I observed that Piccolo Forno was no run-of-the-mill Italian eatery before I even entered. As we stood on the threshold, a wait person, with the bearing of a dancer, stepped through the front door balancing a tray with a bowlful of steaming pasta e fagioli, complete with napkins and cutlery. She was delivering the fragrant bowl to a shopkeeper down the street, just as you still see waiters do in the small Italian towns or, even these days, in neighborhoods in the big cities.
Piccolo Forno is a Tuscan, or to be specific, Luccan, pizzeria that just happens to reside in the historic Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Owner and chef Domenic Branduzzi and his mother Carla create genuine Tuscan food that probably rivals his uncle’s pizzeria Bar Branduzzi in the village of Corsagna, a 30 minute drive north of Lucca in Tuscany.
When I meet Domenic after our lunch, I tease him about the butter that comes with the bread basket-something you would never see in Italy- but he takes it good naturedly. That is likely his only concession to American tastes. “I do what I can do. I try to stay Tuscan,” Domenic says. “I’m happy and privileged to do this. My Mom cooks her heart out. These things are passed down. My parents believed in this.”
For many years, his parents Carla and Antonio operated Il Piccolo Forno Bakery in the Strip District, before his father died three years ago. The bakery is now closed. The couple met in Tuscany when Carla, a Pennsylvanian born of Italian immigrants, traveled to Italy in her 20s to study cooking.
“I spent four years learning to cook. It’s the greatest thing Italy has to offer,” says Carla, whose youthful demeanor makes her seem more like Domenic’s older sister than his mother. “I encouraged Antonio to go to the state school for baking.” All the while she was working with Antonio in the Pittsburgh bakery she was also raising Domenic, who was born in Lucca, and Domenic’s teenaged sisters Angela and Anna Maria.
“I cook to fill up my soul,” says Carla, and after one bite of her Lasagna Toscana, you say a prayer of thanks. The creation literally melts on your tongue: twelve gossamer sheets of home-made pasta, meat ragú, and bechamel. Carla’s hunger for learning seems insatiable. Her next goal is to attend the Italian Institute for Advanced Culinary and Pastry Arts in Calabria.
Meanwhile, Domenic refines the skills he learned during summers at Bar Branduzzi in Tuscany, Regina Margherita (the pizzeria that was in the building he now occupies) and at his folks’ Il Piccolo Forno Bakery. He explains that his pizzas are Tuscan style, with a crisper crust than Neapolitan. “The Neapolitan pizza is baked at 1000 degrees so it’s softer because it doesn’t bake as long. The Tuscan pizza is baked at 650 degrees so it bakes longer and becomes more crisp.”
The Pizze menu choices made me nostalgic for Florence. Like the Quattro Stagioni which features tomatoes and fresh mozzarella with the pie divided into four quadrants, each ingredient representing a season-prosciutto, roasted red peppers, mushrooms, and artichokes.
In addition to pizzas, you can order antipasti, insalate (like the Insalata di Rucola above), panini and dolci.
The pastas, as mentioned before, are all hand crafted by Carla and we were particularly enamored of the Cavatelli con Fagioli e Bietola (beans and chard). The ridged curls of soft dough are made with ricotta added to the egg/flour dough. Carla shared the recipe with me and as soon as the hand-cranked cavatelli machine arrives in the mail, I will try her recipe and share it with you.
As we sipped the last drops of our espresso, the shopkeeper who had lunched on the pasta e fagioli came in to return the plate. She seemed like just one more member of the happy Piccolo Forno family.