Pastoli's is secretly Squirrel Hill's best pizza | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pastoli's is secretly Squirrel Hill's best pizza

click to enlarge A dark-skinned man plays guitar against a colorfully decorated wall, while in the foreground, delicious pizza waits to be eaten.
CP Photo: Dallas Pagach
Singer Andre warms up at Pastoli's.

While you're down the street at Aiello's or Mineo's, I'll be eating my fill at Pastoli's Pizza, Pasta, and Paisans.

Sure, Pittsburgh's anointed favorites are longer-running and have a fun family rivalry going. Sure, both Aiello's and Mineo's make decent pies and have menus that extend well beyond simple pizza. Both clearly also have a local reputation that's allowed them to expand beyond their bustling Murray Avenue storefronts.

Yet neither offers the same level of welcome that their neighbor up the street does. Pastoli's offers similar toppings and non-pizza entrees, plus coolers of six-packs and single cans of beer, seltzer, and cider you can enjoy while you feast, but they also offer pizzas for most anyone, including gluten-free, allergy-friendly, and vegan pies. That's in part due to family food sensitivities and in part due to a "respect for our neighbors" ethos.

What's more, Pastoli's has carved out a unique niche for themselves in a pizza-dense neighborhood — every Tuesday, as well as the first Saturday of each month, the cozy storefront plays host to a rotating cast of guitarists and singers who swap tunes over puffy slices of Sicilian pie, wings, and cans of craft ale. The pizzeria even has house guitars for musicians who didn't bring or don't yet have their own. As far as I know, Murray Avenue's other dark horse, Napoli Pizzeria, doesn't offer you a chance to hear live harmonica while you dine.

Pastoli's opened in 2015 (by happenstance, the same year I first tried it). The shop's music angle came in later, in part out of its proprietors' personal interest and in part out of a search for an identity. Co-owner Maryann Riding says business was slow that first year, dampened by Pittsburghers' loyalty to the pizza titans down the road.

Riding says that, during downtime, she started to learn guitar from husband Chris on the restaurant's comfy sectional sofa. The pair decided to try inviting the public in. "We thought, hey, we'll put it out there on Meetup and see what happens," she tells Pittsburgh City Paper. "Next thing you know, we had a dozen people with guitars coming in." The Tuesday jam session returned as a shop staple following a COVID-induced pause. Riding says the resulting business on BYOG (Bring Your Own Guitar) nights has made it a challenge for her to take up learning chords again.

In short, a family tradition, idle hands, and a love of food helped Pastoli's become a neighborhood destination. The restaurant's name is similar — Riding says it emerged when her grandfather, a "pied piper" for younger family members, was teaching them how to say Italian words using food names. "When he said 'pasta e fagioli,' my son could only say 'pastoli,'" she recalls. "The next day, my son calls him 'Pastoli,' and it took off from there." The grandpa's nickname became the nickname of the pizzeria.

Stumbling in from the cold, I revisited Pastoli's this week on Tuesday with some friends. We ordered several pies including the "Meat Me on Murray," which — in true Pittsburgh fashion — comes served with fries on top.

But it wasn't just the delicious pizza, with its extra-cheesy and topping-dense surface and airy yet sturdy crust, that kept us there over an hour. We also happened to walk in just as the first musician, Andre, was getting ready to sing the blues. Though we didn't stay for the full evening (sorry for the early departure, Cognac & Cheddar), we stayed long enough to enjoy original songs, hear John Prine classics, and join in as patrons clapped along to "The Bourgeois Blues" with a Pittsburgh twist.

Pastoli's isn't just a purveyor of great pizza; it's a neighborhood living room and a safe space for budding artists. I'd come back even if the pizza were mediocre (it's not) just to bob my knee to shaky Bob Dylan covers. You can keep your Aiello's and Mineo's — I've got the Pastoli's blues, and the only cure is more pizza.

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