In the days of my youth (as Led Zeppelin would sing) I would play softball in Oakland all morning on Sundays (and then flag football once the weather turned cold in mid October) and then visit Giuseppe Aiello at Aiello’s Pizza with my teammates for a lunch of Pittsburgh/NYC style Italian Pizza and a steak hoagie. It was a Pittsburgh delicacy after a hard fought victory or heartbreaking defeat that became a weekly standard.
When Steeler season started in September the routine changed to incorporate Steeler Sunday. After the morning ball games had ended my ball playing buddy JB and I would meet up w MB at JBs house with Aiello’s pizza and hoagies for our Steelers in game ritual. Anyone that knows Pittsburgh pizza knows of the Squirrel Hill Mineo’s versus Aiello’s pizza rivalry and everyone has a side. Along with Central Catholic’s Mike McCarthy (who’s Green Bay Packer memorabilia decorate the inside of Aiello’s along with various Steelers and Pirates autographs) MB, JB and I had chosen Aiello’s. The sauce is a little sweeter, Giuseppe uses BBQ sauce while cooking up the steak hoagie and Giuseppe’s winning personality was the type (like Sam Malone at Cheers) that made you feel that everybody knows your name.
After moving to Southern California in the late 80s while still special, Steeler Sunday’s lost some edible luster. The games were exciting and once Bill Cowher showed up the Steelers became a playoff regular. While not JB and MB, the crew of displaced Steeler fans I found to watch games with were certainly fun, entertaining and some even charismatic. But always the taste of Aiello’s was on my lips as halftime hit Southern California and lunchtime rolled around. California pizza is pizza. And all pizza is good. Even as a child when my mother would melt a piece of mozzarella on a Thomas English muffin and spread some tomato sauce on it with a small piece of salami, my pizza fix was satisfied. But nothing can touch the taste and quality of true Pittsburgh pizza from Murray Ave in Squirrel Hill. Once in a while after MB moved to Cali he would entice Giuseppe’s son, Mikey Aiello to make us up an uncooked pie, wrap it in dry ice and next day air us the sacred package. Those Sunday’s with slices of Aiello's out of my oven were the next best thing to being in JBs game room with fresh Aiello’s just out of Giuseppe’s pizza oven. Especially when Tomlin had the Steelers cruising to a Steeler victory.
But alas, Mikey Aiello gave up the business to his sister and moved into early retirement. MB moved back to Pittsburgh and me and my lovely, pizza loving Pittsburgh Steelers fan fiancee struggle to find authentic east coast pizza. Trudging through the west end of the San Fernando Valley in search of good pizza we marvel at how good "Costco" pizza is (because of the lack of quality places) while her Manhattan memories of NY pizza and my memories of Aiello’s are but distant memories.
With another Steelers season upon us and visions of Lombardi’s dancing in mine and fiancee Gisela’s heads we were enticed by an article forwarded to me by Hollywood cousin Lara. Lara and her siblings left Pittsburgh in the late 60s and we have all traveled back to the homeland for events through the years and have all done the Mineo/Aiello challenge and all picked a side. Knowing our search for "the good stuff" the article Lara read in Los Angeles Eater piqued her interest and in turn piqued mine and Gisela’s. The headline screamed "The Wild Journey Behind Gorilla Pies, LA’s only Pittsburgh Style Pizza Joint"
The week before the Steelers opener, with not even preseason games on the schedule Gisela and I read the article with pure pizza passion and mouths watering. Pittsburgh native and Allderdice graduate Ben Osher of Squirrel Hill had grown up on Aiello’s. In a former kosher bakery, next door to a kosher market and down the street from a kosher restaurant (sound a little like Squirrel Hill?) Osher opened up "Gorilla Pies" and was off and running.
The pizza is Pittsburgh style thin crust, loaded with mozzarella and a thick soft bread crust reminiscent of Aiello’s Pizza. Gisela added diced onions to Ben’s standard recipe, which he cooked into the cheese... and the pizza was delectable. The logo is a gorilla sporting a "We Are Family" style Pittsburgh Pirates cap and Osher proudly displays his Allderdice "A" on the wall. One bite and I knew I found Aiello’s West. On first tasting, the pizza is among the best I have had and could easily be a challenger to the Mineo’s/Aiello’s rivalry. The sauce was delectable and you hesitate to take a drink of your beverage because you don’t want the taste to leave your mouth. One piece became two and two pieces became three. Gisela and I even heated up a slice later in the evening after we returned home to split and it was every bit as good out of the toaster oven as Ben’s pizza oven! When I opened the fridge in the morning the smell of the leftover cuts in the pizza box filled my taste buds and my mouth was watering all over again. And by the way, the arugula salad we had with the pizza pie was also phenomenal...but the pizza was so good you almost forget the salad. I made sure to tell Ben that Murray Ave would be proud of him on our way out the door.
With the opening of another Steeler season and the positive vibes of being 0-0 while being in the hunt for a Lombardi is still strong I am doubly happy to have discovered a Valley Village treasure. Steelers Sunday’s has new lunchtime fare! If you are in So Cal or around So Cal and you are a displaced Pittsburgh pizza fan in need of the best pie west of the Mississippi make sure to look up Gorilla Pies in Valley Village CA. Thanks to cousin Lara for the heads up and thanks to my lovely, loving fiancee, Gisela for making pizza night, last night!