (2128 Murray Ave., 412-521-9864), made by Dominic and Giovanni "John" Mineo, using the same recipe their father followed when he opened Mineo's in Squirrel Hill in 1958.

It's a similar style to its competitor down the street at Aiello's (2112 Murray Ave., 412-521-9973), opened by a former Mineo's employee, Giuseppe "Joe" Aiello, in 1978. Aiello's also tops crust with mozzarella and two types of provolone, but it's applied with a lighter hand.

Despite the popularity of these Pittsburgh-style pizzas, Adam Kuban, the chronicler of regional pizza styles in his national Slice pizza blog on seriouseats.com, has not acknowledged it, even though he has highlighted the styles in St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit and other regions.

John Mineo said his family's style is a hybrid inspired by two cities' pizzas.

"My father came here through New York, but he also spent time in Chicago," he said. "It's not as thin as a slice in New York, but it's nowhere near a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza."

After decades, Mineo's is still going strong, and recently expanded to include a full bar and a larger menu.

A variation on the Pittsburgh style is at Pasquarelli's Pizza House (824 Chartiers Ave., 412-331-5558) in McKees Rocks. It's the pizza of Kevin Sousa's childhood. The former chef at Salt of the Earth in Garfield says Emilio Pasquarelli's tenacity has inspired his loyalty. He and his wife, Anna, have been making pizza here for 40 years.

Mr. Sousa appreciates that "every single pie is made by the same two hands." And he is won over by the dollop of housemade sauce in a fold-over crust.

"You can keep all that talk of sweet sauce or sausage to yourself," he wrote. "In my opinion, pizza should be big on savory, to the point of getting-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night to get that last piece in the fridge before someone else snags it, because you can't get those flavors to go to sleep on your taste buds. The pizza is a perfect blend of old and new world."

From here, we can detour to Pittsburgh's outlier pies. They include the massive Vinnie pie from Vincent's Pizza Park in North Braddock (998 Ardmore Blvd., 412-271-9181).

It's the standard created by Vincent Chianese nearly 60 years ago, with crust thick enough to handle a weight of cheese, sausage, mushrooms and other toppings. The place closed for a stretch over ownership disputes and reopened this past June.

Farther out from the city there's Jioio's (939 Carbon Road, Greensburg, 724-836-6676), another anomaly. Owner Tony Jioio said the pizza is made with the same recipe his grandparents created in their first shop in Latrobe in 1949.

"It's a pastry-type pizza," he said. The sweet-sauced pie is baked in a steel pan in a stone oven. "There's no lard," he said, but was mum on whether he uses shortening. "The process makes it flaky."

The Sicilians

A Sicilian slice is nearly as common as Pittsburgh-style pies, though its history lies in sfincione, or "spongy" bread sold in Southern Italian bakeries. Sfincione tradition swaps hard sheep cheese called caciocavallo for mozzarella.

Sanchioli Brothers (4731 Juniper St., 412-681-3401) in Bloomfield makes the crust for a dozen pizzerias to create a Sicilian pizza that's "more like the loaves we bake than a pizza," Alexander Sanchioli said. "There's more yeast in the dough."

Although the shop is less-known for this style, A'Pizza Badamo (656 Washington Road, 412-563-1000) in Mt. Lebanon bakes its Sicilian sheet-pan pizzas in-house and layers them with sweet sauce and a provolone-mozzarella blend. The shop, which had been take-out only, has expanded its kitchen and added tables for eat-in service.

"We want to be set up more like Fiori's in Brookline and Mineo's," said Anthony Badamo. "We want customers to see us making pizza inside and as they're walking by."

Neapolitan, Neo-Neapolitan and California-Inspired

In 1996, Ron Molinaro opened Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon, introducing Pittsburgh to the Neapolitan pie. Dough is one of the most important features of a Neapolitan-style pizza; it must bake at high heat for seconds in a wood-burning oven.

Created from extra-fine "00" flour, the dough is best when it's helped along by a natural-yeast starter as opposed to commercial yeast, and the fermentation process takes at least a day.

It's a wetter pie, for which the center is often soft, because there's so little baking time for the liquid within the ingredients to evaporate.

Bakers and pizza makers note that better pizzas are the result of understanding artisan bread-baking. It's as important if not more important than the quality of sauce and toppings.

Mr. Molinaro said he and his pizza makers in Mt. Lebanon and at its newest location in Downtown's Market Square have been making dough leavened with yeast cultures from Italy's Campania region. "We're constantly experimenting," he said.

Eater.com recently identified Mr. Molinaro's $16 margherita pizza as among the most expensive in the country. It's pricey because he's picking up $10,000 worth of ingredients from Naples at the airport every week.

Five years after Mr. Molinaro opened his first Il Pizzaiolo, Roberto Caporuscio opened Pizzeria Regina Margherita in Bellevue. He later moved to Lawrenceville in the site that's now home to Piccolo Forno.

This is important to note because he stoked Pittsburgh's craving for Neapolitan-style pizzas and eventually took it to Manhattan, where he opened Keste Pizza & Vino in 2009. His creations have been nominated among New York's best pizzas.

Before he headed east, Mr. Caporuscio helped train Domenic Branduzzi of Piccolo Forno (3801 Butler St., 412-622-0111), who says he makes Tuscan-style pies with a crisp crust.

"The dough does not ferment as long, and I keep the oven at a lower temperature, around 650 degrees. It gives me more control over the texture," Mr. Branduzzi said.

Classic Neapolitan-style pies are also created by Rick Werner in the Rolls-Royce of wood-fired ovens, a Stefano Ferrara, at Stone Pizzeria, Downtown (300 Liberty Ave., 412-904-4531), as well as by Anna and Michael Mercurio at Mercurio's (5523 Walnut St., 412-621-6220) in Shadyside in their Acunto Wood-Fired Oven shipped from Naples.

Pizza Boat bakes a subgroup of pizza that's classified as neo-Neapolitan style. Pizza Boat is a mobile wood-fired oven that landed in Pittsburgh this past summer, when Jeff Ryan and Matt Watson, former employees at the well-regarded Roberta's Pizza in Brooklyn, N.Y., returned here to start their own business. Their pies are smaller and often feature unorthodox ingredients to make, say, a pierogi pizza. Customers will be able to find them outside Bar Marco in the Strip District (2216 Penn Ave., no phone) on weekends during the spring and summer.

Another spin-off from Neapolitan-style pies comes from California. Chef-owner Sonja Finn at Dinette (5996 Penn Circle South, 412-362-0202) in East Liberty is turning out a style created by Wolfgang Puck and Ed LaDou when they opened Spago in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Ms. Finn's technique was shaped by California cuisine during her time at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco.

The hallmark of California-inspired pies is unusual ingredients such as duck or salmon. Lately, Ms. Finn has graced her pizzas with kale, oyster mushrooms, bacon, chevre and fresh mozzarella -- a bit unusual, yet restrained. They're delicious.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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