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Split between pizza, pasta add up at Il Pizzaiolo

| Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010

Ron Molinaro has been obsessed with pizza ever since he was old enough to put food in his mouth.

The owner of Mt. Lebanon's Il Pizzaiolo -- pizza maker, in Italian -- is definitely doing what he was meant to do.

"If I could choose anything to do on this earth, it would be to make pizza," says Molinaro, 40, who opened his authentic Italian eatery on Washington Road in 1996. "When I am making pizza, I am completely happy."

Molinaro did not open a restaurant just because he loved pizza. The Whitehall native was always eating and experimenting with pizza when he was young, but it wasn't until he lived in New York City in the early 1990s that he discovered the true Neapolitan-style pizzas.

"They used simple ingredients and fresh mozzarella," he says. "I knew that was the kind of pizza I wanted to make. I studied for six years and then opened Il Pizzaiolo. I went to Naples a year later, and that began the evolutionary process of fine-tuning the pizza."

His mission was to create authentic, Neapolitan pizza using the highest-quality ingredients available and Old World techniques. The dough is mixed with a tiny amount of yeast to allow for a very long, slow rise, which makes for a thin, crisp crust. The gigantic wood-fired pizza oven, handcrafted with parts from Italy and prominently situated in the back corner, bakes the specialty pizzas at 1,000 degrees for 90 seconds.

Although his pizza quickly became known around Pittsburgh, Molinaro decided to add pasta dishes to the menu a few years later. Staying true to his mission, he makes the gnocchi, ravioli, tagliatelle and pappardelle in-house daily, using imported Italian flour. The buffalo mozzarella is flown direct from Naples every Thursday. The dry pasta -- Pasta Setaro -- also is imported from Italy. He gets a lot of items from Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District, and his seafood comes from Samuels & Son in Philadelphia.

"We are a 50/50 split between pizza and pasta," he says. "In March, under the direction of chef Richard Sphatt, we added entrees which include veal, chicken and fresh fish. Our philosophy is to cook simple, authentic Italian food using the finest, freshest ingredients.

"We're not inventing anything, and nothing's fancy," he says. "Until I researched it, I didn't understand about simplicity. That's the secret."

Il Pizzaiolo is charming and rustic, with brushed gold and bronze walls, curved arches, and wooden tables and chairs. Ceiling fans circulate the air in the 48-seat restaurant, which also has seating on the back patio. The wine bar seats an additional 22 patrons.

Three chefs plus a pizza maker churn out as many as 300 dinners a night when it's busy.

Molinaro tries to find people to work in his restaurant who love food as much as he does.

"I don't want someone who just needs a job; I want a person who truly loves food," says the father of two young children. "It is an honor to work with the ingredients and products that we are using, and it's important to have people that can appreciate that."

His menu is a collection of his favorite Italian foods. There are 14 antipasto dishes, including Neapolitan fried rice balls filled with mozzarella; handmade little meatballs with marinara and pecorino romano; mussels with white wine and lemon; and several fresh salads.

The margherita pizza, featuring San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, pecorino romano and fresh basil, is their best-seller, he says. Sixteen specialty pizzas are on the menu, as well as 14 traditional pasta dishes. Entrees include baked eggplant with buffalo mozzarella and parmigiana-reggiano cheese; veal scallopine sauteed in three ways; chicken breast sauteed with sausage, sweet peppers, cherry peppers, potatoes and garlic; fresh Gulf shrimp sauteed in two styles; and fresh salmon sauteed with red onions, clams, mussels, white wine, tomato broth, olives and capers.

When Molinaro goes out to eat, he likes to eat what the chef recommends. He's not shy about his pet peeves when it comes to cooking.

"It drives me nuts when I see fish and cheese together. I think the Italians have it right about not mixing seafood and cheese -- cheese ruins the delicate flavor of seafood," he says. "Every time I see someone put pecorino romano on linguine with clams, I want to leave the restaurant business.

"I also despise overly complicated concoctions that some chefs come up with to dazzle their clientele," he says. "If it's high quality and fresh, leave it alone."

Although he works long hours, Molinaro says he relaxes by cooking at home and spending time with his children, Sofia and Romano.

"I share real food with my kids in an effort to give them some culture, to give them something genuine, something with integrity," Molinaro says. "I want to show them that not everything is processed or instant, and to show them how to create something."

Spaghetti al Filetto di Pomodoro

Chef and owner Ron Molinaro is sharing his popular and delicious spaghetti with tomatoes. He uses only imported Italian tomatoes, which he says are vine-ripened in a tomato-growing climate and taste different from local tomatoes. This dish is perfect in its simplicity, he says, but one could add a good pecorino or parmigiano, if desired.

Molinaro suggests pairing this dish with a Italian wines. If you prefer red wine, he recommends Lacryma Christi Rosso or Aglianico If you prefer white wine, he recommends either Falanghina or Greco di Tufo. These wines can be found at local specialty wine stores.

He recommends trying Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District, or , to purchase imported San Marzano tomatoes, as well as for Pasta Faella, which can be used instead of Pasta Setaro.

• 1 can (28 ounces) imported, peeled San Marzano tomatoes or imported Italian cherry tomatoes from Vesuvius

• Water

• 5 teaspoons salt

• 8 ounces Pasta Setaro spaghetti or linguine

• 3 tablespoons premium olive oil, plus more for serving

• 1 clove garlic

• 1/2 teaspoon Sicilian sea salt

• Fresh basil leaves, to taste

• Pinch of crushed red pepper, optional

Remove just the tomatoes from the can and discard the remaining liquid. If using plum tomatoes (pomodori), slice the tomatoes lengthwise into 1/4-inch strips and discard the stems, seeds and any skin. If using cherry tomatoes (pomodorini), leave them whole. When the tomatoes are prepped, set them aside in a small bowl.

Bring 5 quarts water with 5 teaspoons salt to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 10 minutes until the pasta is al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, add the olive oil and a lightly mashed clove of garlic to a 10-inch skillet and place over medium heat. Saute until the garlic is slightly golden and, using a wooden spoon, press firmly on the garlic to release all of its essential oils. Discard the garlic.

Add the tomatoes, sea salt and basil -- and, if you prefer it a little spicy, the crushed red pepper -- and simmer for about 5 minutes. If you are using the cherry tomatoes, break them up a little while cooking.

The sauce is ready when there is no liquid in the pan. The sauce should not be watery, but certainly should not be dry.

Drain the pasta 1 minute before it's done, and then add the pasta directly into the sauce and finish in the sauce. Plate with fresh basil and a slight drizzle of olive oil.

Makes 2 servings.

Additional Information:

Il Pizzaiolo

Cuisine: Authentic Neapolitan Italian

Hours: Noon-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, noon-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon-9 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range: Pizza, $12-$18; pasta, $16-$23; entrees, $16-$24

Notes: Major credit cards accepted. No reservations and no call-ahead seating. Handicapped accessible. Wine bar with 22 seats, in addition to the 48 seats in the dining room. Seasonal outdoor seating.

Address: 703 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon

Details: 412-344-4123

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