So now we know what you, dear readers, love in a local Italian restaurant: classic recipes, big portions and a relaxed feel. In other words, you love Del's, the anchor of Bloomfield, "Pittsburgh's Little Italy." Your foodie friends might get more excited about self-consciously regional places, or Italian-Asian fusion (or whatever). But for you, the People, Del's embodies the Italian food that is our second national cuisine. Next to burgers and apple pie, nothing's more All-American than spaghetti and meatballs.
Which isn't to say that 1950s-vintage food is all Del's has to offer. The menu is in two parts, labeled "Tradizionale," focusing on recipes dating to Benny and Mary DelPizzo's 1920s Meadow Grill, and "Ristorante," featuring more contemporary offerings such as crab cake with remoulade.
With all due respect to the kitchen's commendable desire for modernity, I ordered stuffed shells with a meatball. The shells are cheesy, the dark red sauce smooth, and the meatball so tender that it seems almost creamy, but with a savory crust from frying. Just like Mama used to make, if your mama was named DelPizzo. Before my pasta, I had a less-traditional chicken corn chowder -- wedding soup is available only on weekends -- and it was superb. With a big chunk of baked potato floating in the middle, it was a well-balanced soup, not too thick, with corn flavor dominating tender chunks of chicken.
Cheesecake was New York style, thick, dense and creamy. The restaurant's third-generation owner, Marianne DelPizzo, admitted it was from a purveyor, but with a shrug added, "You can't get such good quality these days."
Of course, Liberty Avenue has other old-school red-sauce Italian places, to say nothing of their countless peers in Pittsburgh's Little non-Italies. So what makes Del's Bar & Ristorante DelPizzo -- the fuller name it gained after the award-winning renovations of a few years ago -- such a local favorite? Taking a two-minute break from serving 160 St. Bonaventure School kids (including her son) a pre-holiday buffet, DelPizzo has a simple answer. She points to herself, out of breath from rushing from kitchen to dining room and back, and says, "I'm a working employer."
She and her brother, John, are there practically every day, making sure the food is high quality and the service is perfect. Asked whether her kids will become the fourth generation of DelPizzos to serve Italian comfort food, she hesitates and shrugs, like a good mother. "That's up to them, what they want to do. All we can do is show them. We work for them like our parents worked for us."
In New York's Little Italy -- right on Mulberry Street, amid encroaching Chinatown -- is a place called Luna. Movie stars and famous politicians are pictured on the walls, but that's because it's New York City. Close your eyes while there, and you could be in Del's. But when you're at Del's, you don't need to close your eyes -- you're right here in Pittsburgh.