Monday, March 6, 2017

Review: Elio G's Pizza, Old Forge, PA

Pizza is wonderful food, from the cheapest store-brand frozen pie to the classic old-school pizzerias to the high-end and pricey Neapolitans and Roman al taglio places. If there is anything that can take a pizza eating experience to the next level, it is connecting to the passionate and thoughtful folks who are making the pies.

I had such experiences at:

On a Saturday tour of Old Forge pizza places, I had another such experience, quite by accident.  

Main Street in Old Forge is lined with Italian restaurants and pizza joints, and there are several more on the side streets. Census stats say that more than 40% of Old Forge residents have Italian roots, so perhaps that ties in to the ratio of pizzerias to the population. 

Most Old Forge pizzerias offer two basic styles of pizza. The red pie is a conventional rectangular pizza with red sauce, topped with mild white cheese that could be American, mozzarella, or a blend. The white pizza is typically made with a layer of dough on top, dusted with herbs, so it really is like a funky grilled cheese sandwich. 
The white pie I wish I had tried. Next time!
I started my day with the two rivals who are within a block of each and are the best-known: Arcaro & Genell, and Revello's. You might think of them like you think of the New Haven pizza rivals, Sally's and Frank Pepe's. Spoiler alert: Revello's was pretty good, Arcaro & Genell was superb. Who knew my day could get better?

Before leaving town, I had time (and belly space) for one more stop, and Elio G's was just a few blocks away. While my previous stops were full-service restaurants, I was unaware that Elio G's is primarily a take-out operation; there is one tiny counter and a few chairs for dine-in. I had come to order two cuts, but I found that the pie is sold by the full tray (12 cuts) or half trays of six cuts. I settled on a half tray of their red pie, topped with mushrooms. 
Philomena "Nonna" Ghigiarelli
Every pie here is baked with freshly made dough (no pre-made shells for the crust, which is the habit of some Old Forge pizzamakers) and all the veggie toppings are made with fresh vegetables. I had planned a quick slice grab, but I was in for a 45-minute visit. As I watched and waited, I learned how the pies are made (30 minutes in the oven) and also the history of Old Forge pizza.
Elio Ghigiarelli
The owner and pie man here is Elio Ghigiarelli. He's the grandson of Philomena "Nonna" Ghigiarelli, who invented the Old Forge style pizza in the 1920s to feed some hungry poker players at the bar she owned with her husband. The bar became a restaurant and the business stayed in the family for a long time. But when Elio came home from graduating Penn State in 1976, he declined to take over the Ghigiarelli pizzeria. That restaurant was sold, and still operates on Main Street, making a pie of good repute but without Ghigiarelli family members. 
Signs on the wall
Later in life Elio came back to Old Forge and pizza making and the result is this small take-out shop in the 800 block of Main Street. During my visit, his vivacious fiancee Michelle was working the counter. Her cheery countenance provided a warm greeting to every patron, and she also generously shared cups of homemade red wine from a huge jug (that was a gift from a customer). I also got some inside scoops on the pie baking process from Joe, the oven man.
Joe works the oven
I watched a white pie assembled and baked. Before it goes in the oven, this double-crusted swollen square gets a heavy dusting of multiple Italian herbs and a covering of sliced onions. I deeply regret that I didn't buy one to bring back home.

Michelle warned me that I might be disappointed if I wanted a sweet tomato sauce, which seems to be the rule in most other Old Forge pies. I'm pretty agnostic about sauce, though. I like sweet, or salty, or spicy, or tangy -- as long as it's packed with a flavor that enhances the pie.
Michelle with my half tray
Elio begins with a baking pan where the fresh dough fills the bottom. He covers it with red sauce, and then uses a squeeze bottle to apply very liberal amounts of olive oil atop the red sauce. I imagine that the pan is also greased with olive oil, so this is not a pie for calorie counters. 
My mushroom half tray, next to a plain red half tray
The pie goes into the conventional gas deck oven with just crust, sauce, and olive oil. It is removed after about 20 minutes for application of the cheese and toppings. The folks at Elio G's are secretive about what is in the large bin of shredded cheese. Many Old Forge pizzerias use American cheese; some have speculated that Elio uses a blend of mozzarella and sharp provolone, but I found no sharp flavors - just salty and creamy. My guess is that it's muenster cheese, but that is just speculation. Whatever it is, it's simpatico with this pie.

I watched many happy customers stop by to pick up their take-out orders while I waited. When my half-tray was ready, Michelle got me a paper plate and some napkins so I could sit at the counter and sample a slice with my cup of red wine. Each cut had substantial weight to it, likely due to the olive oil and the generous amount of red sauce; Joe told me the precise amount he uses for a whole pie, and it's more than double what most other Old Forge piemakers use.

When Elio was slicing the pie, the crunch of the crust was distinctly audible. And indeed, every bite of this crust was delectable, crunchy on the bottom, and al dente chewy above. Moreover, the crust had a full rich flavor of its own. 

The dark red sauce was rich and dense, providing another layer of deep flavor. I didn't detect as much onion as I had in my other Old Forge stops. 
Beautiful golden crunch underneath
The cheese, even though it was applied generously, was a role player to add some creamy and salty elements that were in perfect harmony with the sauce and crust.

I typically choose a meat topping, pepperoni or Italian sausage. But because the meat toppings don't cook on the pie in Old Forge, I had chosen mushrooms as my topping (and I was congratulated by Michelle for that selection). Like all the other vegetables, they had arrived fresh that day. On the pie, they were plump, moist (but not wet), and they gave an added earthy dimension to the swirl of flavors on this pie. I've eaten a countless number of pizzas, never was there a better mushroom topping.

I meant to eat just one cut so that I'd have room for some pan-fried NEPA pizza at Pizza Perfect in Shavertown (near Wilkes-Barre) on my way home, but this pizza was so wonderful that I rapidly scarfed down two slices. This dense-yet-light crunchy crust reminded me of the first-rate thick square pies from Norma's Pizza (Detroit style) and Binge House Pizza (Detroit/NEPA hybrid).
I was much happier than I look!
All of the elements were in harmony, balanced for flavor and texture. I was very happy to have slices to bring home. This was the pie that will bring me back, despite the two-and-a-half hour drive from my home.

Did you ever wonder "What is all the fuss about Old Forge pizza?" Elio G's answers that question. The grandson of the woman who made the first Old Forge style pizza is keeping a grand tradition alive. This was one of my best lifetime pizza experiences. Get there! 

Many thanks to our friends at NEPA Pizza Review; please visit for a wealth of reviews of pizza in Old Forge and all over the NEPA region. Also, check out the coming documentary on Old Forge and NEPA styles of pizza at:

Elio G's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


  1. Great article as usual! Love the in depth narrative about the pizza making process! I had a similar experience when I reviewed Elio G...good stuff!

    I'll paste a link to your review on my page as soon as I can so people can compare our experiences.

  2. NEPA - I read your review after I wrote mine, and it's neat to see how we had a very similar experience there. Great people and great pie.

  3. Im a round pie, sweet sauce fanatic...Elios is the only Old Forge pizza I like