The Pizza Chase: Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe Ain’t Monessen Around

exterior of Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe, Monessen, PA

Pizza heaven, right here on earth. Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe, Monessen.

It is entirely fitting that one must ascend a steep hillside to get here because this pizza comes not of the earth, but from the heavens.

Pardon me if we exercise a little culinary melodrama, but this deserves it. Biting into a fresh slice is to be transported, 30,000 feet straight up into the sky, where one glides on—and dines of—pure ether. How can this most common of meals manage the paradox of being both hearty and weightless, brutally crude and expertly crafted, simple and transformative? Yeah, it’s a lot to consider, but … we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

man holding open box of pizza with smoke stack and steel mill behind him

Pizza: Monessen style. Paul with full “tray” of Nuzzaci’s pizza.

The word sponge doesn’t cannote great faith in the food it describes. Sure, sponge cake has its proponents and there’s injera, the sourdough-risen flatbread, often described as “spongy,” that you’ll find in Ethiopian cuisine. Maybe we can count marshmallows as little gooey sponges—but that’s really about it.

That the product of Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe is most frequently described as “sponge pizza” may be understandable, but it’s unimaginative and does a disservice to this extraordinary, pillowy, thick, cake-like pizza.

No, the experience of eating Nuzzaci’s, fresh from the oven, lifted, airy, and—sorry: it’s the only word for it—moist, is like biting into a cloud…with melted cheese on top. It’s as if the very atmosphere has morphed into warm dough, crowned with a thin halo of red sauce. It is absolutely divine.

J.T. Sassak, third-generation owner of Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe

J.T. Sassak, third-generation owner/pizza maker of Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe.

J.T. Sassak is the third generation to operate the tiny pizzeria from its only ever location in the basement of the family’s large, wood frame house on Knox Avenue in Monessen. In 2010, the Trib did a pretty complete rundown on the Nuzzaci-Sassak family lineage, going back to J.T.’s grandmother Cosamina Nuzzaci opening the shop in 1952, so we’ll not repeat all that here.

We will mention, though, that Sassak mixes all his dough by hand and J.T. has the Popeye-style forearm muscles to prove it. There was just no way to get a commercial dough-mixer down the little basement stairs and around the various corner-turns necessary to make automated dough kneading happen. So the pizza crust is still prepared exactly as is was by Cosamina, according to her hand-written in Italian recipe on a brown paper bag.

basement window with neon "PIZZA" sign

Basement kitchen, penthouse pizza.

You hear the phrase if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it plenty, but Nuzzaci’s makes the old cliché a mission statement. This is pizza simple: there is only one product that may be purchased at the restaurant, either by the slice or as a 15-cut “tray.” There are exactly seven options for toppings—inserted under the mozzarella—plus “double cheese.” There are no drinks, sides, bread sticks, chicken wings, salads, or dessert. All purchases are made in cash. Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe has no dining room.

A full tray of pizza with one (split) topping provided the basis for five meals and cost twelve dollars and seventy-five cents.

three rectangular slices of pizza on a white plate

Pizza simple. Three slices of Nuzzaci’s back home.

Here’s the heartbreaker: J.T. Sassak is 67 years old (“born the same year the shop opened”) and not only is there no apprentice learning the ropes, there’s no one in the family remotely interested in taking over operation of the small-town pizzeria.

Selling the business is out of the question, J.T. says, as the grandfathered-in commercial license on (otherwise residential) Knox Ave. would likely not transfer to a new owner and moving the location “wouldn’t be the same.” J.T. says he’s got around five more years left in the business and “then we’ll see.” At some point in the not-too-distant future, Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe will likely close up forever.

If you love great pizza—unique pizza, special pizza—I’m imploring you: make the trip out to Monessen for what may be one of the most heavenly culinary experiences of your life. It’s worth it.

man holding pizza slice to his mouth outdoors

Ghost sign; real pizza. Completely unstaged photo of Paul about to devour a slice of Nuzzaci’s he describes as “like fluffy pizza clouds.”

A couple things to know if you’re going:

  • Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe is located at 483 Knox Ave., Monessen. It takes most of an hour to drive there from Pittsburgh.
  • The shoppe is closed on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday; open 11 AM to 7:30 PM the other days.
  • This is important: while Nuzzaci is open for pickup until the early evening, J.T. may have already sold out all the day’s dough way before then.  Call ahead to 724-684-4814 to make sure you get your order in.
  • As mentioned, there is no dining room, so all orders are pick-up/take-out only. If you’re coming from Pittsburgh, you may want to consider bringing some drinks, planning a place to eat, etc.

The Pizza Chase is an occasional series where we document regional pizzerias that do something fundamentally different or extraordinary with ol’ cheesy.

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.

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.

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

The Pizza Chase: Phillippi’s, Home of the “Birdville Pie”

one slice pizza on paper plate with table setting

You could even say it glows: one cut of “Birdville Pie” (only slight color exaggeration)

American cheese, it is said, is neither American, nor cheese. Some would also have us believe that this most maligned of processed foods has no place on that other great American culinary institution, the pizza pie. Those folks, however, don’t live in Birdville, and they don’t get their pizza at Phillippi’s.

excited diners look with anticipation of their "Birdville Pie"

Excited diners can’t wait to dig in to their “Birdville Pie”

We don’t actually know for sure what that gooey stuff is on top of the Birdville Pie–Phillippi’s is famously tight-lipped about the “special blend of Birdville cheeses” they use. But between the radioactive aura it gives off and the weird molar-coating mouth feel, it’s pretty obvious that American cheese is the dominant sibling of this particular nuclear family.

The pizza at Phillippi’s has one other major distinguishing factor. The crust is as wafer-thin as this eater has ever experienced. It puts the pie clearly in the camp of a meal that eats like a snack, or an appetizer, or, as one of our party derisively put it, “like a Lunchable.” Not that anyone left hungry, it just had the overall feeling of one big (processed) cheese and cracker.

exterior of Phillippi's Family Dining and Pizzeria, Natrona Heights, PA

Phillippi’s Family Dining and Pizzeria, Home of the “Birdville Pie”, Natrona Heights

To call eating a Birdville Pie pleasurable is a stretch. The pizza is an acquired taste of the highest (or lowest) degree, but it’s clear the locals love it. The restaurant’s tag line “Home of the Birdville Pie” is printed proudly across the front awning, on every menu, and the masthead to the web site. The Birdville Pie and its sister White Birdville Pie (no sauce, but the same great cheese blend) (come to think of it, wouldn’t that make this an “orange pizza”?) (ah, heck, go with it–we’re in Birdville!) appear at the top of the restaurant’s short pizza list. We can attest that every group around us in the filled dining room was enjoying at least one the famous pizzas at their table. [Explanations for why the uninitiated baby at the next table kept screaming are pure conjecture.]

Phillippi's "Birdville Pie" with banana peppers and bacon

Phillippi’s “Birdville Pie” (here with banana peppers and bacon)

Someone at Phillippi’s really cares about local history. The walls of the Dining room are covered with great black and white photographs of Natrona Heights through the years. The restaurant’s web site has an extensive history–not of Phillippi’s (which is only mentioned in passing) or its namesake pizza pie (ditto)–but of Birdville, Pennsylvania.

This time-is-money blogger will admit he didn’t read the whole thing, (to give you a sense of scale, there are forty-two footnotes) but we can tell you it goes from Frenchman Rene Robert Cavalier de la Salle fording the Allegheny River in 1670 to Rachel Carson and Silent Spring in 1962, and just about everything along the way.

The key fact seems to be that one Richard Bird, “a carpenter born in 1851 in Shropshire, England” purchased a big chunk of what is now Natrona Heights/Harrison Township in the late 1800s. Thereafter, though never an official designation, the locals have referred to the area as “Birdville.”

sign for Phillippi's Family Dining and Pizzeria, Natrona Heights, PA

As generally happens with American cheese-related stories, this one is not without controversy. Any discussion of Phillippi’s and their unique pizza recipe would be incomplete without a mention of their cross-river rival and the authenticity of the Birdville Pie. This is something, we can assure you, that is as contested as the house of Romanov. That, however, must wait for another day, when the Orbit staff have had an opportunity to get the other side of this particular tale. As Dee Snider and the gang said so aptly, stay hungry.

[Editor’s note: we did indeed follow up with a visit to Phillippi’s “cross-river rival” in October, 2016. Check it out in The Pizza Chase: P&M Pizza, Arnold]

The Pizza Chase: Sir Pizza

Sir Pizza storefront sign

Ross Township Camelot: Sir Pizza

“Good day, m’lord! What doth though requireth for thy after-noon repast?”

“Knave: bring forth your lordship a pair of this establishment’s esteemed ten-inch pizzas–and may they resemble the handicraft of the time-honored artisans at Totino’s in all possible ways!”

“Very good, sir! How wouldst thou prefereth to decorate thine pies and enliven thy spirit?”

“Adorn the lady’s with olives black and your finest banana peppers.”

“Of course. And for thou, sir? What extraordinary combination suits sire today?”

“Allow me to bloweth thy mind with coating true, twixt sausage and multi-colored peppers.”

“Such an extraordinary request your humble servant has never encountered! Raise the flag and open the hearth! An order from the king!”

O.K. Ordering at Sir Pizza wasn’t quite like that, but I think it’s fair to say we were treated like some demi-royalty.

Last month, when we introduced The Pizza Chase with Beto’s Pizza we made it clear we were looking for pizzerias that did things in some fundamentally different (though, not necessarily better) way. The people spoke, The Orbit followed-through, and below are our questions (if not yours) on Sir Pizza answered (and not) to the best of our ability.

Sir Pizza 10" pizza with black olives and banana peppers

Is Sir Pizza a chain?

Yes…wait: no…maybe? The Orbit‘s crack research team spent no small amount of time attempting to answer this seemingly-simple question and came to no definitive conclusion. As far as we can tell, Sir Pizza started in 1957 in Indiana as Pizza King and operated as a chain up through at least the early 1990s. From there it gets hazy.

Sir Pizza-Pittsburgh has three locations–all in the North Hills. We visited the “original,” started in 1975 in Ross Township. But a search for Sir Pizza reveals other similar shires scattered around the eastern half of the United States–two in Michigan, five in South Florida, some South Carolina chapters, an outpost each in Kentucky and Tennessee, etc.

There seems to be no central dominion to which the individual restaurants pay tribute. The marionettes appear to have cut their own strings, leaving independent fiefdoms that may or may not resemble each other, but certainly don’t acknowledge any connection publicly.

Sir Pizza crest logo

The royal crest of the Kingdom of Sir Pizza

What’s with the whole ‘Sir’ thing? Is this medieval pizza?

Another interesting ponderable with no clear answer. Sir Pizza’s commitment to the whole lords in sauce/knights of the round pie pan thing is shaky at best. There’s the calligraphic “Sir” in the signage, the crest/shield logo, and a smiling cartoony knight tipping his armored visor on the menu, but other than that you’d swear you were back in any old suburban pizza parlor in a squat New World strip mall. Black and white photos of “la familia” take up one wall and nods to various local sports teams are positioned around the dining areas. On decor alone, it could as easily be Italian Wedding Pizza, or High School Football Pizza.

close-up of Sir Pizza sausage and pepper pizza crust

“Good to the very edge”

The pizza

The only previous time this hungry blogger experienced Sir Pizza was years ago as payment for helping to move a giant 1970s-era recording console from Turtle Creek to the North Hills. “I almost died and you’re paying me with Totino’s?”, I asked. I don’t even remember if I got a beer out of the deal. [Bill: you (might) owe me a beer!] In retrospect, that assessment is a little harsh–but just a little.

The pizza is on a thin, cracker-like crust with a reasonable layer of cheese and toppings. Sir Pizza claims they use special smoked provolone instead of mozzarella, but these layman’s tastebuds couldn’t discern the difference. The meat toppings, as well as the peppers and onions, were minced into tiny morsels, which again gave it that joie de congélateur allée. The pizzas are cooked and served on cardboard discs.

Sir Pizza uses the tag line “Good to the very edge” which is a nod to the practice of running the sauce, cheese, and toppings all the way out to (and over) the pizza’s perimeter. It’s a nice gimmick, but I couldn’t help but think it’s really a mask for a completely uninteresting flat crust that wouldn’t survive on its own.

Our Pittsburgh-born Wisconsin-based correspondent Murphy informed us that all of these qualities–the cracker crust, the minced toppings, the hidden edge–are all hallmarks of a more general “midwestern pizza”.

The other great midwesterness of Sir Pizza’s product is the curious way the pie is cut. Instead of the familiar wedge-shaped diametric slices one expects, the pizza is cut on a loose grid: two cuts in one direction, three the other. But because the pizza is round, this makes every cut an awkward non-standard size. Murphy lays down the pitfalls pretty clearly:

Also and very important is the way they slice it, in little squares called “party style” though it doesn’t sound like a party to me when you have nothing solid to grab onto (like, you know, a CRUST). I would like to further note that using non-triangular cuts means that some people might get stuck with a dinky little side piece and others get a weird gloopy middle piece rather than beautifully uniform, foldable triangles.

Ouch! Ain’t no law like Murphy’s. Just like we said back in our report on Beto’s, when you bake a fresh pizza, even when it’s bad, it’s still good. That basic fact holds true at Sir Pizza. The legion of devoted “Sir-heads” who line up for the trademark pie and defend it with the zeal of South Hills’ “Betonauts” will disagree, but we’re glad they love their local(-ish) pie. The Orbit remains perplexed, but still curious. Mangia!

half-eaten Sir Pizza 10" pizza with sausage and peppers

Sir Pizza’s “party style” cuts