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A slice of Naples finds a home in Bellevue

Thursday, May 17, 2001

By Virginia Phillips

At Pizzeria Regina Margherita on Lincoln Avenue, the busy spine of little Bellevue, overlooking Ohio River Boulevard just north of the city, pizza maker Roberto Caporuscio, lately of Naples, Italy, is open for business.

One of the specialties at Pizzeria Regina Margherita: Pizza con Insalata, a bread shell stuffed with mixed greens, oil and mozzarella. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

A fair-skinned 6-footer with pink cheeks and hazel eyes, Caporuscio bears no resemblance to the mustachioed guy on the pizza box. Nor does his pizza have much to do with what normally comes in that box.

Caporuscio is serving real Neopolitan pizza.

No pepperoni. No delivery.

Neopolitan means tender crust, feather-light, topped with simple things such as buttery buffalo mozzarella, crushed tomato, cherry tomato and whole, fragrant basil leaves.

"For me is a basil on every pizza," says Caporuscio. The classic tomato/mozzarella version is the Regina Margherita. It is named, like the shop, after Italy's 1890s-era Queen Margherita.

On a Friday at noon, people stream in to take pizzas out in stacks of Italian-imported white plastic boxes. A cappuccino machine screeches like a trolley car. Italian waltzes cavort from the sound system. Tables fill with couples, moms and kids, businessmen and shoppers.

A retiree nurses a La Prima cappuccino, watching the animated street scene as sun pours in through storefront windows. Bellevue, population 9,000, has a business district of modest 1920s buildings, where people hail each other across the main drag and out of car windows, and a quarter gets you an hour on your meter.

It is also dry, so Regina Margherita serves soft drinks, Italian coffee and San Pellegrino water, but you are welcome to BYOB.

The real thing

Caporuscio brings to Bellevue a degree from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana in Naples. Naples is credited with being the birthplace of both Sophia Loren and pizza. Associazione Verace is considered the Harvard of artisanal pizza schools in Italy, and Caporuscio is one of only four of its alumni making pizza in this country.

A native of Terracina, a seaside town perched over the Mediterranean halfway between Rome and Naples, Caporuscio first glimpsed America 15 years ago. He was a sales executive on a business trip to Wisconsin representing a firm marketing artificial insemination for dairy cattle. That good first impression of this country stayed with him, and he made a business plan, transforming himself into one of the elite among pizza makers in Italy -- a nation where pizza is an art form and great pizza the norm. He thought Americans would like "authentic pizza."

Roberto Caporuscio, owner of pizzeria Regina Margherita in Bellevevue, prepares a pizza. Behind him is the two-ton oven he brought from Italy. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

On arrival, he brought with him an Italian pizza oven, the tiles that cover the pizzeria's floor, the marble-topped tables, and a good many other weighty things, filling a shipping container. One icy day last December, the contents were plunked down in front of his shop-to-be.

Caporuscio proved to be a deft man with a forklift, but no way could the two-ton oven be brought through the door.

Down came the wall.

"I am very cold when I finish," he says good-naturedly. He gestures with an elbow toward the double-wide French doors bridging the gap the oven came through. The doors were a bargain that his contractor spotted in the Penny Saver.

He gently stretches a round of dough that he is about to slide into his 1,000-degree oven. Most pizza ovens reach 750 degrees. This oven's glowing maw, with wide mouth and low roof, concentrates the wood-fueled heat. In less than 60 seconds a pizza sears into a lightly crusted, tender morsel. The one going in now is the Capricciosa, "cap-ree-choe-sa," topped with prosciutto, mozzarella, basil, artichoke, sauteed mushrooms and a good dosing of imported olive oil.

In one pizzeria he visited, they wanted him to toss the pizza. "I get flour all over my shirt," he says dismissively.

If you go . . .

Pizzeria Regina Margherita

Where: 516 Lincoln Ave., Bellevue.

Phone: 412-761-1077.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 9 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays. BYOB.

Prices: 6-inch pizza, $4 to $6.50; 12-inch pizza, $7 to $12.


Italian pizza dough requires no such acrobatics. The flour, a blend of Italian, French and American grains, has fewer glutens -- the stubborn proteins that make stretched dough snap back like a rubber band -- so the dough is easy to shape. He uses only flour imported from the venerable Italian Caputo Farina mill, imported olive oil and imported tomatoes.

Light Neopolitan-style crust cooks fast and hot, collapsing delicately under your tooth. Roman-style pizza, baked longer at lower heat, has substantial heft and chew. Naples pizza eaters scoff at Romans: "You must like biscotti. Your pizza is overcooked."

At Regina Margherita you can choose from six pizzas, including a deceptively simple Mast'Nicola, a recipe hundreds of years old, showcasing the melt-in-your-mouth dough. It is topped only with olive oil, a dusting of tangy Pecorino Romano cheese and basil. There are also the Marinara, with tomatoes, oregano, basil and oil, showered with coarsely chopped fresh garlic, and another Margherita with salami. "The best food is simple food," says Caporuscio.

Pizza con Insalata is a pie split like a pita, filled with fresh greens and mozzarella and splashed with balsamic. A panino is a split pizza sandwich filled with crushed tomatoes, baked prosciutto, sauteed mushrooms and mozzarella.

Desserts include tiramis, a recipe of Caporuscio's wife, Flavia, featuring imported mascarpone and whipping cream, and a baba, baba au rhum, a dense-crumbed cake in the shape of a little chef's hat. Baba dough rises for 36 hours before it is baked and soaked in rum syrup.

Few degrees of separation

If six proverbial handshakes separate one mortal from any other on the planet, two would be plenty for Italian men in the food biz.

Caporuscio puts the crowning touch of golden olive oil on his Pizza con Insalata. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

Picture this: Caporuscio is in Naples, a recent graduate of the Associazione Verace. Some Americans appear at the pizza school, on a leg of a research trip. The question is raised, "Who wants to drive these guys around?"

"I will," says Caporuscio.

The entourage includes the Molinaros, Ron and Ron Jr., father and son, proprietors of the popular Il Pizzaiolo pizza restaurant on Mt. Lebanon's Washington Road.

As Caporuscio shepherds them to oven manufacturers, flour mills and celebrated pizzerias in Naples, he manages to convey the idea that he would like to visit the United States. Three months later he is staying with Ron Jr., lending a hand at Il Pizzaiolo while learning English.

All the while honing his English, he spends some time at Focaccia Grill in Aspinwall and at Larry Lagattuta's Enrico Biscotti in the Strip. With Lagattuta, he gets in the habit of having coffee around the corner at Sam Patti's La Prima and a bite to eat next door at Antonio and Carla Branduzzi's Il Piccolo Forno.

As any local food person knows, La Prima is a networking hub, whether you are Italian or not.

He meets Sam Salerio, insurance broker of Bethel Park and frequent customer of Il Pizzaiolo and La Prima. Salerio is looking for a partner to start a restaurant. At La Prima, Caporuscio and Salerio receive a pitch from Sam DiBattista, chef/owner of the upscale restaurant Vivo in Bellevue, who thinks Lincoln Avenue is ripe for an authentic pizzeria.

Bellevue's hills remind Caporuscio of Italy. He and Salerio agree to go 50/50. Fast forward to this March.

Caporuscio is in Naples untangling working papers. He gets delayed and arrives back in Pittsburgh too late to make preparations for a special pre-opening party at his Regina Margherita to be hosted by the Bellevue chief of police for his daughter's birthday.

Ron Molinaro answers an SOS, rushes to Bellevue and stays to makes the dough for the party. It's a Saturday night, the busiest night in Molinaro's own restaurant. This is the pull of paisan power.

Since then it's been pretty much a one-man show.

Caporuscio's wife, tall, pony-tailed Flavia, a curvy drink of water in jeans and glasses, and Giorgia, his black-haired sprite of a 12-year-old daughter, visited over Easter. They plan to join him permanently in about a year.

Meanwhile, Flavia tends to things in Terracina, Giorgia goes to school, and Roberto makes pizza.

On the Good Friday noon, a friend and I are at Regina Margherita, a mutual friend arrives with a colleague and we shove tables together to make a party.

Giorgia assists her dad as he bounds back and forth from oven to tables making sure everyone has what they want, urging people to try a sample of the Nutella-slathered dessert pizza. Nutella, a spread of chocolate and ground hazelnuts, is the peanut butter of Italy.

On another visit in the evening, things are lively and the light level is bright. Very bright. A rheostat would flatter us all, someone observes. But wine corks pop, pizzas arrive like trains in the station, and festivity reigns. The only thing that would add to the pleasure would be to trade in the plastic serving containers and cutlery for the real plates, knives and forks that this refined food deserves.

Caporuscio will be cooking this night until 2 a.m. He shows no sign of slowing down.

I ask him what happened to his new store sign. Its chic red lettering is clear but it looks as if some bad kid has smeared out Queen Margherita's face.

"Oh, I do it," he says. "I no like. She look like a zombie."

Stay tuned. Long live the Queen.

Related Recipe:

Flavia's Tiramis

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