Pittsburgh Dining » Dining Reviews

Salvatore's Pizza House

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Location: 612 Penn Ave., Wilkinsburg. 412-247-4848
Prices: Large pizza, $5.99-$8.99; salads, $3.79-$6.99; sandwiches, $2.65-$6.99; dinners, $6.49-$14.49
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fare: Italian and much, much more
Atmosphere: Light, bright, and friendly neighborhood hang-out
Liquor: None

There's no easier food craving to satisfy than the craving for pizza. Wherever you are, you're never far from a pizza place; it seems like anyone who's ever so much as eaten a pie considers himself qualified to toss dough and hang out a shingle. Some pizzerias distinguish themselves with fresh ingredients and artisanal crusts, but most are a cheesy, greasy blur of pizza, calzones and hoagies.

Salvatore's may have started that way, 25 years ago; between the name and the menu, the restaurant's Italian origins are clear. Then somewhere along the line, Salvatore's expanded its offerings to include such all-American fare as wings, fries, even surf & turf. But where Salvatore's truly stands apart is in its commitment to something even more rare than good pizza, so unheard-of it is practically oxymoronic: fast food of the finest quality. Actually, unlike true fast-food restaurants, everything at Salvatore's is made fresh when it's ordered. Fresh is the watchword for the ingredients, as well. The chicken is from an all-natural purveyor, Farm Pride Chicken of Wilkinsburg. Boxes of imported Italian pasta are displayed behind the counter, as is the Reinhold's ice-cream insignia and those of other local favorites. Rest assured: What Salvatore's buys is what you would buy.

The restaurant -- recently built new on the site of the original place near the railroad tracks in Wilkinsburg -- is spacious but nondescript, with a long counter for ordering, a few short rows of molded plastic booths, and a small video-game area to keep the kids amused. Copious images of Wilkinsburg in its prime put the otherwise anonymous interior in context by making the walls into history lessons.

The large, full-color takeout menu has dozens of dishes in a score of categories, but even this is insufficient to cover all of Salvatore's offerings. Glossy posters promoting weekly specials augment the regular menu, and the one advertising "torpedoes" and "bullets" -- miniature hoagies on fat little breadsticks for two bucks apiece -- caught our eye. The allure, of course, is sampling a variety. But knowing that greater things were to come, Jason confined himself to just one chicken Parmesan torpedo. The bread was crusty but still soft and chewy, loaded with tender chunks of chicken and plenty of melted cheese. The chunky tomato sauce was sufficient to provide flavor, but applied sparingly enough to remain neatly in the roll.

At a takeout-style joint, we'd normally be wary of seafood beyond the expected fried-fish sandwich. But shellfish, especially, are so prominent on Salvatore's menu that Angelique insisted we try some, and we were glad we did. Our seafood pizza had a balanced mix of shrimp, scallops and langostino, each firm and briny-sweet, generously scattered on the pie so that there were some in every bite. The crust was chewy-crisp beneath a heavy blanket of melted mozzarella and provolone, and a light but garlicky white sauce pulled it all together.

When it came to Salvatore's wings, we were briefly torn between saucy Buffalo and lightly spiced fried. The latter won the day, and four complete wings arrived, lined up like soldiers, brown skins tinged with spicy red. The meat was tender and juicy, the skin was crisp, and the spice level was just right, providing some kick without stomping on our tongues.

One of the benefits of a picture menu is getting a visual preview of the food, and it was the image of fries, covered in cheese and topped with strip bacon, that swayed us toward that version of potatoes over oven-roasted or fresh-cut chips. Once again, Salvatore's executed a straightforward presentation with skill and admirable attention to detail. The fries -- crisp on the outside, soft on the inside -- were resilient vehicles for the melted mix of provolone, cheddar and mozzarella, a tasty blend which combined sharpness with stringy gooiness. The bacon was cooked just shy of crispy and cut into inch-long strips, the perfect size to stack on a mouthful of fries.

With each item we ordered from Salvatore's long and varied menu, we grew more confident in the restaurant's ability to pull off anything it attempted, from fried potatoes to crab-stuffed shrimp. For those who have renounced their citizenship in the fast-food nation, Salvatore's is a neighborhood pizza place and more that is worth pausing to enjoy.

Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars

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