Location: 703 Washington Road, Mount Lebanon. 412-344-4123
Hours: Mon.-Thu. noon-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. noon-11 p.m.; Sun. noon-9 p.m.
Prices: Antipasto $6-14; entrees $14-24
Atmosphere: Bustling neighborhood trattoria
Liquor: Full bar
It used to be that Americans who traveled to Italy were surprised by the "pizza" they found there. By the same token, Italians who came to America must have been perplexed by the gooey, greasy pies sold here. As with so many fine things from other lands, Americans adopted the Italian snack of flatbread with toppings and made it uniquely their own.
But as Americans broadened their enjoyment of ethnic cuisines, they delved deeper into the authentic origins of those dishes with which they were most familiar. As a result, a new breed of Italian restaurant was born, offering dishes more bona fide Italian than Italian-American.
The hallmark of such a restaurant seems to be pizza Margherita. And around Pittsburgh, Il Pizzaiolo was among the first pizzerias in the area to bake up true Margherita-style pies in a wood-fired oven. Since establishing itself on Mount Lebanon's Washington Road, the restaurant has maintained its commitment to excellent pizzas, while also expanding its menu, wine selection and space. What was once a charming specialty restaurant has now become a focal point of Mount Lebanon social life. Young families, teens on dates and older couples head there for sophisticated but unintimidating Italian food in the lively dining room -- and, in good weather, in an almost magically Old-World-seeming outdoor patio.
The menu focuses on traditional Italian food more or less as prepared in Italy, such as arancini, cheese-stuffed rice balls that are then fried and served with marinara. We've had these at one or two other local places, but never so successfully prepared, with tender, moist rice, creamy melted cheese and a crust sufficient to hold it all together without overwhelming the delicacy of the interior. The marinara offers plenty of tomato flavor without becoming an additional vegetable on the plate. It's expertly balanced between acidic and sweet, with distinct undertones of Parmesan cheese.
Served in the same marinara were polpettini, little homemade meatballs. Their finely ground texture belied a hearty beefy flavor, supported by significant contributions from the bready binder and herbs. The result was excellent meatballs that merited their stand-alone presentation.
Insalata Roma showcased mid-summer produce at its peak, featuring vine-ripened tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cucumber, red onion, fresh basil and coarsely shaved Parmesan cheese in a light balsamic vinaigrette. There was not a false note in this well-balanced, robustly flavored salad, and it was large enough to pass around for sharing, or to serve as a light repast for one.
Now we were ready for pizza. Il Pizzaiolo's crusts are wafer-thin but not cracker-crisp: Instead, they are more like tender flatbreads (Angelique was reminded of Ethiopian injera) after their 90-second foray in a 1,000-degree oven. Even though the toppings were not too thickly applied, they still seemed to weigh these soft, pliant crusts down at their centers. But toward the edges, where the crust began to predominate, we found more satisfying proportions of bread to topping.
The quattro formaggi featured a sophisticated-tasting blend of fresh mozzarella, asiago, fontina and gorgonzola cheeses. When it came to ordering the requisite Margherita, we had a choice of two: one eponymous, the other labeled "DOC" (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), indicating fidelity to the standards of the Neapolitan Pizza Association, most notably in the use of buffalo mozzarella. We of course tried that one, but we're not sure that we experienced anything distinctive beyond Il Pizzaiolo's other pizzas: fresh, light sauce, that distinctive crust, and, perhaps, a slightly richer flavor in the cheese.
The non-pizza portion of the menu is divided, according to Italian tradition, into pasta and secondi. However, in accordance with American tradition, the pastas are pretty much meal-sized portions. Angelique was excited to try one of her favorites, bucatini all'Amatriciana, with authentic guanciale (smoked pork jowl) in place of its American substitute, bacon. She enjoyed the perfectly al dente bucatini (sort of like hollow spaghetti) and the way the astringency of the tomato sauce was offset by the salty, smoky notes of the pork. But she also found the guanciale's texture -- excessively fatty, at times cartilaginous -- off-putting. The dish could also have used more of one of its signature ingredients, chili pepper, to give the sauce its characteristic piquancy.
Jason's lasagne di carnevale, on the other hand, was what its name suggests: a celebration of meatball, sausage, fresh ricotta, tomato sauce and fresh pasta. In this superb dish, the big flavors of the meat intermingled with the thin sheets of noodle without overpowering them. Like the old-country-style pizza, Italian lasagna is often more restrained and subtle than its American version, but here was one over the top in ingredients, yet sophisticated in both taste and texture.
Second among our secondi was vitello alla Valdostana, ultra-thin veal cutlets in a marsala sauce with prosciutto, fontina and wild mushrooms. It was perhaps inevitable that the mild veal would take a back seat to the strong flavors of its accompaniments, but we didn't expect its flour dredge to threaten it, as well. The dish as a whole was richly flavored without being heavy, but the thin cut of veal itself was surprisingly, well, secondary.
With its signature pizza no longer unique, Il Pizzaiolo has wisely extended itself, and generally with success. Its attractive yet casual atmosphere, combined with the thorough authenticity of its menu, have created a deservedly popular place where an enjoyable meal is a certainty.
- Heather Mull
- Linguine alle Vongole with fresh Manilla clams, cherry tomatoes and garlic in a white-wine sauce