June 29, 2017
Ron Molinaro has been obsessed with pizza most of his adult life. And not just your average slice, but the lightly charred Neapolitan-style pies crafted from a slow-rising dough and baked in a 950-degree brick oven at his Il Pizzaiolo restaurants.
It started when he was about 19 and visiting friends in New York. College wasn’t a great fit for the Whitehall native. But pizza? That was something a young man of Italian heritage could put his heart and soul into.
During that sojourn, he put the city’s reputation for great pizza to the test by eating as many imaginable styles of pizza as possible. When he hit Patsy’s Pizza in Brooklyn, something clicked.
He’d read about the shop’s signature thin-crust pizza months before in an in-flight magazine but had forgotten about it. But with one bite of Patsy’s classic pizza margherita, he discovered his destiny.
Made the Italian way in a coal-fired oven with fresh mozzarella, crushed San Marzano tomatoes and sprigs of basil, it was nothing short of heaven. Mr. Molinaro just knew he had to bring the concept back to Pittsburgh.
Over the next several years, he read everything he could find on pizza and pizza-making, and also he picked the brains of expert pizza makers from across the country. In 1994, he and his father, Ron Sr., built a brick oven in his parents’ backyard in Whitehall. There, next to the swimming pool, he practiced, pie after crispy pie.
It would be two years before he felt he was good enough to open Il Pizzaiolo (translates to pizza maker in Italian) in Mt. Lebanon in September 1996. It’d be a family affair, with his dad becoming the manager after he retired from the postal service in 1997.
In a city accustomed to the thicker crust Pittsburgh-style pies served at Mineo’s, Aiello’s and Fiori’s, there were plenty of naysayers. But Mr. Molinaro knew he was setting a new bar with the neo-Neapolitan pies he made with high-quality ingredients imported from Italy. Plus, he had optimism of youth: He was just 25 when Il Pizzaiolo opened with its giant brick oven crafted in Delaware.
“I never thought for one second I’d fail,” says Mr. Molinaro, now 46.
He wouldn’t really hit his stride until six months later, after a trip to Naples, Italy. “It changed my focus to true Neapolitan pizza,” he says. That’s also when he added his signature pastas to the menu, drawing inspiration from foods his grandmother, mother and aunts made when he was growing up. His mother, Mazie, made the desserts.
From the get go, he says, there were lines out the door. It’s only grown in popularity, with Mr. Molinaro opening three more locations over the decades, along with the “fast-casual” Pizzuvio off Market Square.
“The quality and authenticity speaks for itself,” he says.
Easy to shape because the flour used to make it has less gluten, a Neapolitan-style crust cooks fast and hot — about 90 seconds in a blazing-hot wood-fired oven. But it’s the toppings, says Mr. Molinaro, that truly make the pies special. The buffalo mozzarella is flown direct from Naples every Thursday, and he uses canned plum tomatoes from Italy’s famed San Marzano region. The dry faella pasta, artisanally produced in a town just south of Naples, also is imported, and basil arrives still on the stem, ready to be picked.
Gnocchi, ravioli and tortelloni, conversely, are made every day in house by hand.
The key, he says, is simplicity. “You have to let the ingredients do their thing.”
He’s also a stickler to authenticity. In 2006, he knocked down the original brick oven in Mt. Lebanon so two guys from Naples could build him a new one over the course of a week. And he’s never stopped trying to make his pizzas and pastas better.
“I’m still perfecting it,” he says, sometimes working with his 10-year-old son, Roman, by his side. “I go to sleep reading ragu recipes, and wake up thinking about pizza. It’s not a casual thing. I eat, sleep and breathe it.”