Munch goes to Cucina Bella

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With the recent departure of one member of the Munch cabal, who wrote her final byline under the flag of the brown bag in favor of a new career, it got me thinking about the path that got me here: taking Hal Holbrook's screen advice and following the money of my Pittsburgh Press paper route all the way through to a laughably lucrative career in journalism.

I say laughably because if you think it really is lucrative, then the joke's on you, bub.

Rather I admire the entrepreneurial route of a guy like Carmen Pirain, who spent years mastering a craft, learning how to spin dough and bake pies in his family's pizza shop, Cestone's on Mount Washington. He ran another shop while in college, then returned to Pittsburgh to open a second Cestone's location. In 2011, he put the sum of that experience together to open Cucina Bella, transforming a long abandoned deli and penny candy store tucked at the end of a suburban neighborhood into a BYOB spot for gourmet pizzas.

(Full disclosure: I graduated high school with Mr. Pirain and hadn't spoken to him in the 18 years since, until after I'd already gathered the information for this review.)

The space is classy but comfortable, with a number of cool old knickknacks on display, including a century-old "penny-farthing" bicycle found in the building's basement, as well as an antique butcher's scale on a counter.

Appetizers include Italian favorites like antipasti, banana peppers and crostini ($7-$18). We split an order of the La Polpette di Joanna -- his mother's meatball recipe ($10). In contrast to your average big honkin' pizza shop meatballs -- spherical hamburgers, really -- drowned in marinara, these were smaller, almost airy meatballs in a light San Marzano sauce, a tasty and not overwhelming nibble to start with. We also tried the Calabrian Stuffed Figs ($8), delicious locally foraged figs stuffed with gorgonzola cheese and pecans and topped with local honey.

Salads and paninis are also available, but pizza is what we came for.

Mr. Pirain uses a "three-day rise" process for the dough in his calzones and pizzas, which is just what it sounds like. After the dough is made, it sits for three days, allowing the sugars and yeasts to break down, enhancing the flavor after baking.

The pizzas are all six-cut, and there are roughly two dozen varieties available at any time, from traditional Pizze Rosse (red sauce pizzas, all using San Marzano tomatoes) offerings like Margherita, Quattro Stagioni or the house specialty Cucina Bella (topped with the house meatballs), to olive oil-based white pizzas like a Bianca (cheese and tomato) or the Quattro Formaggi (four cheeses), and Pizza Speciale -- specials that rotate in and out based on availability of seasonal ingredients (all pizzas $9-19).

The latter includes a number of tempting combinations like the Joe T. (fresh mozzarella, gorgonzola, local figs, prosciutto, basil and a balsamic fig reduction) or the Santa Lucia (housemade pistachio pesto, sausage, fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, basil and extra-virgin olive oil).

We split a pair of pizzas that reflected the range of what Cucina Bella has to offer: the classic Margherita ($12) and one of the specialties, the Pizza Bucci ($17)

The Margherita was as simple as it was good -- nothing more than a light tomato sauce base, fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, basil and extra-virgin olive oil on that three-day dough. For a staple like this, it's all in the execution and Cucina Bella nailed it.

Made with fresh mozzarella, gorgonzola, toasted pecans, fresh rosemary, prosciutto, pure mountain honey, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and extra-virgin olive oil, the special Pizza Bucci incorporated a number of strong ingredients and in less experienced hands could be a total disaster. Instead each different taste was restrained and subtle, providing a flavor medley that hit every note -- earthy walnuts, sweet honey, salty prosciutto, and sharp gorg -- all at the same time. Delicious.

If you take leftover pizza home, a sticker on the box has a helpful admonition from the owner: "Please don't put my pizza in the microwave. Reheat it in the oven at 350 (degrees) for about 12 min. Enjoy -- Carmen." Appropriate as Mr. Pirain is the one whose spent the better part of two decades perfecting his pizza.

The rest of us just get to eat (and sometimes write about) it, which, frankly, isn't a bad gig at all.

Cucina Bella is at 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., Bridgeville; 412-257-5150 or www.cucina-bella.com.

munch@post-gazette.com or Twitter @ PGMunch. Become a Facebook Friend of Munch at www.facebook.com/munchPG.

munch

Dan Gigler: dgigler@post-gazette.com; @gigs412. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM


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