Carmen Pirain had worked making pizzas for years, first at Cestone’s, the pizza shop his father, Richard, owns on Mt. Washington, and during his college days majoring in finance at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
So, when he was laid off from his sales job in 2005, he returned to what he knew: making pizzas. This time, it was at his own shop, also named Cestone’s, across from Dormont Pool in Mt. Lebanon.
During his time at the Mt. Lebanon Cestone’s, the younger Pirain learned how to run a business while he considered what he really wanted to do: make gourmet pizzas.
After experimenting, he sat down with Dave and Rick Sunseri of Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District to discuss the best ingredients and brands to use.
In April 2011, Pirain, now 37, opened Cucina Bella, tucked away in a residential area of Bridgeville. The red-brick building has black-and-white checked curtains and casual elegance inside, courtesy of some vintage tables, a couple of church pews among the chairs, photographs — of family members, Italian landmarks and his grandmother’s wedding dress — and antiqued mirrors.
He recently finished off the restaurant �basement with brick walls and niches that evoke a wine cellar. Either floor presents a comfortable atmosphere in which to eat the gourmet pizzas Pirain prefers to make.
“I had to be different. There are a lot of pizza places in Pittsburgh,” says Pirain, who creates pizzas meant to be taste sensations, like the Santa Lucia, with fresh pistachio pesto, sausage, fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, basil and extra-virgin olive oil, for $16.
Then there is the Joe T., named for restaurateur Joe Tambellini, with fresh mozzarella, gorgonzola cheese, local figs, prosciutto and basil and topped with a balsamic fig reduction, for $20.
“I’m not a chef. I’m just a guy who really likes pizza,” says Pirain, who has trademarked his “three-day-rise” method for the from-scratch dough Cucina Bella bakers use.
Pizzas are either “bianche” (white, with no tomato sauce) or “rosse” (red). Some of the “rosse” pizzas are the traditional Margherita, with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, basil and extra-virgin olive oil, for $12; or the Ortolana, with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, baby portobella mushrooms, artichokes, Parmigiano-Reggiano, basil and extra-virgin olive oil, for $15. The pizza with prosciutto added is $18.
Cucina Bella’s menu changes seasonally so Pirain can take advantage of fresh ingredients, such as basil and figs.
But Cucina Bella — Italian for “beautiful kitchen” — doesn’t just sell pizza. The restaurant offers antipasti, such as the Antipasto Carmenucci (Pirain’s Italian nickname), which inclues Calabrese soppressata, imported black pepper-coated dry salami, smoked speck, roasted red peppers, artichokes and kalamata olives. The small version is $16.95; the large, $21.95.
Pirain offers the tender and tasty “Le Polpette di Joanna,” his mother’s meatballs with her “secret combination of superior meats,” garlic, fresh herbs and topped with San Marzano tomatoes, Parmigiano-Reggiano, basil and extra-virgin olive oil, for $10.
Salads, panini and calzones are available, as well as coffee and soft drinks, including limonata and aranciata (lemon or orange soda pop). The restaurant has no liquor license, but customers can bring their own bottles of wine for a $5 corkage fee.
Desserts vary from $6 to $8 and include tiramisu, flute limoncello, chocolate mousse and bombas. Most are imported from Italy.
Pirain takes his pizza seriously. About once a quarter, he joins fellow pizza makers Domenic Branduzzi of Piccolo Forno and Ron Molinaro of Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon to talk about pizza and life.
“It’s amazing the things that come out of your mouth after a few glasses of wine,” says Branduzzi, 31, of Polish Hill. “Carmen’s a great guy.”
They met in the Strip District when they both were buying ingredients for their restaurants. During their meetings, the three talk about the trials and tribulations of running their businesses, Branduzzi says.
“We’re all in the same boat: We make unique pizzas,” he says.
Pirain thoughtfully places a label on each pizza box: “Please don’t put my pizza in the microwave. Reheat in the oven at 350 degrees for about 12 minutes. Enjoy.” Oven heating maintains the texture of the pizza. Microwaves heat the water molecules in the crust part, making it rubbery.
“I know it’s ‘just pizza,’” Pirain says, “but it’s not just pizza.”
Sandra Fischione Donovan is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
Cucina Bella’s Santa Lucia Pizza
Carmen Pirain, owner of Cucina Bella in Bridgeville, doesn’t consider himself a chef, but as the best chefs do, he likes to combine fresh ingredients to create a taste sensation.
Such a dish is Cucina Bella’s Santa Lucia pizza, a white pizza that includes a pesto made with pistachios instead of pine nuts; fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and basil not only in the pesto but fresh in the garnish.
Pirain named the pizza for the favorite song of his maternal grandfather, Joe Cestone, the melodic “Santa Lucia.”
The result is flavorful, with the nutty pesto, the saltiness of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, the mellow flavor of the mozzarella and the sweetness of the basil combining in each bite.
Pirain has trademarked his “three-day-rise” pizza dough and does not disclose its recipe, so home cooks can use their own dough, whether from-scratch or purchased.
For the pesto:
2 cups fresh basil
1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1⁄2 cup toasted pistachios, shelled
1 teaspoon Sicilian sea salt
3⁄4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (Pirain uses Grana Padano)
3 tablespoons butter (Pirain uses Delitia Butter of Parma)
Combine all the pesto ingredients in blender or food processor and process into a paste.
For the pizza:
10 ounces pizza dough
4 ounces buffalo mozzarella cheese
1⁄2 to 1 cup cooked hot sausage, cut up
2 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (Grana Padano), plus more for garnish
Pinch of Sicilian sea salt
1 1⁄2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
Fresh basil for garnish, whole or chopped
Heat an oven to 400 degrees.
Gently stretch the dough into a round about 10 to 12 inches in diameter. Place it on a baking stone or pan and spread enough of the pesto to cover it.
Place the mozzarella and sausage on the pizza, then add the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over the pizza and a pinch of the sea salt.
Drizzle the oil over the pizza and bake until the crust is golden brown.
Transfer the pizza to a serving tray and let it sit for 1 to 2 minutes before cutting.
In the meantime, add a bit more of the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and fresh basil and drizzle with olive oil.
Makes 2 to 3 servings.