Hold the Cheese: Son of Ghost Pizza

hand-painted sign for former Yolanda's Pizza & Italian Restaurant, Monaca, PA

Yolanda’s, Monaca

The lovely woman approaches, jet black hair up in a tight bun, dressed in a plain green skirt and poofy red peasant blouse. She’s headed straight toward you, carrying an enormous plate of indeterminate pasta, red sauce, and meatballs–let’s just assume the carafe of house chianti is already breathing on the table. Her facial expression is difficult to discern as the detail has been lost to weather and time, but we’re willing to bet that once it concealed a secret, Mona Lisa smile.

brick wall of former hoagie shop painted with "Subs," "Hot Sausage," Meat Ball," "Sandwich," Johnstown, PA

unknown, Johnstown

Yolanda’s Pizza & Italian Restaurant, the source of this faded gastronomical fantasia, appears to still be very much around. It’s even multiplied, with dining rooms both in Beaver Falls and here, the original location, in a converted gas station/car wash on Pennsylvania Ave. in Monaca.

But it sure didn’t look like (the possibly-fictional?[1]) Yolanda was still slinging sauce the summer day a year ago when this interloper was wandering around town, dying for an eggplant parmigiana or meatball volcano big enough to sate a blogger’s schnoz-poking appetite. Instead, there was just an empty lot, a Closed sign in the window, and that faded, peeling mural. Sigh.

Ed’s Pizza House, Jeannette

While Yolanda’s is still serving their traditional Italian chicken pot pie calzones and Polish pizzas–just not when we’re in town–the restaurant’s success doesn’t extend to other regional pizzerias and hoagie houses.

For all the true fans who loved The Orbit‘s 2017 Pi/Pie Day salute to “ghost pizza” and have been waiting a cruel a couple years for more photos of boarded-up Italian restaurants, blinds-drawn dining rooms, and pizza shops vacated long enough ago for their buildings to be condemned, well, here you go.

Happy Labor Day, y’all. Go out and eat a damn pizza before they’re all gone!

Angelo’s Pizza and Hoagie House, Wilkinsburg

DiBacco’s, Weirton, WV

older brick apartment building with former Pizza Prima restaurant in ground floor space, Pittsburgh, PA

Pizza Prima, Oakland

exterior of former Luigi's Pizzeria, Bellevue, PA

“Thanks for 42 great years,” Luigi’s, Bellevue

exterior of former Rosario's Pizzeria, New Kensington, PA

Rosario’s, New Kensington [Note: “X” = building condemned]

empty storefront with sign reading "Italian Restaurant", Monaca, PA

Italian Restaurant, Monaca

sign for closed pizza shop in alley, Etna, PA

Ciocca’s “Italian Maid” (sic.) Pizza, Etna


[1] On yolandaspizza.com, the About section mentions the restaurant was founded by a carpenter named Pete Samovoski. There is no explanation as to who the namesake Yolanda is.

In Search of Special Sauce: A Visit to the Big Mac Museum

statue of Jim Delligatti, inventor of the Big Mac, at the Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

Statue of McDonald’s franchise owner Jim Delligatti with his most famous creation, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon

As inventions go, it pales in importance to, say, the polio vaccine or alternating electric current. Nor is it as fun as the Ferris Wheel, movie theater, baseball stadium, or broadcast radio–all of which Pittsburgh likes to take credit for…if not inventing, at least getting there first.

When it comes to food, we’ll argue the innovation of French fries injected into salads and sandwiches is an altogether superior achievement and Pittsburgh’s many weirdo regional pizza varieties are unique and different enough to warrant their own series on these electronic pages.

Despite all these other advancements to society, it is McDonald’s flagship double-decker hamburger alone that gets a dedicated visitor center. That’s what brought us to The Big Mac Museum.

display model of Big Mac toaster in Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

“Big Mac Toaster used from 1970-1997”

Truth is, the Big Mac wasn’t actually created here. At least not right here in the city–where it appears on numerous famous things from Pittsburgh lists–nor here in the exurb of North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County, where its eponymous museum was constructed along Route 30.

No, the Big Mac’s two paddies, three buns, pickles, cheese, and yes, “special sauce” were first concocted in a North Hills McDonald’s and served to the public some 50 miles south in the small Fayette County city of Uniontown.

display of Big Mac sauce and gun, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

Big Mac sauce and gun

It was there, in 1967, that early franchise owner Jim Delligatti went rogue. In an act of corporate insurrection that would likely get an operator slapped with a brand-violation lawsuit in today’s world, Delligatti took the same basic ingredients–plus a special double-cut bun–and made a bigger hamburger. With that one action, the restauranteur simultaneously created a local sensation, invented super-sizing, and put him on anyone’s short list for induction to the McHall of McFame.

One of many different historical displays, this one featuring video interviews with Jim Delligatti

By the next year, the informative display at the museum tells us, the Big Mac had been introduced nationally with a TV commercial called “Big Attraction.” In that minute-long spot a host guides the viewer through the elaborate layering of the sandwich.

The escalating excitement in the narrator’s voice is truly infectious: we start as passive participants in an emotionless guided tour but are soon sucked-in by the surprise elements of a “club slice,” “another hamburger!” and “a little more sauce, just for good measure.” It’s also worth noting the flavor-enhancer here is referred to as “our own secret sauce.” That sauce would become “special” by some point in the early 1970s.

The Big Mac Museum was opened in 2007 to honor Delligatti’s 50th anniversary as a McDonald’s franchisee and visitors should know that it’s housed in the dining room of a working McDonald’s restaurant–so there may be some challenges getting around to all of the display items at peak dining hours.

In fact, in order to bring our readers the full experience, Orbit photographers had to wait out some chit-chatting customers who were finishing breakfast. The couple was installed at the obvious power-broker table, right in the middle of the restaurant with its custom rounded upholstered seats, sitting under the bronze statue of Delligatti–one hand making the OK gesture, the other holding a Big Mac (photo at top).

Some of the Big Mac packaging through the years, plus one novelty transistor radio

While it’s not The Carnegie or Heinz History Center, The Big Mac Museum offers a lot to see–and, you know, the price is right. There is a bank of historical photos with a timeline of pivotal events in the life of the sandwich, a video installation featuring an interview with Delligatti, photos and a Delligatti family tree, equipment used in the restaurant, an array of packaging through the years, and plenty of novelty items.

Rock the McVote ’86! Various items from the Big Mac Museum.

The Rt. 30 McDonald’s is one of those jumbo versions with an indoor play area for the tykes. This is also where you’ll find the world’s largest Big Mac. The 14-foot sculpture of the signature burger on a decorative stand reads as both over-the-top pop art and weirdly hyper-realistic. It’s also so big that it would look great as a legit out-in-the-elements roadside attraction. For now, though, visitors will need to park the car and come inside to see it.

enormous sculpture of Big Mac, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

This is one BIG Mac. “World’s largest Big Mac” sculpture.

On the one hand, The Big Mac Museum is just classic goofy roadside America–not that far off from World’s Largest Ball of Twine and the like. [In fact, Roadside America (the web site) already beat us to the museum.] Despite me not really giving a hoot about McDonald’s, I found the story of Jim Delligatti, his family’s fast-food empire, and a time when one franchisee could influence change at the corporate level to be really interesting.

On the other, though, there is a lot that could be said about American values when we immortalize a factory-farmed, mass-produced, unhealthy-in-every-way double hamburger–literally putting its tribute on a pedestal–displayed in a soulless highway strip. This, while a lot of Pittsburgh will never forgive Mayor Peduto for adding bicycle lanes. Sigh.

Big Mac Christmas ornament, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

‘Tis the season. Big Mac Christmas ornament.

The inevitable question: is it worth the trip? If you’re already out east, along Rt. 30, and you’ve got an extra 20 minutes, by all means. Also, if you just love either local (recent) history, McDonald’s, or roadside kitsch, yes–you’ll not be disappointed.

For everyone else, maybe we could put the ol’ hive noggin together and dream up an alternative, grass roots and for-the-people yin to the Big Mac Museum’s yang–say, The French Fry Museum, Pierogi Palace, or–be still, my heart–The Western Pennsylvania Pizza Hall of Fame. We’ve got a few nominees for the inaugural class.

highway sign for McDonald's/Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

The McDonald’s/Big Mac Museum sign on Rt. 30, North Huntingdon

Getting there: The Big Mac Museum is on Rt. 30 in North Huntingdon, very close to the PA-Turnpike exit. Look for the big McDonald’s sign and you can’t miss it. Admission is free and the museum is open whenever the restaurant is.


Sources:

The Pizza Chase: Mon Valley Red Top at Anthony’s Italiano

pizza cooked Mon Valley red top style from Anthony's Italiano, Donora, PA

Mon Valley Red Top: an Extraordinary pizza from Anthony’s Italiano in Donora

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.

pizza maker cinching top and bottom layers of a red top pizza

cinching top and bottom layers of a red top pizza

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.

pizza chef pulling cooked pizza from oven

the eponymous Anthony, pulling our red top from the oven

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.

excited customer watches as red top pizza is served from platter

red top: big hit

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.

handmade wooden sign for Anthony's Italiano restaurant in Donora, PA

Anthony’s Italiano: come for the pizza and air conditioning; don’t expect a salad bar.

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.

slice of red top pizza on plate

red on top, gooey in the middle, delicious all over

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.

exterior of Anthony's Italiano, Donora, PA

Anthony’s Italiano on McKean Avenue in Donora since 1977

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.

How did Lent become fish fry season?

fish sandwich on styrofoam plate

Week 3: Fish sandwich bathed in the Italian flag-colored light of the Regina Elena Club, Sharpsburg

The plate is a standard-issue, eight-inch disposable picnic platter. On it is a large sandwich bun flipped open, both sides up. Across this bed of bread and extending way off its edges lies a gigantic piece of codfish, reclining leisurely like the most relaxed den dweller on a chaise lounge.

The filet is coated in a thick layer of Panko breadcrumbs, deep-fried until golden brown, and still-sizzlin’ as it approaches the table with its partner plate of macaroni & cheese. As is customary, there are no vegetable toppings for the sandwich but the supplies of tartar and hot sauce are ample.

Eleven months a year, this blogger stays away from religion, but he gives up atheism for fish fry season or, as the Catholics call it, Lent.

fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski from church fish fry

Fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski, St. Max’s, Homestead (2017)

Catholic? No. But Catholic-curious…sure. Fried cod, mac & cheese, individually-wrapped slices of pineapple upside-down cake or pretzel salad for dessert–a cold beer to go with it if we’re lucky? It’s freakin’ delicious and enough to bring even the most ardent pagan back into the welcoming arms of the church…basement…at supper time.

But isn’t the whole point of the season supposed to be penance and sacrifice? “Having” to eat a giant deep-fried fish filet with a side of haluski or pasta olio once a week hardly constitutes a war effort. If this is The Vatican’s idea of fasting, sign me up for the hunger strike.

front windows decorated for Lenten Fish Fry, Angelo's Pizza, Pittsburgh, PA

Angelo’s Pizza, Bloomfield

So how did we get here? Apparently this all goes back to Pope St. Leo who, in the fifth century, preached that the faithful must “fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the 40 days.” (Again with the 40 days!) Traditionally the fasting ritual was much more severe, allowing only a single evening meal every day of Lent (just like Ramadan), and the rules were much more restrictive disallowing all meats (including fish), eggs, sweets, and “other indulgences.”

In the intervening centuries, the church and congregation have come to a strange compromise with the laity seeming to hold all the cards. The concept of a fast has gone from eating only one penitential meal a day to merely cutting out meat on Friday. [That fish doesn’t count as “meat” is a whole other discussion.] This “sacrifice” just doesn’t seem that painful.

large fried fish dinner on plate

Week 4, part 2: Fish, haluski, and cole slaw: Church of the Assumption, Bellevue

A couple weeks back, this blogger pulled the “Lenten double”–a sort-of Stove Top Stuffing ruse for the fish-obsessed. First, there was an enormous sandwich from Giant Eagle’s seasonal “Fish Frydays” for lunch followed by a full dinner spread at Church of the Assumption. It’s no easy feat–the ridiculously early hours the church suppers keep really requires you shake a leg to pack it all in.

Let me tell you something: I’m going to need a serious weight-loss plan after all the fasting I’ve been doing the last few weeks. Catholics need to come up with a real season of penance and self-denial after the unhinged gluttony of Lent.

hand-made sign for fish fry, Church of the Assumption, Bellevue, PA

Of course, fish fry-hosting churches do a lot of their fundraising during the six Fridays of Lent and we see evidence of Churches consolidating and closing all the time. So in an era when the larger populace would no longer be described as “god-fearing” it’s an understandable economic necessity that churches need to relax some of the old-world doctrine and bring in some pew-filling carbohydrates.

catfish dinner from New Jerusalem Holiness Church, Pittsburgh, PA

Week 2: Even non-Catholics get into it! New Jerusalem Holiness Church, Larimer

Still, to stray so wildly from the original “reason for the season” (to borrow from another highly mutated Christian tradition) seems like a real lost opportunity–both for the church and its congregants. While it’s both bizarre and wonderful for us non-believers to look forward to Lent for its distinct church basement suppers, the tradition of voluntarily giving up something loved (or, at least, appreciated) to learn the value of sacrifice and everyday privilege seems like an extremely valuable exercise.

Maybe next year this blogger will have to give up all those fish fry calories, you know, for Lent.

fish sandwich with mac & cheese

Week 6: Harris Grill, Shadyside*


* The obvious addition of lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle slices would only come from a restaurant offering.

An Orbit Obit: The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern

mural for Frankowski family with people holding giant pierogie, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

It takes a village to raise a pierogi. Frankowski family coat-of-arms.

This one’s personal.

Over at Orbit headquarters, we wailed into the night over the loss of Chiodo’s–it with its dusty, historic underwear hanging from the ceiling and the Mystery Sandwich haunting our dreams. We took it easy with the Casio beats and flared collars of The Casual Approach (R.I.P.) who defied gravity every weekend at Dormont’s Suburban Lounge (also R.I.P.). Letter-writing campaigns begged our congressmen to turn The Chart Room into a national monument and there should have been so many more piano sing-a-longs at Moré. The days of dollar pints and four-bit “lady drafts” at bygone Lawrenceville watering holes like Michalski’s, A.J.’s, and Salak’s feel like ancient history–but it wasn’t actually that long ago.

The loss of these iconic, convivial, rowdy barrelhouses are all just eyewash to the earthquake that music-making/beer-drinking/pierogi-eating/squirt-gun-shooting Pittsburgh felt last week. The “Polish party house in the heart of Little Italy,” has bled the grease from its deep friers, removed the ceramic stein collection, carved wooden stage bear, and pictures of the pope. They’ve powered down the spotty PA system and shooed out the last late-night booze hounds. The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has closed forever.

gated front door for the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Closed forever, sigh.

[Cue: shimmering soft focus and a one-two polka beat.]

The year was 1996–some time in November. Arriving from The South with its still-turning mid-fall leaves and pleasant, temperate climate, Pittsburgh was soaking in several inches of days-old dirty street slush as a steady freezing rain dripped from the unrelenting overcast gray-black sky. Needless to say, this blogger-to-be had found a new home.

By pure chance–we’re talking pre-Internet tourism here–The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern was the very first place he spent a nickel. It was on a Polish Platter, and I’m pretty sure it still cost just $5.95 at the time. Carbs are pretty cheap in The South–but they don’t come with names like golabki and kluski. Although my middle-aged metabolism can’t demolish a plate like it used to, the food was as delicious just a few weeks ago as it was all the way back in the ’90s.

plate of Polish food including pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Oh, how I will miss you. The Polish Platter (“Red”): pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski

For the next, gulp, twenty-one years the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has been the most long-running, consistent presence in this transplant’s Pittsburgh experience. The doctor only prescribes Polish Platters a couple times a year [yes, I know: find a new doctor!] but it’s been rare to go more than a couple months without receiving an audio-visual screening from BBT’s musical stage.

Typically, these are administered by local bands. [Full disclosure: the author is sometimes playing in one of them.] But despite BBT’s tiny size, cramped quarters, and DIY show-running [bands were responsible for collecting at the door, setting up the PA system, and running their own sound], the bar has played host to amazing run of touring players too numerous to list here.

Weird Paul Rock Band performing at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Weird Paul Rock Band at BBT, August, 2017

You think that’d be it, right? It’s a tavern: there’s beer, bar food, and weekend rock-and-roll–what else do you need? Well, you may not need much more, but the BBT plays into a legacy of Pittsburgh culture so deep we may take years–decades, even–to dig out from the loss.

Back in the day, then-city councilman Jim Ferlo held an annual Pittsburgh Marathon party in BBT’s side parking lot, complete with polka bands, a hot dog buffet, and cold beer. A highlight of the event was seeing exhausted runners, just hitting “the wall” at the marathon’s 23-mile point, veer straight off Liberty Avenue and plunge into the soft welcoming foam of a free Iron City Beer. Every local politician made it a point to stop by the BBT’s temporary parking lot stage to dole out cash “prizes” for things like “best dancer” and “cutest puppy”. Across the street, Foodland’s electronic weekly specials sign would be programmed to read the jingoist message Go runners. Beat Kenyans.

mural of Polish towns coats of arms painted on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish towns coats of arms, BBT parking lot

And then there are those murals. Dozens–maybe a hundred–different coats-of-arms of Polish towns you’ve probably never heard of. Crests with identifying names like Głowno, Szczecin, Gryfów Ślaski, and Żywiec ring the inside of BBT’s short concrete parking lot wall and come decorated in all manner of old world imagery–castles, bulls, red stags, and green griffins; kings, knights, mermaids, the sun & plow.

It’s gone now, but an earlier generation will forever associate the exterior of the bar with both the wonderful potted-flower Bloomfield mural/sign and [BBT founder/patriarch] Stan Frankowski’s wall-sized polemics attacking local politicians, anti-union foes, and corporate corruption. After Stan’s passing in 2005, his sons Steve and Karl took over the business. They kept up all the other traditions–including the annual day-after-Easter Dyngus Day party–but toned-down the see-it-from-the-suburbs politics. The updated red-and-white paint job, side screened porch/smoker’s lounge, and Polish falcons still look great.

coats of arms for Rodom and Radlin painted as murals on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Coats-of-arms from Rodom and Radlin

I didn’t make it out to the final night at the BBT–the body just wouldn’t let me. Luckily, Mike Shanley gave us all a pretty good scene report plus a slew of his own reminiscences in this week’s City Paper.

That said, news began to circulate about the (then-future) closing of the bar back in the late winter, so 2017 became a kind-of year-long living goodbye to venue. I played a last show there, saw a (different) last show there, and yes, ate a last Polish Platter. For the piece on his recent book of poetry, we interviewed Scott Silsbe over Strawb ambers in BBT’s breezy side porch on a lovely day in May.

mirrored wall behind the bar and patrons at Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

BBT near the end: bevelled mirror bar, blood red ceiling, and big cats on TV.

As much as I’ll personally miss the place, I don’t fault the Frankowski brothers one bit for the decision to move on. Running a bar has got to be really tough work full of long, late hours dealing with no small amount of jerks, deadbeats, drunkards, and bodily fluids. Hats off to anyone who can put up with all that and still keep smiles on their faces the way Stan, Steve, Karl, and Sheila always did.

The Orbit certainly hopes the Frankowskis find a good new owner for the building and business so they can finally relax on the weekends without the sound of electric guitars ringing in their ears. Hopefully, the next tenants at 4412 Liberty Ave. will understand the legacy and history they’re dealing with–maybe they’ll even keep up the outside murals.

exterior of Bloomfield Bridge Tavern with Polish red and white flag and logo, Pittsburgh, PA

Hallowed ground. Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

A final note. “New” Pittsburgh: if you’re out there listening and planning the next local, organic, hop-infused culinary venture, please–sweet Jesus–consider adding a Polish Platter to the menu. I’m sure I won’t be the only one pining for the taste and willing to pony up every chance I get–at least as much as the doctor allows.

metal window cover painted with message "The worst form of failure is the failure to try.", Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Hold the Cheese: A Pi Day Salute to Ghost Pizza

neon sign reading "IZZA" (the letter "P" is burnt out), Natrona Heights, PA

unknown, Natrona Heights

What’s not to like? Fresh-baked bread–right out of the oven–some kind of sauce, a lake of molten cheese. There are umpteen different things you can throw on top for more flavor–and each one has its defenders and cynics–but these are almost superfluous. Pizza–Hot, Fresh, & Delicious, as if the standard-issue paperboard box needed to remind us of it–is (unofficially) America’s national dish[1].

Pizzerias are a classic formula that’s never needed to be updated–order a single cut for a quick lunch or a whole pie for a group dinner. They get dressed-up in fancy toppings and elaborate food narratives one day, but it still tastes great as greasy street food the next. Pizza places are future-proof: utilitarian as gas stations and lusty as saloons. No one wants Internet pizza.

All that said, not every pizza joint is going to have the long-term endurance of Beto’s or P&M. So on this Pi Day, we celebrate some of the fallen soldiers on pizza’s long campaign to win the hearts, minds, waistlines, and cholesterol counts of America. Buon appetito!

hand-painted sign for Venice Pizza on cinderblock wall, covered in vines, Pittsburgh, PA

Venice Pizza I, Lawrenceville

cinderblock wall with mural for former Venice Pizza & Pasta, Pittsburgh, PA

Venice Pizza II, Lawrenceville[2]

Brick commercial building with green, white, and red storefront, Clairton, PA

unknown[3], Clairton

glass storefront windows painted with the name of DeSalla's Pizza and running pizza delivery man, Pittsburgh, PA

DeSalla’s, Allentown[4]

rear of commercial building with hand-painted sign reading "Astro Pizza", Pittsburgh, PA

Astro Pizza, East Liberty

freestanding brick restaurant with Italian red, green, and white awning and "For Sale" sign, Monongahela, PA

unknown[3], Monongahela

empty glass storefront with the word "Pizza" on glass, Pittsburgh, PA

Potenza Pizza & Pasta, North Oakland

glass storefront window with hand painted image of a bear eating pizza, Pittsburgh, PA

Pizza Bear, DeSalla’s, Allentown


[1] The United States has no official “national dish”. The obvious rivals for this title–hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pie, and the like–could make strong counter-arguments, but this blogger thinks you’re fooling yourself if you buy them.
[2] That’s Amore pizza now occupies this building, but the obvious paint-over of the Venice name still qualifies the original tenant as ghost pizza.
[3] We can’t be sure the storefronts in Clairton and Monongahela were pizzerias, but the tell-tale green/white/red color scheme suggests they were either that or more full-on Italian restaurants.
[4] An Orbit reader from Allentown informs us that “DeSalla’s is not closed!” That may be true, but it sure looked like it the day we were there and they’ve got a prominent For Sale sign in the window, which suggests it won’t be long either way.

The Pizza Chase: P&M Pizza, Arnold

child's head seen over a large pepperoni and olive pizza, P&M Pizza, Arnold, PA

Sunrise over Lake Cheese d’Orange. P&M Pizza, Arnold

American cheese. Have wars been fought for less? Probably. At least…maybe.

As far as we can determine, the story goes like this: The original P&M Pizza goes back to 1947 in Arnold. Owners Lefty and Mooney Martz ran the place for over fifty years before finally selling and retiring in the late 1990s[1]. During that half-century, P&M became a landmark to locals with its unique pizza, distinctive in both crust and cheese blend (we’ll get to these).

At some point during the end of their run, the Martz’ trademark recipe was sold and is now reproduced across the river at Phillippi’s Family Dining and Pizzeria in Natrona Heights. Phillippi’s has rebranded both the pizza style and the restaurant, now calling itself the “Home of the Birdville Pie.”[2] 

In the meantime, P&M was re-opened in the late aughts in the very same 5th Avenue building the Martz’ called home for half a century. The new owners–a pair of Arnold natives–now claim to serve “The Original P&M Pizza” and they clearly want to take back the glory of what they believe is rightfully theirs. P&M’s web site features the crossed-out image of Phillippi’s cartoon pizza-eating chicken aside the text Leave it for the birds! P&M will also accept your (Phillippi’s) “Birdville Pie” coupons.

whole pepperoni and black olive pizza from above, P&M Pizza, Arnold, PA

P&M pizza

Whose pizza is really the most original? We have no idea. Sadly, we never got the chance to have a P&M pie cooked up by the Martzes. The Internet seems, as Internets do, both divided and unreliably-sourced on the topic. Technology-savvy Orbit readers can seek out opinions of each on their own, but suffice to say there are many reviews for both restaurants that include the cliché “you either love it or hate it” as well as the predictable accusations of “NOT the original…”

Regardless of how exact either P&M or Phillippi’s recreates the Martz’ formula, it’s clear they’re both working from a similar set of blueprints. As Zomato user Akvalleyfoodman–a self-proclaimed “expert” who’s “eaten (original P&M’s) thousands and thousands of times” since the mid-60s–says (of P&M), they’re “in the same zip code.”[3]

Coming late to the party, we’re just glad that there are two different establishments carrying the torch for micro-crust ambiguously-cheesed bar pizza located within minutes drive of each other. The Martz’ legacy–however approximate it may be–is alive and well.

child holding nose as a piece of P&M pizza is offered to him

P&M pizza: it’s not for everyone

So how do the two pies stack up? It’s been almost a year since The Orbit checked in at Phillippi’s, so we’re running on pizza fumes here. That said, we can attest that the two pies are very similar–at least, to tastebuds from outside the Alle-Kiski Valley.

Both are built on exceptionally thin crusts. In the previous report, we stated that Phillippi’s is “as wafer-thin as this eater has ever experienced.” Well, that may have been true last year, but P&M’s crust makes Phillippi’s look like deep dish. The crust is so thin that the cornmeal used to keep the dough from sticking to the oven becomes a major factor in the flavor. A pita looks thick by comparison. Heck, a Triscuit would need to get planed down to be this thin. [Carb-conscious dieters take note: P&M is a place you can get the thrill of hot, delicious pizza and barely consume any bread at all.]

The other thing that makes both places seem incomprehensible to all who didn’t grow up in greater New Kensington is the “proprietary cheese blend”. It’s electric orange and obviously contains some high percentage of American “cheese.” Now, we can get all snobby about our fromage, but gosh darnit if it didn’t taste absolutely gooey-great in the combination that P&M cooked up. Just editing the included photos is making this blogger hungry all over again.

one slice of pizza on a paper plate, P&M Pizza, Arnold, PA

Wafer thin and golden orange: a single cut of P&M pizza.

So which pizza gets the Orbit nod–P&M’s “original” vs. Phillippi’s “Birdville Pie”? We don’t want to disparage either establishment and it’s safe to say the two pizzas have a lot more in common than not. It’s also fair that both are definitely “acquired tastes” that you may have had to ingest in the womb to truly love. Curious outsiders: you’ve been warned.

All that said, in our very unscientific experience, The Orbit‘s guests at Phillippi’s declared that while it was an interesting experience, they didn’t really ever need to have another Birdville Pie. I couldn’t talk any of the bunch into trying their cross-river rival for comparison. The same was not true at P&M, where the entire table (O.K. just two adults and one narrowly-converted youth) was ready to go back for more the next day. Advantage: P&M.

front window of P&M Pizza, Inc., Arnold, PA

Check out The Orbit‘s first half on this two-part Pizza Chase story: Phillippi’s, Home of the “Birdville Pie”.


[1] “P&M Pizza in Arnold delivers the classic goods”, 10 April, 2014, TribLive.com,
http://triblive.com/aande/diningout/3761321-74/pizza-mckinley-phil
[2] Phillippi’s Family Restaurant and Pizzeria http://phillippis.com/
[3] Zomato: P&M Pizza House, user reviews https://www.zomato.com/pittsburgh/p-m-pizza-house-arnold/reviews