IL PIZZAIOLI | Dining Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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IL PIZZAIOLI

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There were a dozen people waiting outside Il Pizzaioli on a Wednesday night. The larger part of me likes to see restaurants do well; the smaller part of me frets about how long the wait might be. No worries this night -- we were seated immediately at the remaining free table. I had mistaken people leaving and lingering companionably outside for arriving diners.

Not that the joint wasn't bustling -- diners came and went, a dozen staffers scurried about balancing hot pizza trays, and to receive prime seating on the back-area patio required a short wait. It all contributed to a lively atmosphere in a large, simply decorated room fronted with picture windows trimmed in light-strings and looking out onto Mount Lebanon's main drag. A more secluded setting is the rear courtyard, enclosed in brick walls and sheltered by a red oak.

Hard pressed to choose between salad, pizza and pasta, we opted to order one of each and share it all. Since the warmer weather ideally brings better tomatoes, I started hopefully with the Roma salad ($5.95), which featured tomatoes, fresh herbs, red onions and sweet red and green peppers in a balsamic vinaigrette. I was not disappointed: The tomatoes were as sweet and flavorful as if they'd dropped off the vine onto my plate. I knew they hadn't because someone had thoughtfully cored them all. This was one of the best all-produce "hearty" salads I've had in a while.

We were using the complimentary crusty bread to sop up the leftover salad dressing -- infused with the fresh basil and red onions -- and to carelessly ruin our appetites when our awfully large pizza arrived. (Pizza here is all one size and will certainly feed two, maybe three.) Il Pizzaioli claims they serve a true Neapolitan pizza, which has a thin, pliant crust. The pizza is made in a large brick oven in the restaurant's corner, giving the pizza crust a pleasant smokiness.

Even though the city pools opened this week, formally initiating swimsuit season, I had to have the quattro formaggi pizza ($10.95): One cheese sounded good, but four sounded even better. On our pie, the four cheeses -- mozzarella, fontinella, chevre and Gorgonzola -- had melted together into an über-cheese that was sweet, sharp, dry and moist all at once. In the center of the pizza there was so much cheese, it was as if the soft crust wasn't even there, and one was miraculously negotiating toward one's mouth a thin plane of suspended melted cheese. (If you were ordering to impress, adding red peppers, spinach or some other colorful topping for a buck or two would add some visual contrast. If you're just about the cheese and don't mind its monochromatic nature, add a topping of fresh ricotta -- five cheeses!)

Our pasta was the penne alla vodka ($14.95). The vodka, tomato and cream sauce was smooth and sweet; the penne cooked al dente. The prosciutto, though, had merely been added to the cooked dish almost like a garnish, and was still chilled. The hot pasta and the cool prosciutto were an odd match on the fork. The meat had come in two large pieces, which ultimately provoked a little squabbling at the table over how best to share it, because even cool prosciutto is worth fighting for.

On a warm summer's evening the perfect dolci had to be one of the ripienis: A fruit is hollowed out, appropriately flavored sorbet placed inside, and the whole fruity package refrozen. From peach, bellini orange and lemon, I picked lemon because I'd hoped that it would be the smallest portion, but the folks here are onto a particularly large strain of lemon. The icy solid fruit (which sat rather amusingly in an oversized coffee cup) took a bit of wrangling before its pre-cut lid was freed. A generous portion of lemon was packed inside the sorbet, its pulpy interior very effectively gutted. The sorbet was sweetly tart, and stayed marvelously solid inside its frozen lemon shell.

One final note about hot and cold: I had a superior view of the pizza oven, which disgorged pizza after pizza from its flaming belly (my companion had the window view, where South Hills citizenry paraded this summer's looks). I marveled at how ideal the restaurant's interior temperature was. I was close enough to the oven that I could see the logs burning inside -- yet felt no residual heat from it. Nor did I feel any icy blasts from air conditioning units that must have been countering the oven's heat. My compliments to the HVAC team. * * *

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