Longtime Family-Owned Pizza Parlors: Oakland’s Hidden Gems

You may be driving past your new favorite shop without realizing it.

Sciulli's Pizza on Fifth avenue near Halket street.

Sciulli’s Pizza on Fifth Avenue near Halket Street.

Entertainment Central’s executive producer Rick Handler and I shared a culinary curiosity. When driving through Oakland, we would each spy these unique pizza shops, yet we would always find ourselves eating at our respective standbys (Napoli Pizzeria for me; Mineo’s and Beto’s for him). It’s easy to blame and by extent exaggerate Oakland’s parking situation. But it comes down to loyalty and reticence. The neighborhood standbys are great. Why try something new? A shame, though, as many of Oakland’s pizza places have operated for years and deserve to have a clientele larger than off-the-clock UPMC employees and inebriated Carlow, CMU, and Pitt students.

This past week, Rick and I visited four premier parlors in Oakland. We sought well-established eateries with their own loyal followings. In order to compare them fairly, we ordered at every spot a pie that was half plain; half green peppers, mushrooms, and pepperoni. And if a spot sold slices of their regular pies, not Sicilian, we ordered regular slices instead. Sizes of the slices varied a little. All prices are pre-tax.

Eating all that pizza was a challenge surpassed by only the King Kong Overload, but more on that later. First stop—Sciulli’s.

Sciulli’s Pizza

Oriente Sciulli talks with a customer as nephew Tim looks on.

Oriente Sciulli talks with a customer as nephew Tim Sciulli looks on.

The decor harked back 36 years to the restaurant’s establishment, yet the crowds demonstrated Sciulli’s relevance. UPMC workers on their lunch break sat in orange plastic booths and chairs. They sat beside wall adornments, which included a mounted, faux swordfish; photographs of Forbes Field; and headshots of “All-Time Italian American Boxing World Champions” and “All-Time Italian American Football Team” (Steelers great Franco Harris present, of course).

Rick ordered a four-cut, junior, regular pie with the aforementioned distribution of toppings ($5.90). The density of the cheese, sauce, and crust were Goldilocks grade: not too thin, not too thick, just right. The toppings added some heft, so I deigned to use a knife and fork on that slice.

Four-cut Junior pie at Sciulli's.

Four-cut Junior pie at Sciulli’s.

Rick and I suspected the toppings were fresh, a suspicion confirmed by Oriente Sciulli, who is not only the proprietor but also a genuinely sweet-natured, white-haired man from Italy’s Abruzzo region. He makes the dough and sauce fresh daily and bakes his pizzas in a deck oven. The pan pizzas are his favorite. He and his nephews, Luciano and Tim Sciulli, also sell Sicilian cuts, plus dinner plates, such as chicken parmesan and shrimp baskets with fries. The menu includes salads, hoagies, and sides as well.

As to what’s kept him in business the past 36 years, Oriente Sciulli volleyed back two words: “Good food.” Their emphasis on using only the best and freshest ingredients was especially helpful to them in the ‘80s when Pittsburgh added the bus lane on Fifth Avenue, minimizing nearby parking. But quality won, as people from as far as the South Side will drive for a pick-up. The only problem these days are Pitt students. “They’re too lazy to walk,” he said, chuckling.

Rick and I agreed that Sciulli’s was well worth the trek as we went toward our next stop, a place which, although nestled in South Oakland, felt two states removed due to the New-York-style slices that it serves.

Larry & Carol’s Pizza

Keith Schrum rings up a take-out pizza order for a customer at Larry & Carol's.

Keith Schrum rings up a take-out pizza order for a customer at Larry & Carol’s.

Larry & Carol’s opened in 1970, but George Nadour, who worked there as a delivery man from 2005 to 2007, became the managing owner, among several family member investors, two and a half years ago. He has upped the shop’s reputation, gutting the inside and adding a new façade. Customers can now chow down on the pizza while sitting at stools along a wooden bar which runs the perimeter of the left side of the restaurant. For temperate days, outdoor seating is a pleasant option.

“I want to make it better,” Nadour, a built man with inviting blue eyes, said. “Everything takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

A year and a half ago, Nadour created the King Kong Overload Challenge. The King Kong Pizza is 30 inches and costs $29.99 plus $5 per topping. The challenge pizza includes four toppings of the challengers’ choice, and costs $70. If two people can finish it in 30 minutes or less, they will win $200.

No one has ever won. Nadour advised eating smaller pizza meals a day or two in advance. “You have to stretch your stomach,” he said.

Rick and I declined, but we each had two slices of pizza: one plain, one with toppings. The New York style meant thin crust, thin cheese, and wide slices. Nadour said he sells the least expensive slices in Oakland at $1.75 per slice. Ours, with toppings, totaled $5 for each set of two slices.

Two New York style slices from Larry & Carols.

Two New York style slices from Larry & Carol’s.

The vegetables, the sauce, the dough—all fresh. Additionally, the pepperoni kicked subtly. Nadour, who bakes his pizza in a deck oven, likes to eat it at room temperature, so the heat doesn’t mask the flavor.

But right out of the oven tasted great too. The menu runs a wide gamut from homemade chili to cake slices with salads, sandwiches, wings, spaghetti, and more in between. All enticing, but Rick and I were already feeling a little sluggish. It was time for a break and then round two for dinner.

Sorrento’s Pizza Roma

A quieter moment allows time for Maisha Tanjim and Dennis Weston to talk and fold pizza boxes for the next round of customers at Sorrento's.

A quieter moment allows time for Maisha Tanjim and Dennis Weston to talk and fold pizza boxes for the next round of customers at Sorrento’s.

Our stomachs must have stretched, or maybe we felt ambitious, but at Sorrento’s, our dinner stop, we couldn’t resist the weekday evening special: a 14 inch, 10 cut, large plain for $6. (This special is available after 7 p.m. and also runs all day on Saturday. Pick-up or dine-in only.) Our pizza was $7.95 because we got the requisite toppings on half. Still a bargain, but would we finish?

Luckily, Sorrento’s makes packing away pizza easy. The sauce, crust, and toppings all passed the freshness test. The bottom crust was thin yet sturdy, so the toppings didn’t slide, while the circumference was ample, like a partially risen loaf of bread.

One slice plain, one slice with pepperoni, mushroom, and green peppers.

One slice plain, one slice with pepperoni, mushroom, and green peppers from a Sorrento’s pie.

When asked what sets Sorrento’s apart from the rest of the Oakland shops, owner Aaron Price said, “First and foremost, the history. We’ve been doing it for so long.”

Adolfo D’Achille, Price’s father-in-law and an Abruzzi emigrant, opened Sorrento’s in 1971. It has operated continuously in the same spot ever since.

“The way that he introduced it is the way we still do it,” Price said of D’Achille’s pizza-making style. In fact, one of the ovens, the deck oven on top of the conveyor oven, dates to the year the parlor opened.

Generations of Pitt students have refueled at Sorrento’s between pub stops. With four booths on either side and a row of three black tables in the middle, seating is plentiful. The booths have the same plastic seats as Sciulli’s but are light red, not orange. Alongside them are photos of Forbes Field and Italy. In addition to traditional pizza, refueling options include specialty pizzas, appetizers, salads, Sicilian slices, hoagies, and other Italian fare.

Those options would have to wait, as Rick and I were too full to finish. We then headed to one of our favorite Oakland bars—Gene’s Place, on nearby Louisa Street— and gave our leftover slices to owner Gene Ney. He is also a fan of Oakland pizzerias and welcomes their pizza in his bar (even when he’s not the recipient).

Original Milano Pizza

Ben Sciulli works the ovens while Michael Scheirer stretches pizza dough by tossing it in the air at Milano's. Shawn Stockdale works on an order between the two.

Ben Sciulli works the ovens while Michael Scheirer stretches pizza dough by tossing it in the air at Milano’s. Shawn Stockdale works on an order between the two.

After resting for a few days, we returned to Oakland for our fourth and final stop. Like Larry & Carol’s, Milano’s serves New-York-style pizza. Visit at lunchtime, and an aroma of sauce and baked meats and vegetables envelopes you upon entering. Look behind the counter, and you will see this aroma’s origin: about 10 pies, all with different toppings, ready to be sold as slices.

Come a little after lunch (as we did) or in the evening, and these options shrink to plain or pepperoni. Even then, if you ask for a specialty slice, owner Ben Sciulli (no relation to Sciulli’s Pizza) and his welcoming staff will happily prepare it for you.

Once more, Rick and I reclined in curved plastic seats, these ones painted a light red. A Tiffany-style glass lamp colored green, white, and red, the colors of the Italian flag, hung above each booth. Our slices, $12.20 for two plain and two with our toppings, were ready in a few minutes.

The pizza crust was crunchy, yet firm, perfect for holding. A few bites in, and I could fold it into a “pizza taco,” making the wide slice more manageable. Like Sorrento’s crust, Milano’s crust tasted like newly baked bread. No surprise, as Sciulli makes his dough every day and bakes it in a deck oven. He grates the cheese daily, too, and the proof was in the savory taste. Ditto the sauce, made fresh every day with ground plum tomatoes. Their sauce contained more Italian herbs and spices than the other four shops we visited. Just a little extra zing to an already flavorful pie.

Two slices ready for immediate consumption from Millano's.

Two slices ready for immediate consumption from Milano’s.

Milano’s serves specialty pizzas, Sicilian slices, calzones, and homemade dinners. Sandwich options include wedgies and hoagies. Salads and appetizers round out the menu.

Sciulli’s shop has been in continuous operation for 16 years. His father, Herman Sciulli, an Abruzzi emigrant, opened the first Milano’s, still in operation, in Hampton Township in 1975.

“It’s real New-York-style pizza, and we use the freshest ingredients possible,” Ben Sciulli said. I replied that it tasted delicious. Then I added the music that he played in the parlor (CAKE, Milky Chance) was pretty great too. He laughed. “I try to keep it young,” he said.

Never Mind the Parking

A parking lot sits behind Milano’s, though Sciulli acknowledged many people don’t know about it. The same could be said of all parking options in Oakland, and yes, there are options other than breaking your piggy bank at the meter kiosk. Throughout Oakland are one-hour permit spots—plenty of time to pick up or dine in. I can usually get a spot on Coltart Avenue; the extra walking burns calories. All shops, except Sciulli’s Pizza, deliver too. Although, Sciulli’s will deliver larger catering orders.

Other pizza options exist in South Oakland, not to mention the few in North Oakland, and Rick and I wish we had time to try them all. Stroll down Atwood Street on any evening or weekend, and you’re likely to find a line of Pitt students waiting to pick up pizza from the take-out only Antoon’s. Farther up Atwood, the staff at Pizza Romano serves food inside their own restaurant and through a literal hole in the wall connected to Garage Door Saloon. Say Cheese! Pizza Company is a quaint spot in the heart of South Oakland. Over on Boulevard of the Allies is Papa D’s. North Oakland, meanwhile, has Pizza Prima and a Little Nippers, among some other shops near Shadyside. Finally, the Original may be known for its hot dogs, but it also sells pizza pies and $1.75 slices. The employees there make the dough fresh daily.

Sorrento's Pizza Roma on Atwood street.

Sorrento’s Pizza Roma on Atwood Street.

Whether you are a lifelong Pittsburgher or are new to the area, there’s no excuse not to make the pilgrimage to any one of these institutions. Your old neighborhood standby won’t know, and as any good Carlow, CMU, or Pitt economics professor will tell you: competition makes for better product. However, you will likely find that these shops already offer the paragon of a great meal. Here’s to hoping these family-run, independent pizza shops continue on for many more generations.

Sciulli’s Pizza
Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. Saturday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Closed Sunday
3404 Fifth Ave., Oakland.
(412) 687-9287

Larry & Carol’s Pizza
Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, 11 a.m. – 2 a.m. Monday 11 a.m. – midnight. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 11 a.m. – 3 a.m.
410 Semple St., Oakland.
(412) 687-1189

Sorrento’s Pizza Roma
Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. Thursday through Friday, 11 a.m. – 2:30 a.m. Saturday 4 p.m. – 2:30 a.m. Closed Sunday.
233 Atwood St., Oakland.
(412) 621-9129

Original Milano Pizza
Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
3606 Fifth Ave., Oakland.
(412) 681-2858

Photos and contributor: Rick Handler, executive producer of Entertainment Central

Christopher Maggio is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor and loves a good slice of pizza.