In Italian, “pino” can be a diminutive for a longer name like Giuseppe, and “centro” can often mean downtown or the center of a city. Since every neighborhood can benefit from good pizza, why not have a place for it near the heart of Phoenix’s Midtown business district? With a location just a block west of the Thomas/Central light rail station, Pino’s Pizza al Centro seems a fitting name for a small pizzeria and Italian-American restaurant, especially when someone actually called Pino has been the proprietor for over two decades of continuous operation.
Pino’s address on the south side of Thomas puts it right where the Willo historic district meets the Midtown archipelago of high-rise office buildings. The growing health care complex of Dignity, St. Joseph’s, and Creighton University is across the street on the site of the former Park Central Mall. The restaurant occupies a space in a strip of nondescript buildings with neighbors like an accounting office and a veterinary clinic. A bike rack is just to the west where the Pino’s strip abuts another retail plaza. A few tables are found outside, but most seating is indoors.
In the evening, Pino’s operates as a full-service restaurant with servers attending to tables. By day, customers order at the counter and then proceed to seats in the dining room. Instead of stereotypical red-and-white checkered tablecloths, there are instead wooden tables. Otherwise, the space has an Italian-American look with tourist posters of both New York and Italy on walls punctuated with decorative columns. Even if that visual theme suggests Tony Bennett or Dean Martin on the speakers, the music played in the dining rooms often leans more towards country.
As the name suggests, Pino’s primary mission is pizza. Signature pies come in 12 and 16-inch sizes and start with a simple cheese pizza and become progressively more complex, culminating in the prosciutto rucola pie with cured pork, shaved parmesan, and arugula. In between, there’s a classic margherita with fior di latte, an upgrade from the standard shredded mozzarella, and fresh basil, as well as a white pizza, several pies with mixed meat and vegetable toppings, and even the sometimes maligned “Hawaiian” pie with ham and pineapple.
There is the option to create an original pizza by choosing toppings a la carte, and this is the process for all pizza ordered by the slice. Pino’s sells a four-dollar “super slice” of plain cheese pizza, and the size, like almost everything at this restaurant, is indeed super-sized to enormous proportions. Calzones are available in basic cheese, pepperoni and sausage, and spinach and ricotta configurations, and these inside-out pizzas can also be customized as desired. Within their puffy crusts, the innermost dough melds perfectly with a molten core of cheese.
Pino’s ovens are used not only for pizza crust, but also focaccia and big loaves of crusty Italian bread. Either is available for use in sandwiches like a classic chicken parmesan or meatball sub, or a cheesesteak with mushrooms and onions. A whiteboard near the entrance usually includes at least one sandwich special such as roast beef with tomato, provolone, parmesan, lettuce, and dressing on toasted bread. All the sandwiches are enormous, and the freshly baked loaves of bread are sold to take home, although they are usually not available until mid-afternoon.
Pasta dishes at Pino’s include Italian-American “red sauce” classics like spaghetti with marinara, bolognese, or meatballs, as well as creamy preparations such as penne alfredo or penne primavera. The latter includes an assortment of grilled vegetables including broccoli and zucchini which can also be ordered separately as a side dish. Pasta receives a lot of attention on the specials board, where two or three added items can be found on any day. Recent features have included baked rigatoni and spaghetti pasticciate with meat sauce and ricotta.
Like the pastas, salads arrive in larger bowls with two pieces of focaccia on the side. There is simply no small anything here. Salad choices include essentials like Caesar and caprese. The Greek and chef salads have added heft to make them suitable as lighter meals. The panzanella salad is one of the few disappointments on the Pino’s menu. It’s a perfectly serviceable bowl of greens accentuated with cubes of mozzarella, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes; however, it lacks the essential element of big croutons. In other words, it’s panzanella without any pane in it.
This oversight aside, the salads work as well as the pastas, pizzas, and sandwiches to provide hearty meals of comforting Italian-American fare. With portions this generous, having room for dessert is hardly guaranteed. For those who persevere, there are two choices: The first is a traditional cannoli. in both small and large sizes, in which a crisp tube of fried dough is filled with a cream filling. The other is a tiramisu, offered only in one large serving, an expansive and indulgent multi-layered assemblage of espresso, chocolate, cream, and cake.
Pino’s has a liquor license and serves a limited selection of wine and bottled beer, but does not have a full bar. Non-alcoholic beverages include sodas and bottled sparkling water. The restaurant continues to offer new specials each day in a continued display of variety, but otherwise it has not changed much from its opening back in the ‘90s. It now combines the roles of a neighborhood spot for the nearby historic districts and a weekday lunch choice for Midtown office workers. With those two roles, Pino’s is indeed in the centro without being too diminutive.
139 W. Thomas Rd., Phoenix AZ 85013