Il Pizzaiolo Downtown distinguishes itself with terrific food, but slack service


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Although most Downtown businesses were closed Labor Day, at the few that were open, the Pirates game played on every TV as eager fans watched to see if they'd reach their first 80-win season since 1992. Like its baseball team, a sign that Pittsburgh's star is rising is a bustling Market Square, where most outdoor tables were occupied on a gorgeous day.

Case in point is the lovely patio at Il Pizzaiolo, the sibling of the Mt. Lebanon flagship, which opened in March. Well past lunch hour, the restaurant was packed, and a group of five Italian tourists waited at the host stand for a table.


Il Pizzaiolo

Food:


2 1/2 stars = Recommended+
Ratings explained

Service:


1/2 star = Promising
Ratings explained

Atmosphere:


2 stars = Recommended
Ratings explained

8 Market Square
412-575-5858
ilpizzaiolo.com

  • Hours:

    Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.

  • Basics:

    Il Pizzaiolo serves the city's best Neapolitan pizza as well as rustic dishes made with painstakingly sourced ingredients.

  • Prices:

    Antipasto $9-$16; pizza $14-$18; pasta $16-$25; secondo $18-$28.

  • Dishes:

    Arancini, panzarotti, salumi, insalata Napoli, calamari fritti, Santa Lucia, diavola, margherita DOC, prosciutto e arugula, bucatini all'Amatriciana, penne alla vodka, vitello alla Milanese.

  • Summary:

    Outdoor dining, credit cards, street parking, handicapped accessible.

  • Noise level:

    Moderate to loud.


Owner Ron Molinare worked the pizza oven on what would have been a day off for many restaurant owners in the business for decades. Il Pizzaiolo opened in 1996 and has since become destination dining, the Pittsburgh favorite for Neapolitan-style pies.

There are many reasons to appreciate Il Pizzaiolo's sibling. For one, it already has become a marquee restaurant in Market Square. And while many dishes are quite good, a restaurant such as this can help raise the standards of "good for Pittsburgh" if it concentrates on details of service as much as the food.

The two-story, 40-seat $1.5 million restaurant is always busy. It features bars on each level, with shelving like the hull of a ship. Marble-top tables with wrought-iron legs stand on honeycomb tile aligning walls of wainscoting and exposed brick.

On the ground level, a wood-burning oven serves as the focal point, hand-crafted by masons Mr. Molinare brought over from Italy. Built by oven-makers Forno Napoletano, it's made from Italian materials, such as the oven floor, which was constructed from volcanic stone from Sorrento.

When Mr. Molinare tends to it, he produces the city's best Neapolitan pies and perhaps the city's best pizza. When it's done well, this style wears a perfect char and a blistered crust, such as the one on the Santa Lucia made with uncut, "00" flour, which translates to a lighter, more refined dough that responds well to wood-fired oven temperatures between 900 and 1,150 degrees.

Mr. Molinare said he and his pizza makers in both locations, Kevin Konn Downtown and Michael Scichilone at the flagship, have been making dough leavened with yeast cultures from Italy's Campania region. "We're constantly experimenting," he said.

Cherry tomatoes on the Santa Lucia aren't the coveted San Marzanos. Instead they're the rare piennolos from the foothills of Mount Vesuvius. Flavors play out as the tomatoes' mellow sweetness complement pungent anchovies and Kalamata olives pair with briny capers. Slivers of raw garlic and charred basil garnish the pie.

Each pie is served uncut with a special pizza knife, a transition Mr. Molinare made a few months ago, once he could find them. "It preserves the integrity of the pizza," he said, noting that Neapolitan-styles get soggy more quickly than others. It also allows diners to cut pizza to their liking.

Fine ingredients are painstakingly sourced. Once a week, $10,000 worth of Mozzarella di Bufala, Ricotta di Bufala, provolone and burrata is flown from Naples to Rome, then Rome to New York's JFK airport, where it's then driven to LaGuardia, then flown to Pittsburgh, where an employee picks it up from cargo on Thursday nights.

"We have customers who know this and visit us on Thursdays for the freshest cheese possible," Mr. Molinare said.

The cheeses are available throughout the weekend, but usually sell out by Sundays, he said.

On the prosciutto e arugula pizza, ham from Prosciutto Crudo di Parma Galloni is cut on a hand-crank Berkel meat slicer only available at the Downtown location. Mr. Molinare prefers this Italian-style meat cutter for "the cleanest possible slice," he said. "Prosciutto is not only about taste. It's about texture." Each slice is soft and buttery.

Even on this pie, tomatoes are meticulously sourced, D.O.P.-certified -- which means heirlooms from the San Marzano region in Italy are grown there as well. Mr. Molinare says they're so delicate he can smash them by hand instead of using a mill.

Among first courses, the antipasto Napoli is a flavor wheel of vegetables, such as razor-thin zucchini, rendered silky from the wood fire, skin crisped like lacy burnt ends. Eggplant is perfectly seasoned, a reminder of how delicious this underrated vegetable can be. Glossy red onion sleeves are rendered sweet while elegant beans taste of salt and lemon. Thick-cut carrot medallions are less intriguing, along with mealy, out-of-season asparagus.

This medley is more compelling than greens-heavy salads, such as the insalata Misticanza with parmesan and balsamic, which includes enough lettuce to feed a family of rabbits. There's also a conservative insalata Cesare, a mound of romaine with scarcely detectable white anchovy.

Arancini, which have become so stylish in the past few years, arrive as four savory rice balls in a wax-papered basket. Two are Sicilian-style, with tomato-seasoned risotto and a center of ground beef, while the others are Neapolitan, with butter and cheese.

Seafood is not the strongest point. While calamari fritti is light and fresh, the carpaccio di polpo seems cheapened as a see-through sheet of coined tentacles. It's here that I miss an old-fashioned braised octopus. Among pastas, the linguine alle vongole is also underwhelming, as clams don't claim the spotlight in this white on white dish, with no red pepper kick, little garnish and little broth.

But those are only minor complaints. Really, the only problem here is the service. In my six or seven visits, more than half were marred by inattentive or rude servers.

During one late-ish dinner, a server rolled her eyes at a table's request while another deflected a request for help. And at the most recent lunch visit at the bar, it took three tries to get the attention of the bartender who was a foot away, pouring beer or stocking bottles. Later in the same meal, dirty plates remained as he talked to co-workers. At nearly every meal, aside from one flawless visit, service fell off after the entrees had been served.

It's also unclear whether servers know the sourcing of ingredients, where beer is from, or the difference among bottles in the library of Amari because they did not convey that they cared.

This may seem nitpicky, but when the bill for two first courses, two pizzas and drinks can run $60 to $100, diners should have service that's beyond amateur. More literate service comes in the correction by the management, increased competition from other restaurants and an expectation of better service from diners.

restaurantreviews

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


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