Amongst the many organizations guiding and teaching the production of Neapolitan style pizza the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association is one of the most famous and well regarded. With less than 50 approved locations nationwide and only one in the Midwest region of Michigan/Ohio/West Virginia/Indiana/Pennsylvania I knew that Il Pizzaiolo was a likely visit on our trip to Pittsburgh – the convenience of lunch hours on a Monday made it an absolute must. Arriving around 1:00pm at the small location and scoring yet another free parking space along the street we made our way into the boisterous restaurant and landed the very last open table – the entirety of the restaurant remained full throughout our visit.
Greeted by our server, a friendly college age girl with an ever-present smile, our waters were filled and menus presented while we were left time to decide – time that would be welcome given the large size of the menu and the fact that I would have liked to try at least thirty items. Discussing amongst ourselves while scouring other tables for evidence of portion size we eventually settled on one appetizer, two pastas, and a pizza…we then began the agonizing process of deciding which option sounded best.
Orders finally placed we were next brought the first of two baskets of warm bread. Baked in house the first basket was had only three options while the second arrived with a fourth. With each bread a great example of its particular type the baskets featured a smoky Rustic Italian, buttery Semolina Vienna, amply sour sesame seed crusted Sourdough, and a buttery moist Foccacia. While I rather wish the pairing would have been a nice olive oil as opposed to butter neither were really necessary with all the sauce that required mopping up.
Beginning the meal as the sounds of eager diners bounced around the wonderfully decorated brick and tile interior was a delightful Arancini with creamy arborio rice providing a slightly toothsome contrast to velvety fried Mozzarella. An ample portion for a mere $6 the dish was only enhanced by resting the crispy balls of cheese in a pool of house-made marinara. Remember the comment about the bread – a whole basket was used to dredge the plate clean of the aromatic and slightly acidic sauce.
Appetizers devoured we waited a short time while waiting for our pastas – a somewhat new addition to the formerly all-pizza menu. Selecting two of the eighteen pastas the pair was delivered simultaneously and looking back I still cannot decide which was better. Beginning first with the Paglia E Fieno, a spinach and egg tagliatelle with peas, prosciutto di parma, parmigiano-reggiano, and cream I was stunned by the bouncy texture of the pasta to tooth yet its undeniable melt-in-the-mouth texture upon mastication…al dente done just right. Complimenting the pasta were sweet and snappy peas, a smooth and salty prosciutto, and a pungent parmigiano-reggiano that added texture and pungency. All balanced by a somewhat sweet cream sauce the entire dish was well thought out, well balanced, and divine.
Not to be outdone, Gnocchi Di Ricotta featuring Ricotta Gnocchi, Butter, Sage, and Parmigiana-Reggiano was a dish that would have the three of us fighting for the last dumpling. Simply prepared, as one expects from a rustic dish like gnocchi, the dumplings were undoubtedly the star of the dish – literally melting puddles of potato and ricotta cheese that provided little resistance to tooth, yet enough body to support and absorb the subtly sweet and aromatic sauce. Topped with a quick grating of cheese and cracked black pepper the gnocchi was one of the best I’ve ever tasted – a skilled hand, perfect cooking conditions, and largely un-fussed-with.
Enjoying all the previous efforts so much the “star” of the afternoon was nearly an afterthought – and one heck of an afterthought given that it is where the restaurant made its name. Opting for the Provola with Smoked Mozzarella di bufala, Cherry Tomatoes, Fresh Basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Baby Arugula, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil we watched as the dough emerged from the temperature controlled room, was rolled by hand, topped and was placed inside the stone oven for a mere 90 seconds. Emerging bubbly and charred the pizza was topped with a heap of fresh arugala, drizzled with olive oil and a quick shredding of Parmigiano-Reggiano before being plated and brought to the table. Squeaky and smoky the cheese was a perfect foil for the cornmeal accented and yeasty dough. Crisp and toasted around the circumference of the 13 inche pie and sopping wet at the center each ingredient was pronounced in flavor with the super sweet tomatoes and basil forming the foundation and the bite of the parmigiano and bitterness of the Arugula providing a nice compliment of flavor.
Happy with every aspect of the meal thus far the option for dessert was gluttonous – we were quite full, but necessary. A limited menu of sorbet, gelato, biscotti, tiramisu, and cannoli we opted to order one Cannoli and one slice of Tiramisu and share. Arriving quickly and in ample portion the house made desserts were both presented simply and unadorned. Beginning first with the Tiramisu – a rather standard example with buttery lady fingers, smooth mascarpone, high quality cocoa, ribbons of chocolate, and a hefty shot of rum – it was good, but like many pre-prepared versions it was largely unbalanced with the rum soaking the bottom layer and cream dominating the top. Significantly more impressive was the Cannoli, a crisp and slightly cinnamon accented shell housing a lightly lemon tinged ricotta cream. One end dipped in crushed pistachio, the other in chocolate chips, and sitting atop a bed of hand whipped cream – light, refreshing, and authentic.
Loud without being overwhelming the restaurant runs that fine line of a place like Otto or Mozza – somewhere between fine dining and higher end casual, and it walks the line perfectly. Great service, everything expertly prepared, and prices that fit the quality of the ingredients I was very happy with every aspect of our meal. Honestly, when the pizza, one of the best I’ve ever had was the “worst” savory…that is saying something. Clearly I need to start paying attention to that Verace Pizza Napoletana Association list when I travel.