A recent mini-trend is multi-story restaurants with multiple identities. Of course, basement lounges and upstairs banquet halls are nothing new, but we're talking about fully differentiated ventures, housed together but separately under one roof and master-minded by the same team of restaurateurs. Demand is surely coming from Pittsburghers' ever-growing hunger for a variety of experiences, but on the supply side, we see a macro-trend of ultra-entrepreneurial chefs and owners. The biggest celebrity chefs run empires of dining rooms, often spread across the continent or even around the world; our local kitchen stars can get a slice of that action by building up, not out.
Circolo Woodfired is on the ground floor of the latest triple-decker, located in the heart of the South Side, where it stands as part of a tentative but visible backlash against the area's dominant college-party culture. Bars are still the thing on East Carson Street, but quite a few are targeting a slightly older, more sophisticated customer. Circolo is surmounted by a piano lounge on the second floor and cigar bar on the third, with the explicit hope that patrons will drift upstairs from dinner to entertainment and relaxation.
The first-floor pizzeria has its own bar, with an emphasis on wine that underscores its aspirations to transcend East Carson's beery bias. In a corner of the dining room is a stone wood-fired pizza oven. The room's colors are warm, and the decor — Italian scenes and rustic signs proclaiming "Vino" — could be that of a family dining room. Altogether, the vibe is casual but far from shabby.
At first glance, the menu, too, could almost belong to a neighborhood pizzeria, but the kitchen's ambitions are evident in every preparation. Calamari, Rhode Island-style, is tossed with garlic butter and sweet-spicy peppers; wings are finished in that wood-fired oven; and the closest thing to a plain cheese pizza is the margherita, with things getting more elaborate from there.
Which is great, as long as it works. We've seen expensive ingredients carelessly combined, flavor piled on flavor until the only remaining impression is "muddy." Happily, Circolo avoided these pitfalls. Its kitchen tweaked classic combinations with confidence and explored new ones with judicious creativity.
Our first pizza, Broke Da Mout, was a triumph, a meatball pizza augmented with caramelized onions, roasted mushrooms, roasted peppers and oregano. The flavors held together beautifully, sweet, savory and earthy elements all combining well and in balance with one another. The menu referred to the meatballs as "broken," and they were, so that there were chunks of varying sizes, browned at the edges in the oven's searing heat; these morsels delivered meaty flavor without dominating the various vegetal elements.
Circolo offers meatballs in three styles: traditional, spicy ("Firecracker") and vegetarian, the latter a spinach-ricotta combo. We couldn't resist the Firecracker's promise of Italian sausage with hot peppers finished in the 900-degree oven. We ordered the starter portion, which came in a small skillet; all the meatballs are also available as entrees alongside pasta and salad. The texture was firm and coarse, but not tough, and the spice was assertive but not overwhelming. These meatballs would be wonderful in a sandwich. Based on morsels plucked from the pizza, the three-meat house meatball was a bit more tender, but still robust, with just enough herbal notes to brighten the meat.
We also tried the First Coast white pizza, with woodfired chicken, fontina and goat cheeses, sweet peppers, balsamic-marinated onions, and fresh garlic and thyme. The pizza oven may have been a bit much for the chicken — a couple strips were dry, although most were juicy and smoky — but overall this was another winning combination of ingredients in balance.
The menu includes a few panini, including meatball; ours had three cheeses, prosciutto and arugula. The latter two are a classic combination thanks to their bold but contrasting flavors. Circolo's prosciutto was particularly nice, with a hint of smoke and a texture that was moist but still distinctly dry-cured. The blend of provolone, fontina and mozzarella provided an ample background of mild richness.
The pasta menu was a mix-and-match between five shapes (including a wheat penne) and five sauces. Our vibrant red Bolognese looked like a fresh marinara, but was studded with tiny bits of salty, savory meat. It was delicious.
Circolo Woodfired fills a much-needed niche for food that's better than pub grub, but more accessible — and affordable — than trendy cuisine on Carson Street.