Two guys. 12 pizzas. One day.
With the last remnants of meat from the October 2011 Pop City Burger Tour
finally cleansed from our systems, Patrick Jordan and I agreed to slip back into our stretchy pants and do battle with another culinary icon. Armed with Lactaid, Tums and a camera, we hit a dozen restaurants in a single day to find the best pizza in Pittsburgh. (To see the 2012 Pizza Tour video, click here
The list of stops on the 2012 Pittsburgh Pizza Tour was developed through input on Facebook and Twitter. Obviously, this is in no way an exhaustive overview, as there are simply too many pizza joints in the city and surrounding region. If Pat and I missed your favorite, we're sorry. Pizza, we quickly discovered, is a polarizing food.
As we set out on our quest, we established just two rules: 1) we had to eat a whole slice at every stop, and 2) no using the word “'za.”
Following each entry below, I've included my tweets from the tour along wtih Patrick’s mustache meter rating. To view the full day's tweet log, along with guest commentary, check out #PGHPizzaTour on Twitter.
Vincent's Pizza Park
998 Ardmore Boulevard
It's only appropriate that we started our day with a healthy breakfast at Vincent's in Forest Hills, since a slice of “Vinnie Pie” eats like a meal. A Pittsburgh-area institution, Vinnie's has been serving up big, delicious pizzas for more than 60 years.
The 2012 Pittsburgh Pizza Tour featured cameos along the way from some famous Pittsburgh faces. Think of it as a Mr. Rogers episode with a gastrointestinal twist. At Vinnie's, we were joined by John Fetterman, the Braddock mayor with a larger-than-life personality and a passion for Pittsburgh.
Patrick and I ordered pepperoni and green peppers, while Fetterman opted for artichoke hearts. As the pizza was placed on the table before us, we realized that making Vincent's the first stop was the right call. Piled high with toppings, the beast of a pizza was a thing of caloric beauty.
“I don't really have a sauce to cheese formulation or anything like that,” says Fetterman of his views on a great pizza. “It's the definition of obscenity; you know it when you see it, and certainly Vincent's fits that description.”
We knew it when we saw it, but that didn't stop us from tasting it. Anyone who claims to be a Pittsburgher needs to make a trip out Route 30 and get a Vinnie Pie. Big, obscene, delicious.
@bstephenson, 12:02 PM: “Oh no. I just belched hard after stop 1.”
Patrick’s mustache rating for Vincent’s: “Teddy Roosevelt
-- A larger than life pizza, like the president who took a bullet to the chest and gave a 90-minute speech while bleeding. Eating too much Vinnie Pie might make you feel the same way, but you'll still function and keep going back... until you just can’t.”
103 Capital Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15226
Well, I knew the Pizza Tour wouldn't be complete without an Italian man yelling at me. I just didn't know it would be so early in the day.
When I entered Fiori's, our second stop on the tour, I was immediately taken in by the old school feel of the place. Arcade games sit in the front window, and a picture of Neil Diamond hangs on the wall. Did you just ask why? No one needs to justify a photo of Neil Diamond.
As I approached the counter to ask an older gentleman if we could take some photos in the restaurant, he noticed my camera and began angrily asking to see my identification. While I was receiving an Italian what-for, Patrick was busy photographing the Neil Diamond picture. After a few tense moments, it was revealed that the Italian man was Fiori Moscatiello, the owner of the establishment, and he was simply being protective of his customers. And, ultimately, that's what Fiori's is all about: a strong contingent of regulars who swear by the pizza that's graced Pittsburgh for more than 32 years.
“To make a good pizza, you gotta' work,” said Fiori, who sometimes works 16-hour days making sure everything is perfect for his customers. “That's what it's all about.”
What about the pizza? It's very good, very handmade and was one of Patrick's favorites of the day. The sauce and crust are both on the sweet side, which may be a deal-breaker for some. The staff at Fiori's were some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet behind a restaurant counter, and for atmosphere and service alone, Fiori's is at the top of the list.
By the way, once he realized we weren't there for nefarious purposes, Fiori gave us t-shirts!
@bstephenson, 12:38 PM: “Fiori, who is old and very Italian, was not initially happy with my camera. Thought he was going to punch me.”
Patrick’s mustache rating for Fiori’s: “Charles Bronson
-- This is a strong mustache for a strong pizza, and a favorite to diehards for good reason. A good core and masculine complexity, but if you try to get cocky with Fiori like Brad almost did (luckily I was there) you must have a death wish.”
703 Washington Road
Mt. Lebanon, PA
Who would have guessed that there are reasons to go to the OTHER side of the tunnels? Oh, South Hills, I kid. You know I love you. When it comes to pizza, the southern suburbs are home to some of the best pizza the Pittsburgh area has to offer.
At the third stop on our quest, Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon, we were greeted with wine, courtesy of Duane and Kate Reider. Duane is a local photographer and winemaker who shot all the stunning images that hang on the walls of Il Pizzaiolo. Rieder considers himself a pizza enthusiast, though he said his employees call him a “pizza Nazi” because of his passion for Pizzaiolo.
Three different pizzas were prepared for us by owner Ron Molinaro: the Margherita with San Marzano tomato sauce, mozzarella di bufala, parmigiano-reggiano, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil; the Prosciuttio E Arugula with fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, parmigiano-reggiano, prosciutto di parma, baby arugula and extra virgin olive oil; and the Salsicce and Rapini with fresh mozzarella, sweet fennel sausage, rapini, pecorino romano and extra virgin olive oil.
If that all seems like the most amazing pizza you'll ever eat without a plane ticket to Italy, you're not wrong. Molinaro is obsessive about his pizza. He's visited pizza places all over the world to perfect his recipes, and he picks up fresh buffalo mozzarella from Naples, Italy at the airport every week to be sure it's as fresh as possible. He even brought in a crew from Naples to build an authentic oven, which burns at more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit and cooks a pizza to perfection in a minute.
“It's a traditional Neapolitan oven,” said Rieder, who owns Engine House 25
wine in the Strip District. “It's the hottest oven in Pittsburgh.”
I have no idea why that's a good thing, but it must be.
Disclaimer: Duane and Kate are hardcore Il Pizzaiolo fans, and they did lube us up with Engine House 25 wine, which is incidentally tremendous. This had no influence on my glowing remarks about Il Pizzaiolo, but it certainly didn't hurt. By the way, Engine House 25 also houses Rieder's photography studio and the Clemente Museum.
@bstephenson, 1:41 PM: “Four. FOUR pizzas! Il Pizzaiolo. http://t.co/R0YF0Gfj
By the way, it was around this time that we were joined digitally by another Pittsburgh friend: legendary WQED producer Rick Sebak started following and commenting about our journey on Twitter. I have loved his scrapbook documentaries about Pittsburgh for as long as I can remember, so this clearly made my day, week and lifetime.
@rickaroundhere, 1:46 PM: “@BStephenson Haven't been to Il Pizzaiolo in years. Looks pretty great.”
Patrick’s mustache rating for Il Pizzaiolo: “Burt Reynolds (highest respect)
-- Much like the last place to achieve Burt status on our Burger Tour this place goes above and beyond. Like Burt, Il Pizzaiolo almost needs its own category. The signature mustache for a signature pizza.”
656 Washington Road
Mt. Lebanon, PA 15228
When Caruso's pizzeria in Mt. Lebanon shut down a few years ago, longtime customer Anthony Badamo jumped at the chance to open his own shop in the space. Though he's young, Badamo clearly knows his pizza.
Badamo's is not as upscale as Il Pizzaiolo across the street, and the pizza is more traditional to an American pizza shop, but the experiences are similar in the attention to detail and the freshness of the ingredients. Pat and I both enjoyed our slices with only cheese, and Badamo was one of my favorites of the day. The crust is of moderate thickness with a great crunch, and the sauce and cheese ratio is just about perfect.
My wife and I lived in New York City for a while and one of my favorite dining experiences -- because we couldn't afford anything else -- was grabbing a quick slice at one of the city's hundreds of pizza places. In the most amazing way possible, Badamo brought back those memories in a much, much fresher way.
How lucky are the people who live near these pizza places, arguably two of the best in Pittsburgh? In the mood for an upscale traditional Neapolitan pizza? Head to Pizzaiolo. Want to grab one of the best slices of your life in a more casual setting? Hit up Badamo.
@bstephenson: Hey @TurnersPremiumT - Look what I found at A'Pizza Badamo. http://t.co/kn0h3cjc
Patrick’s mustache rating for Badamo: “John Holmes
-- Not much to look at, but it's got it where it counts?”
Don Campiti's Pizzeria
1509 Potomac Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15216
We had just enough time to swing into Don Campiti's on our way across Potomac Avenue toward Banksville Road. This place was a fan favorite on Facebook, so we didn't want to miss it.
Though the cheese pizza we ordered at this Dormont mainstay was pretty standard, people give it consistently great reviews. Hopefully we weren't hitting our gastrointestinal wall at this point in the tour. I'd hate to be unfair because I was full, but neither of us were blown away, and we have pretty roomy stomachs.
We aren't professional critics, though. As Patrick says, “We're just guys who like pizza.”
@bstephenson, 2:04 PM: “Campiti's in Dormont: What can I say? A whole pizza was only $6.”
Patrick’s mustache rating for Campiti’s: “The Pringles Guy
-- I think what I'm saying is that sometimes,
you get the munchies,
to deal with it, and who ya gonna call?”
3025 Banksville Rd
Another entry in the brick oven category, City Oven sits on Banksville Road and isn't necessarily remarkable from the outside. Once we stepped inside, though, we received a warm welcome from the oven's fire and from manager Sam Kane, who gave us a tour and talked about the restaurant's pizza-making philosophies.
“It starts with the dough,” said Kane. “You have to make your own. You have to use your hands and knead it with love.”
It was around this point, as Kane was mentioning the love he puts into the City Oven pizza dough, that I started to realize how passionate the pizza makers were at the best places we visited. Every time we tasted a delicious pizza, its creator was close by with a story about the ingredients or the dough or the little place in Brooklyn that serves the best slice.
Clearly there is passion at City Oven, which features ovens built into an old coal mine, and it is evident in each very crispy bite. The thin crust on this pizza was distinct, with an initial crunch and a soft, delicious follow-through.
Fortunately for the downtown crowd, City Oven will be opening a location in the Times Building on Fourth Avenue in April.
@bstephenson, 3:21 PM: “At City Oven w/ manager Sam Kane. http://t.co/k5mM47S5
Patrick’s mustache rating for City Oven: “David Crosby
-- You would never think a voice like that came through that 'stache. But it does and it’s respected for good reason, much like a fantastic gourmet pizza coming from a place that used to be a mine entrance.”
Pasquarelli's Pizza House
824 Chartiers Ave
McKees Rocks, PA
As I've said, Patrick and I don't claim to be food critics. We eat a lot of great food, and we have fun doing it, but the intellectual extent of our critical vocabulary is usually “yum” or “yuck.” So we were naturally thrilled to be meeting up with a true food expert, Pittsburgh superstar Chef Kevin Sousa, at his favorite pizza place, Pasquarelli's in McKees Rocks.
Pasquarelli's has been baking up famous stuffed crust pizzas on Chartiers Avenue in for decades, and it's been one of Sousa's number one spots since he was growing up in the Rocks.
“I came here on my first date when I was 12 or 13,”said Sousa, Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2011 Chef of the Year.
The Pasquarelli's pie was piping hot, as it was made fresh to order. We were on the move, so we didn't have time to wait, but Sousa said the pizza is best eaten after it's had a bit of time to sit and cool off. Actually, one of the lessons I learned on the tour is that most pizza is best after a cooling period and some is at its finest in the leftover stage.
As good as Pasquarelli's pizza was hot, I can't imagine how good it must be if given Sousa's proper resting time. It's a heavier pizza, almost on par with Vincent's, and incredibly delicious. Of particular appeal was the fresh sausage with fennel seeds. Every once in a while, Patrick or I would hit a bite that contained the perfect balance of ingredients, and we'd offer a manly grunt of pizza pleasure.
Take it from Sousa, owner of Pittsburgh's Salt of the Earth, Station Street Hot Dogs and Union Pig and Chicken: Pasquarelli's is a must for any pizza aficionado.
“It’s my favorite pizza,” said Sousa. “It’s just good stuff, and it’s been the same two people here my whole life.”
@bstephenson 5:44 PM: “Headed to Pizza Italia in Bloomfield. Home of the headless fresh bot. I am so full I have no idea what I'm saying.”
Patrick’s mustache rating for Pasquarelli’s: “Brando in The Godfather
-- It’s about family and serving the neighborhood. Mixing intelligence, heart and muscle, this husband and wife team do it all from scratch, from the sausage to the crust. The Don is landmark ‘stache for this McKees Rocks landmark. Consider this place equivalent to a gift on the day of your daughters wedding.”
4512 Liberty Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15224
Pizza Italia in Pittsburgh's Bloomfield neighborhood made our list from the start, because Patrick lived near the restaurant and claims to have been sustained by its pizza for five years of his life. Italia's pizza merely keeping him from dying wasn't exactly a glowing review, and his regular habit of consuming pizza from any location over the course of five years has most likely contributed to a shorter lifespan, but I'm no doctor.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I tasted the Pizza Italia slice with pepperoni and green peppers. For a traditional pizza joint with a modest-looking storefront, the pizza really is good. Tasty, hand-tossed crust and fresh ingredients make Italia a Bloomfield standout.
It should be noted that we were running short on time at this stage of the tour, so we had to eat the Pizza Italia pie in Patrick's car. Always masters of efficiency when it comes to eating, we held our slices out the window to cool.
@bstephenson 6:20 PM: “Next up: Mineo's and Aiello's. The feud gets settled tonight.”
Patrick’s mustache rating for Pizza Italia: “Jim Leyland
-- Quality and consistency. Not flashy. What you see is what you get… a winner.”
2128 Murray Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15217
2112 Murray Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15217
As Patrick and I were planning for our grand pizza adventure, we had a very difficult time selecting the restaurants we would visit. From the beginning, though, Mineo's and Aiello's in Squirrel Hill were on our list. You can't talk about pizza in Pittsburgh without mentioning these two spots, and you can't discuss one without the other.
The shops have been battling for the local pizza crown for more than 30 years. Mineo's has been around since 1958, and Aiello's opened in a neighboring store in the late 70s after Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Aiello left the pizza place where he was working to start his own restaurant. Mind you, Patrick and I knew our opinions wouldn't really matter. Ultimately, the important thing about our tour was the journey and not the outcome. Besides, when people feel as strongly about something as they do about pizza, minds cannot be changed.
Still, as expected, I started getting the inevitable question after our tour: “Which is better? Mineo's or Aiello's?” So I'm going to give the answer I gave Pat immediately following the Murray Avenue leg of our trip. Personally, Aiello's wins this battle, no questions asked. Mineo's has good pizza, absolutely, so please don't start throwing eggs at my house. When it comes to my individual preference, though, I have to give the edge to Aiello's. The crust is lighter, the sauce was more flavorful and the cheese was less greasy.
By the way, when you visit Aiello's, don't accidentally call them Mineo's like I did. I nearly found out what it's like to eat their pizza without teeth.
Check out Pop City's 2009 feature on Mineo's and Aiello's
for more about the two Pittsburgh pizza institutions.
@bstephenson 7:06 PM: “Pat's car smells like pizza and sadness.”
Patrick’s mustache ratings for Mineo’s and Aiello’s: “Feelin’ the rivalry thing here. 2Pac for Mineo’s
-- Serving up a legendary classic style to the masses since the beginning. Its fans are so passionate, it could come to blows. There are not many foods more polarizing than pizza. Mineo's is a benchmark for the Pittsburgh pizza scene, and you can’t mention pizza here without someone bringing it up.
Notorious B.I.G. for Aiello’s
-- Didn’t think Biggie had a 'stache? Well he did, and it was subtle and fantastic. Aiello’s broke away, took a good thing and made it their own, and have been Hypnotizing locals ever since. Their fans are intense, as well.”
5996 Penn Circle South
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
Believe it or not, we weren't too disgustingly bloated to enjoy a beer at Dinette, the 11th stop of our tour. I think Patrick and I were reenergized by the home stretch.
We settled in at the moderately upscale East Liberty restaurant's counter and ordered a prosciutto and arugula pizza. Dinette offers an inventive selection of pies, and ours was very fresh with a thin, crispy crust. Patrick really enjoyed the pizza at Dinette, but it was my least favorite thin crust offering of the day. Keep in mind, we tasted some amazing pizzas, so this is certainly not to say that Dinette isn't delicious. In fact, I enjoyed the Dinette leftovers the day after our tour. No, I am not, nor will I ever be, sick of pizza.
My tired brain and full stomach prohibited me from fighting Patrick on the prosciutto selection. Under less gastrointestinally tasking circumstances, I would like to revisit Dinette with a group for a mix-and-match trial of some of their other pizzas. Particularly intriguing to me are the salt-cured anchovy with jalapeños and capers and the dry-cured chorizo with red onion and grilled escarole.
@bstephenson 8:05 PM: “If @barebones1 (Pat) didn't have Siri, I'd be decapitated in a horrific crash right now.”
Patrick’s mustache rating for Dinette: “Prince --
A thin ‘stache for a thin crust? Fans of all music genres love Prince, partially for his ability to constantly reinvent himself (the 'stache remains a constant). Dinette's seasonally changing menu and inventive qualities, like growing fresh ingredients in its S’Liberty rooftop garden, appeal to many types of pizza lovers. These small pizzas can be dazzling and showy but at the end of the day, the quality brings you back.”
50 Freeport Road
Aspinwall, PA 15215
Patrick got to add a personal pick to our list in Pizza Italia, and Mio Pizza in Aspinwall was mine. Formerly Mio Kitchen and Wine Bar on Commercial Avenue, Chef Matthew Porco's Mio is now a nondescript pizza place on Freeport Road near the Original Mattress Factory. What the place lacks in aesthetic, though, it makes up in fresh, delicious food. What else would you expect from Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2010 Chef of the Year?
We ordered the Mio Duo, which features half of the restaurant's red pizza and half of its white. Much like the Patrick-Brad duo, both sides of the Mio Duo are fantastic, but the white pizza is really the star. San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, ricotta cheese, mozzarella, provolone, parmesan cheese and fresh basil come together perfectly on your choice of traditional, whole wheat or Sicilian crust. We opted for the traditional, which is of medium thickness, but I've heard that the thick Sicilian is very good.
Aside from pizza, Mio offers some standard grub -- hoagies, salads, calzones and appetizers -- prepared by the meticulous sensibilities of an executive chef. Patrick enjoyed mocking me when I told him that Mio sells one of the best takeout salads you'll ever find. After all, Pat and I don't really engage in these stomach-busting tours to talk about green stuff. Anyone who's ever had a typically nasty pizza shop salad, though, will appreciate the Mio salad options. Fresh vegetables and delicious combinations make Mio a regular salad stop for my family.
@bstephenson 12:02 PM, the next day: “Hey Patrick, maybe Rick Sebak will do a 'Things that aren't there anymore...' documentary about your colon.”
Patrick’s mustache rating for Mio: “Freddy Mercury
-- A great mix of talent, strength and class. Taking chances and breaking down walls in an effort to redefine pizza and transcend genres. The symphony crowd respects it, and the stadium rock crowd feels it too. Showmanship with substance.”
So that's it. Another travelogue of digestive shame in the books. Patrick and I were once again amazed by the quality of food in Pittsburgh and the passion of those who make it. Many of these pizza places were new to me, most of them were outstanding and all of them were unique.
Where will our stomachs take us next? Drop me a line on Twitter at @bstephenson
or at firstname.lastname@example.org
if you have suggestions.
Main photo at Il Pizzaiolo and last photo at A Pizza Badamo by Tracy Certo; photo of Brookline Boulevard pizza sign by Jennifer Baron; others by Brad Stephenson.