For years, Italian Oven restaurants dotted communities around western Pennsylvania and beyond.
“We had over 120 restaurants in 17 states and Australia,” said founder Jim Frye.
But after the company went public in the late 1990s, the chain fell into bankruptcy, with many of the restaurants closing.
Frye eventually required the brand and went to work developing a new concept.
In the spring of 2013, he opened his reinvented version of the Italian Oven, as a fast-casual restaurant, along Route 8 in Richland Township.
“This is the first of the new concept,” he said of the Richland location.
Frye said he decided to simplify the original full-service Italian Oven into a more streamlined operation after noticing a lack of fast-casual Italian restaurants on the market.
“We provide a high-quality meal in under 10 minutes for under 10 dollars,” he said of the restaurant’s new model. “It just seemed to be the right time.”
The new menu includes a variety of 10-inch pizzas—including the unique prosciutto, arugula and fig jam pie and the grilled chicken with spinach and pancetta—pastas and salads.
Customers may pick a pizza style from the restaurant’s “Chose Ours” menu or opt for the “Create Yours” list of toppings to build their own custom pie.
Executive chef Susan Bellucci, who along with former Minutello’s restaurant owner Lou Minutello is a co-owner of the Italian Oven, helped create the new menu. She added the eatery’s focus is on fresh, flavorful food.
For those new to the restaurant, she recommends the Soon to Be Famous meatballs and the Porchetta Piadina, a flatbread sandwich.
“I think the menu is more compact, and it’s definitely more into this century,” said Bellucci, who also was involved in the original Italian Oven concept. “We put a lot more twists in this menu.”
In the midst of the cheerful orange-and-white restaurant, formerly a Pizza Fusion, is a spot of green from the herbs growing in planters placed along the building’s floor to ceiling windows.
Bellucci said the plants were grown and given to them by special needs students in the Pine-Richland School District. In return, the owners sent the students pizzas. The produce is local from the Freedom Farms market in nearby Middlesex Township.
“We are very, very focused on making a fresh made-to-order meal for guests,” Frye said.
Frye noted the restaurant has been favorably received by those who’ve tried it. That includes regular customer Matt Hey, a Richland Township resident who orders his favorite dish, the Margherita pizza, every Friday.
“I love it,” he said. “I love all the fresh ingredients.”
Frye said he hopes to open a second Italian Oven in the Pittsburgh region in the near future. After that, the restaurant will be open to franchising, he said.
“You come in, you order, you pay,” he said. “We think we have a good thing here.”