We haven’t even gotten to Halloween, but the yuletide season is in full swing … if you’re in the right place.
A giant red bauble, sparkling in a gleaming silver halo, is cast against a field of deep kelly green. With the holiday season’s most repulsive color scheme thrust upon us–even on this warm, glorious, early autumn afternoon–one can almost hear bells a-jinglin’, cash registers a-beepin’, and maids a-milkin’. You’d expect a lunch this special to be hand-delivered only to The Nice by ol’ Saint Nick himself, rewarding a full year’s-worth of good deeds. The Naughty get a lump of coal … or maybe Papa John’s.
But! Nerves need not be a-tanglin’ nor moods a-swingin’, uncles a-drinkin’, or temperatures a-sinkin’ because Christmas exists this time of year only in the mind of the lucky diner who finds him-, her-, or they-self in that Valhalla of American regional pizza, the mid-Mon Valley.
Why, it is here that Santa’s elves train year round in flour-dusted workshops on knife-scarred cutting boards. Classic rock will have to substitute for caroling and mountains of grated mozzarella are as close as we’ll get to the ice floes of the North Pole–but that’s all just window dressing to the main event.
Mon Valley red top pizza is it’s own thing. We went on and on about the greatness of the double-decker red top at Anthony’s Italiano, so we’ll not bore faithful “red heads” with another recitation of this unique style’s it’s-a-pizza and it’s-a-way-of-life transformative powers. No, we’re here today in Charleroi, at Armando’s Pizza, to once again chase the dragon, fly through the eye of the needle, and capture a moonbeam right in the palm of our collective hand. That’s what you get with a red top.
The pizza is all we could ever want: sustenance and gathering point, sure, but also good friend, consoling advisor, and life of the party. There’s a crusty dough on the edges where it’s been exposed to direct heat and a gloppy center as the red sauce ceiling has inevitably caved-in on the cheese and “toppings” innards.
Red top purists will tell you there are no additions to this pie. It’s pizza simple, they say: dough, cheese, and the eponymous red sauce. Yeah, that’s great if you’re a monk, but when Armando’s is giving away four toppings for an extra dollar-fifty, we’ll take that deal all day long. [Note: Armando’s online menu shows the price difference between the Original Red Top and Red Top Supreme at an absurd 50 CENTS!?!]
Like Anthony’s, the Armando’s in Charleroi isn’t fancy. (The pizzeria also has a sister location across the river in Monessen.) You order from a counter up front and grab a drink from one of many mostly-empty coolers. The dining room appears to have last been updated in the ferns-and-stained-glass 1970s and feels like it’s lived a number of lives since then. At this point, with its dark wood and pendant lighting, one might call the style P.J. O’Pootertoot-retro.
But you’re not at Armando’s to impress a boss, or parents, or your budding Internet romance. No, the hot date here is with a sublime style of pizza pie that one can only find in the towns along the banks of the Monongahela, where Santa decided to center all of his pizza-making divinity … OK, maybe God did that, not Santa–but you get the idea.
We’ll be back again … and again. There are other red tops to try and more of the gospel to spread. Just don’t tell Anthony we cheated on him.
Getting there: Armando’s is located at 583 Fallowfield Ave. in Charleroi and 201 Tyrol Blvd. in Monessen. It takes most of an hour to drive there from Pittsburgh.