Yes, it’s that good. A good enough excuse to prompt the hour-or-so scenic drive down Route 837. Good enough for the inevitable extra miles you’ll need to walk it off when you’re through. Good enough for this food-fancier to say, if you love pizza, you need to try one of these.
Crusty on the knotted edges, gooey in the thick multi-layer center, steaming hot, and managing to exist as both ultimate comfort food and a shock to the senses. It is red top pizza and unless you’ve spent some time in or around the mid-Mon Valley, you’ve probably never had anything like it.
Google “red top pizza” and The Internet is going to point you north and west, to Detroit. That city’s native style is cooked in small rectangular deep-dish pans, super pillowy on the inside, crusty on the edges, and yes, finished with a post-bake ladling of tomato sauce across the top.
Detroit-style pizza must be “having a moment” (forgive me) as two different purveyors specializing in the (not our) regional style have popped up in Pittsburgh in the last year or two: Iron Born and Michigan & Trumbull. I can only attest to the latter, but it is spectacular–if a little precious and pricey.
Mon Valley red top is an entirely different thing. It also appears to be completely off the wider pizza map.
On the one hand, a red top pizza has exactly the same stuff you’ve been eating all your life: risen white flour dough, spicy marinara sauce, grated mozzarella cheese, your choice of standard toppings. On the other, though, the script–and ingredients list–have quite literally flipped. That makes all the difference here.
There are two medium-thin crusts in a red top pizza. Between them, several handfuls of mozzarella cheese. The edges of the two layers are rolled up, curled around, and crimped together to seal the package like a giant ravioli. A hole is poked in the center–presumably so it doesn’t blow up in the oven–and red sauce is ladled out and spread across the domed surface.
In its purest form, the pizza has no additional toppings–Anthony says about half the time people get them this way–but it’s common to add pepperoni, sausage, or whatever you like.
Doubters, whiners, and ye of little imagination will poo-poo the pie as just another pizza–but they’re wrong. We know how the thinking goes: the sauce is on top, the cheese in the middle, there’s a lot of bread–what’s the big deal?
Here’s the big deal: with a red top, the delicate chemistry of the pizza has been inverted–up is down, day is night, and there’s a sauce party on the roof while the cheese is doing the grunt work in the basement.
Pizza is a lot cheaper than therapy, but you’ll leave Anthony’s Italiano both fulfilled in the belly and with a new perspective on existence. The realization that all our lives we’ve been lied to–told the marinara was but a minor flavor element in a melted cheese and risen crust world–may be a metaphorically tough pill to swallow, but it tastes great going down.
With the sauce brought up front and on top it’s allowed to sizzle under the direct heat of the oven, thickening and caramelizing. The cheese at the center of the pie is the exact opposite–a molten core that oozes and massages the overall flavor; it’s felt as much as tasted.
Anthony’s Italiano has been making pizza in Donora since 1977, but you don’t need to have the history to see that Anthony knows what he’s doing. The shop came to our attention from a tip by the guys at the Donora Smog Museum, just-down-the-block. As we said in that piece, the crust on Anthony’s basic pizza (i.e. not the red top) has a ciabatta-like crackle and chewiness that just totally knocked our socks off. Get one of each or come back–and bring your friends this time.
A final note to our readers in the Mon Valley: We are well aware that Anthony’s is not the only pizzeria that offers a red top. There are at least a couple others that make the same style (Marty’s in Donora and Armando’s in Charleroi/Monessen), but definitely let us know if there’s somewhere else we need to check out.
Getting there: Anthony’s Italiano is located at 557 McKean Ave. in Donora. It’s going to take you around an hour to get there from central Pittsburgh; slower if you stop for every roadside cross, loose limo, and objet d’dental artwork like we do.
The Pizza Chase is an occasional series where we document regional pizzerias that do something fundamentally different or extraordinary with ol’ cheesy.