Location: “Retail Store,” 3033 Banksville Road, 412-344-3090; “Factory Store,” 3025 Banksville Road, 412-344-3420.
Hours: Retail Store, Mon.-Sat. 6:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Factory Store, Mon.-Thu. 3:30-9:00 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 3:30-11 p.m.
Fare: Pizza, panini and gelato.
Atmosphere: Sidewalk café without the sidewalk
Smoking: None Permitted
If you’re a history buff who likes to eat (and if you’re any other kind, we’re not sure we have much to say to you), be glad you’re in Pittsburgh. We haven’t exactly done a per-capita statistical analysis, but let’s just say our number of venues for dining in old churches, old train stations, even old firehouses, is impressive. But what of our famously gritty industrial past? Dining in an old steel mill could be a little on the airy side, but pizza in a former coal mine -- now that sounds cozy.
And, at Azzeria (formerly My Brick Oven), it is. Instead of the 48-inch-high Pittsburgh Seam, owners Gary Matson and Mike Hren mine the appetites of hungry commuters as they motor to and from Downtown, with locations on both sides of busy Banksville Road. The northbound location, or “Retail Store,” specializes in breakfast panini during the morning rush, while the one across the street picks up where that leaves off with oven-fired pizza in the evening. The latter location, known as the “Factory Store,” has repurposed some of the working bits of an old coal company, complete with the wood-fired oven in a low, brick-vaulted space a few steps below street level. There are even a couple of stools at a counter where you can watch, mesmerized, as the leaping flames do their work.
Then it’s up a steep, narrow stair carved into the edge of that vault, finally to emerge into a bright, casual, colorful space filled with tables, club chairs and another counter, this one overlooking the gelato case, mesmerizing in a different but equally compelling way. (Note to selves: Return in warmer weather, when seating options include a large patio beneath the hillside that held the long-gone coal.)
Wherever you sit, you’ll have plenty of time to chat or contemplate the surroundings, because the menu takes about one whole minute to absorb: there’s pizza (one size), with a choice of four sauces and traditional or wood-fired toppings; four panini, also featuring fillings from the oven; spice-rubbed wings roasted, of course, in the oven; and salads topped from the oven. If it isn’t obvious by now, it’s all about the oven.
And what an oven. It, and the artisans who tended it, provided us with nothing but excellent dishes, beginning with the pizza. It was substantial, not the paper-thin Neapolitan style that has become the vogue, with an extra-crispy crust that was airy on the inside and would have been a pleasure to eat without any toppings at all.
We can’t actually recommend that approach, however, because to miss out on Azzeria’s toppings would be a crying shame. Angelique selected her favorite pasta sauce -- tomato with vodka and cream -- plus big chunks of fire-roasted peppers and bunches of wilted spinach. The cream cut the astringency of the tomatoes, resulting in a mild sauce whose flavor was almost as rich as the blend of cheeses it accompanied. Though the pizza was heavy with toppings, the crust held up.
The panini built on these strengths by actually using pizza crust, blind-baked (no toppings) and split open, instead of the pressed, toasted bread of traditional panini. As a sandwich foundation, this crust is light, crunchy and loosely filled with generous helpings of meat and vegetables. One minor detraction, in Jason’s opinion, was that the oven-fired peppers -- both sweet and hot --- and onions were closer to raw than to roasted, providing perhaps a bit too much independent character. But the crumbly sausage was just spicy enough, and the cheese that held things together provided flavor and texture without drowning the other ingredients.
The wings were, of course, oven-fired, not deep-fried. Rubbed with spices and a smattering of Italian herbs, the skin became charred, although not perfectly crisp, and the meat within was rich and flavorful -- far superior to the standard-issue bar item. Best of all, the roasted character of the chicken rounds out a dinner of pizza, making it seem a lot more like a full meal.
Not many of us toil away in the mines or before the heat of an open hearth. Fortunately for us, the good people at Azzeria do it on our behalf, and our reward at the end of a hard day is everyday food transformed into something truly marvelous.