Cutting-edge innovation with a true embrace of tradition. That’s our city’s reputation in the worlds of technology, medicine, education and fine dining — and, these days, pizza.

Ask the lovers of Pittsburgh institutions like Mineo’s, Fiori’s, Aiello’s, Vincent’s Pizza Park, Pasquarelli’s and Luciano’s, and they’ll tell you — their fans quickly turn into warring tribes when asked which is better. Classic pies are alive and well. But just as the craft beer revolution made us rethink beer, pizza is having a moment of its own.

“Pizza, like Pittsburgh, is constantly evolving,” says Pittsburgh pizza maker Daniel Cardone, who trained to become a certified pizzaiolo — that’s pizza maker — in Naples, Italy. “I think it’s great that we are not boxed in, not branded, nor labeled as a deep-dish pizza town or a thin slice pepperoni town.”

Local chefs are mixing different flours and toying with the fermentation process. “There’s a curiosity, a passion you can really see with a lot of the new pizza makers,” says Anthony Giaramita, chef-owner of Pizza Taglio. “You’ve got this group of makers exploring different cooking styles and exchanging new ideas with each other.”

Getting hungry? Here’s a taste of what four of these rule-breaking makers are offering:

Justin Vetter (L) and Neil Blazin (R) of Driftwood Oven. Photo by Tom O'Connor.
Justin Vetter (L) and Neil Blazin (R) of Driftwood Oven. Photo by Tom O’Connor.
Justin Vetter (L) and Neil Blazin (R) of Driftwood Oven. Photo by Tom O’Connor.

Driftwood Oven and the rise of sourdough:

Neil Blazin and Justin Vetter, the team behind Driftwood Oven, hope to open their new restaurant at 3615 Butler St. this spring. After two years making pizzas in a mobile wood-fired oven with regular appearances at Grist House in Millville and Roundabout in Lawrenceville, “we’ve earned our walls,” says Vetter.

Running a mobile operation, they were often tested by harsh weather and inconsistencies. But diners put their money where their mouth is: Earlier this month, Driftwood’s Kickstarter campaign hit its goal of $28,500 in just two days.

The timing was right: When the Lawrenceville location became available, they were ready to build on lessons learned and expand their menu. “It’s a golden opportunity,” says Vetter, “but if it would have presented itself to us two years ago, we wouldn’t have been ready.”

Driftwood’s tangy sourdough pies are made using naturally leavened dough from organic flour, with locally sourced grains when possible. “There’s a lot of craftsmanship that goes along with sourdough — it’s alive and changes with the weather. You have to tend to it,” says Blazin, who got serious about baking in 2012.

At the new location, they’ll make Sicilian pies in a deck oven. That transition from wood-fired was made partly because of permits, but it allows a welcome versatility. Instead of one very hot oven, they’ll be able to control temperature. So along with the square red and white pizzas from their mobile menu, look for calzones, sandwiches and fresh bread, plus round pies and a square “grandma” pie, whole or by the slice.

The Pig Face (L) and the Bob Malnati (R) at Pizza Taglio. Photos by Pizza Taglio.
Two pies from Pizza Taglio: The Pig Face made with guanciale (L) and the Bob Malnati made with smoked mozzarella and Calabrian chilis (R). Photos by Pizza Taglio.

Pizza Taglio and the new Neapolitan:

It’s been two years since chef Anthony Giaramita made what he calls a happy transition from attorney to pizza maker. Radical as it seemed, though, opening Pizza Taglio in East Liberty was a return to his roots. His dad, Joe Giaramita, opened the Mt. Washington restaurant, La Tavola Italiana (originally Josephine’s Pizza) in 1965.

Along with a Rome-inspired round pizza with a super-thin, almost cracker-like crust, Pizza Taglio strays from the rules with their “neo-Neapolitan.” This pie is all about a robust crust and range of toppings that goes beyond the expected pepperoni.

Giaramita and his team are always sourcing new produce for toppings. “In the summer, we’re getting more farmers, even small farmers that we’re buying tomatoes, basil and zucchini from and it’s a lot easier than it was two years ago.” he says. “We’re going to be working with Churchview Farm and we also have Farmer John, a lovely retired guy who grows beautiful, beautiful heirloom tomatoes.”

Perfecting his dough recipe is also a year-round obsession: “It can be maddening,” he says, “but it’s also a lot of fun,” says Giaramita. In a moment of purely Pittsburgh collaboration, he recently switched to an organic flour recommended by the Driftwood Oven guys. “We help each other out,” says Giaramita, “and I think we push each other, too. Plus, we’re all having fun.”

Both styles of pizza are made with very wet dough that combines organic flour and a “pasta madre,” or natural yeast. After a two- to four-day cold fermentation process, the pizzas are cooked in an Italian-made, wood-fired oven. The three-minute cooking time produces a crust that’s fluffy on the inside with a crispy caramelization around the edges.

Even his dad is impressed … so far. When Pizza Taglio recently celebrated its two-year anniversary, Giaramita’s father said, “That’s great. Now add 50 and you’ll come to where I am.”

The White Pie at Iron Born. Photo by Jason Waltenbaugh.
The White Pie at Iron Born. Photo by Jason Waltenbaugh.

Using Detroit’s pans to make some of Pittsburgh’s hottest pies

Pete Tolman is a patient man. He uses a two-day fermentation process to create a flavorful, cloud-like dough. He’s also hacked one aspect of Detroit-style pizza to please hungry diners at Iron Born, which opened in the Smallman Galley last summer. The original steel pans used in this style of pizza were repurposed trays that had held small parts on an assembly line. Today, modern steel pans like the ones used at Iron Born still give the pies the same unique caramelized edge, leaving people fighting for the corner pieces.

Taking things a step further, some Iron Born pizzas (including the popular Detroit Red Top) are also constructed differently than traditional pizzas: They use a reverse-layering process where ingredients are baked into the crust with the sauce poured on top.

If steel pan pizza sounds appealing, there’s more: Michigan & Trumbull added another Detroit-style pizza option when they opened in the Federal Galley two months ago. Detroit natives Nate Peck and Kristin Calverley named their venture after the cross streets where the original Detroit Tigers stadium once stood. Chef Nate uses a French poolish method as a dough starter to get the cake-like texture for the crust.

Much like Iron Born, they use a longer fermentation process for the dough, baking pies using the same square metal pans with a few traditional touches from their days growing up in Michigan: Stanislaus plum tomatoes, small “cupping” pepperoni and whole milk mozzarella.

Know of a local pizza maker upping their game? Let us know in the comments!

Tom O'Connor

Tom O'Connor is a photographer and writer currently based in Pittsburgh.