Posted by mike | Filed under Reviews
There’s an ongoing battle in the Squirrel Hill pizza scene. Don’t be distracted by the more recent entrants. They all serve up decent pizza, but they’ll never have the fan base of either Mineo’s or their detested stepchild Aiello’s. Both offer completely different pizzas, and both boast a cult of (mutually exclusive) followers. At the risk of starting a flame war, I’ll say right here that my preference goes to Aiello’s. Does that mean I have no respect for Mineo’s? Not at all; it just means that Aiello’s serves up a style of pizza and an adjoining menu that better aligns with my preferences. That’s just the way it is.
($17 for a 14″ 2-topping pizza)
2112 Murray Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15217
Thanks to the Pittsburgh Dining Meetup’s recent “Pizza A..Z” series, I recently had a chance to visit Aiello’s. The pizza series is actually kind of a fun idea, and there’s a good chance I’ll tag along for some of the future outings as well. If anyone reading is interested, they were on “D” at the time of this post, so you still have plenty of jump on board.
First, some history. My understanding of Aiellos’ beginnings credits their existence to an entrepreneurial Mineo’s baker who was largely disappointed by the Mineo’s version of pizza. I gather it wasn’t a very friendly separation, as these days each shop strongly dislikes the other (to say the least). Even on my recent visit with the Dining Meetup, a discussion of “good” pizza destinations in Pittsburgh incited a sneering remark about “those guys” from an Aiello’s employee. Of course, I’ve heard several variations on the story, but the telling above seems to be the most consistent. That said, I’m sure at least one of my readers will chime in to correct me in the comments.
No one promised a stylish decor. The atmosphere at Aiello’s is a far cry from fine dining (or even what’s typically labeled “Casual Dining“). They have a dining area in the back, but that’s purely a place to sit while you eat; nothing more. The key selling point is definitely pizza—not an attractive interior. That’s not to say Aiello’s is dirty, it’s just not the best place to impress your date.
No shortage of opinions. I’ll call the employees over at Aiello’s “fun,” but in a playfully aggressive way. No one behind the counter hesitates to speak their mind and tell you “how it really is.” They must be happy with the work, because the staff seems remarkably consistent—I’ve noticed little-to-no turnover. They’re also incredibly efficient. If you’re dining in, you place an order then head to the back. At some point, they call out your order and you pay on the way out. What impresses me is the complete lack of a paper trail throughout this whole process—that and the fact that it works. Despite the rush of separate checks, they still knew exactly what I had ordered when I stopped up front to pay.
Basic (but good) “pizza place salad.” I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated the relatively high quality of salads to be found at pizza places. Not every pizza place can be counted on, but Aiello’s certainly can be. In addition to their pizza, hoagies, and handful of pasta dishes, Aiello’s offers up a variety of salad options. They’re all prepped before-hand, and you can basically expect a solid portion of iceberg lettuce, but as healthy and simple salads go, Aiellos’ is a pretty good bet. Of course, strict vegetarians won’t be completely satisfied: the pre-prepared dinner salad comes with a few pepperoni slices. Don’t worry, they’re easy to pick off if you’re okay with that. As a wavering veg-head, I split the difference: I ate around most and even chomped down on a few.
Some herbs, some mozzarella, and a good house vinaigrette. My dinner salad (a small, but plenty for one) included the aforementioned iceberg lettuce, thin tomato slices, hot banana pepper, black olives, green pepper, and a few thin slices of pepperoni (4-5). Additionally, a noticeable amount of pizza seasoning comes sprinkled on top to add a nice, full flavor. The tomato slices were just thick enough and seemed to come from a medium-sized Roma. Though all the salads were stored in a fridge beside the counter, I didn’t notice any flavor impact from the cold storage—suggesting they hadn’t been stored there for long. As for the vinaigrette, I have no complaints. It leaned more in the direction of red wine vinegar than my frequent order of balsamic vinaigrette (not a bad thing). Plenty of fresh herbs and just about the right vinegar-oil balance made it a nice salad accouterment.
Think pepperoni roll, only vegetarian. Stepping out on a limb, I ordered something a little different: a “veggie roll.” The rolls have always been on the menu, but I’ve never before stepped away from salad and pizza. I had no idea what to expect but am always willing to take a risk. The result was something similar to a pepperoni roll (a la Mancini’s), though not quite as big. They’re actually pre-made and sitting in a glass case on the counter. Much like a single-slice of pizza, they’re tossed back in the oven upon ordering to melt the cheese. The veggie version included a manageable amount of cheese, canned mushrooms, and what appeared to be a medium-hot pepper. As should be expected from Aiello’s, the crust was light but chewy and just thick enough to hold it’s own: very much Neapolitan-style. The balance was decent, but could have been improved by just a little more filling. That said, the roll is overall a little lighter than it appears thanks to a healthy air pocket from steam coming off the veggies during baking. Overall, you could definitely do worse for an almost-healthy dinner.
Good crust makes good pizza. I’ll admit that I’m skewed by my bread-making background, but I firmly believe that 75% of pizza quality comes from the crust. Throw some basic toppings on a basic but well-made crust, and you’re set. That’s exactly why I’m a fan of Aiello’s. They serve up a classic Neapolitan crust of which I imagine even Peter Rheinhart would approve. I’m a big fan of the pleasingly chewy texture with just enough doughy interior to balance an outer crunch. In the past, I have tried both the basic cheese with red sauce and the far more festive Florentine; both were well-balanced and full of flavor. For the full list of styles, you can check out the full list right on their web site. I find that the balance of cheese to other toppings is quite reasonable: you definitely won’t be finding any grease dripping off your pie.
Grab some dough; bake your own. It’s also worth noting that you can see exactly what Aiellos’ dough is all about by ordering some to go. They’ll gladly sell you the unbaked version to take home and finish off in your own oven. I’ve taken them up on the offer before and been largely happy with the results. Just be forewarned: a good pizza dough is a wet pizza dough. Working with it will take a little practice, especially if you want to avoid extensive unincorporated flour (trust me, avoidance is critical).
Will I be heading back? Of course. Even this trip was by no means my first. When I’m not hunting for something new—or looking to grab a beer, Aiello’s is my primary destination. If you’re in Squirrel Hill and looking for pizza, you owe it to yourself to give them a try.