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April 27, 2009

Monday morning musings on coal-fired pizza



Brent just sent me word of a new coal-fired pizza place in Ellicott City called, yes, Coal Fire Pizza. It doesn't seem to have a Web site yet, so here's the info: 5725 Richard's Valley Road, 410-480-2625.

Brent has an excellent Howard County food blog called HowChow. I wish I had discovered it earlier; I can see I'm going to be able to steal it's going to be a good source for news about restaurants that I might not otherwise learn about early on. ...

Coal-fired pizza does seem to be the future of pizza, at least the near future. Joe Squared in Station North is doing well with his. Although the first (I think) coal-fired pizzeria in the area, Phat Pug in Perry Hall, closed abruptly after we heard the owner was planning to open two other places downtown, I don't think its demise had anything to do with the success of the pizza itself.

I think I'll do a Table Talk on coal-fired pizza soon. The fact that there aren't so many notable restaurants opening these days means that I have room to talk a little more about trends in my Wednesday restaurant news column, or about subjects that used to get relegated to the blog (like this week's item on corkage fees).

The problem is I'm not sure why coal-fired pizza is so trendy right now. I mean, it tastes good to me, but other kinds of pizzas do, too. Is it the crispness of the crust? Or the fact that it's ready in three minutes?

I don't have art from the new Coal Fire Pizza yet, so I'm going with a photo of the now-closed Phat Pug.

(Kenneth K. Lam/Sun photographer)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 7:23 AM | | Comments (25)


A bit OT but, speaking of pizza, Egyptian Pizza didn't go out of business at all. They moved to Valley Center (I think that's what it's called - the ex-pink mall).

They are located in what used to be Snyders Deli. They've made the interior very attractive and the food is as delicous and helpings as huge as I remembered. I understand it is BYOB, forgot to ask the waitress.

Although I've always maintained that "the pink mall" is the parking lot from hell, it's still better than the lot of the previous location.

Wasn't Phat Pug in Perry Hall (not Perryville)?

I think it's a texture and flavor thing. I love crispy, thin crust pizza. Flaccid, droopy pizza is so 2002. Toppings seem to caramelize better in a coal fired oven too. Occasionally Joe Squared has this really small, button sized pepperoni that is pure heaven in a coal fired oven.

Phat Pug in Perryville

Actually, Phat Pug was in Perry Hall (in Balto County). Perryville is in Cecil County.

Phat Pug in Perryville

Wasn't it in Perry Hall?

I knew I could count on all of you. :-) Thanks. I'll change it. EL

"relegated to the blog"?

Excellent point. EL

Wow, the Sandbox feels like Wordville today.

Where WAS Phat Pug in PH, I NEVER even remember seeing it?

Brad -- see this D@L post for the address of Phay Pug. Unfortunately, it closed shortly thereafter, in Decemebr 2007, as noted in this later D@L post. (No, it never did reopen.)

coal fired is gr8. Other ovens that get as hot as coal is good too, but most of those places (ie bop in fells) overload their pizzas already, that you don't get the advantages of the coal fired temperature.

Also, with a coal fired oven, you have an obvious hot spot and an obvious cold spot. so, the art of spinning the pizza around is really important (vs just throwing it in and taking it out in a few minutes). With other ovens that get too hot, you don't get the nice variation of the burnt to unburnt as you go around the pizza.
a bit of burntness is yumminess

Let's see..burnt bits, raw bits and cracker hard crust. No, thanks. I'm not a fan of Matthew's thick pizza, but tomato sauce on unevenly cooked cracker isn't my idea of pizza.

The coal-fired oven at Peppi's Apizza in New Haven was huge and had pretty substantial cast iron doors. No problem with unevenness there!

Forget it. Just save yourself the time and drive to NYC :) Sorry, but IMO it's the only place to get real pizza.

Joyce- u made my day! We love their food and thought they had closed.

Tried Coal Fire for lunch today and I was not impressed. Keep in mind I love Grimaldi's. I consider it reason enough to travel to New York. I wanted this place to be good. Actually I wanted it to be great. It turned out to be OK and expensive. Two topping 12" pizza was $13.95 and the toppings were scant. The crust was just not quite thin enough. The spicy sauce was not quite spicy enough and the Signature sauce was a little too sweet for my taste. Maybe these near misses will become hits with experience but I doubt I will try it again.

The only beer on tap was Bud Light and the wines lined up behind the bar were generic, factory made wines. I noticed the open bottles were restopped with the original corks not vacuum stoppers. I wondered how long the bottles had been open. The vacuum stoppers cost so little and work so good why wouldn't a restaurant use them?

With the Dog Pub nearby with good beer and good pizza I know where I will spend my money.


We tried Grimaldi's on our last trip. We weren't too keen on sitting with other people, but the pizza was great. I still think John's and Lombardi's are just as good tho. So I don't know if I'd make the trip over the bridge again just for the pizza. The view was really cool tho.

Carey, I am certain that John's and Lombardi's are just as good. I happen to enjoy communal seating like at Basque restaurants and some brew pubs I have been to where they have picnic tables set up indoors. I also love walking across the Brooklyn Bridge so Grimaldi's makes sense for me. Joe Squared's pizza is almost as good in my opinion its just that I don't go into the City very often.

MD Canon - The reason there is no unevenness at Frank Pepe's (not Peppi's) in New Haven is not the size of the oven or the cast iron doors. If anything there's more temperature gradient in their ovens than the ones around here. The reason is that the oven man at Pepe's is in near-constant motion, and knows exactly where, when and how to move the pizzas to get an even bake.

Matt - Yes, the main attraction of coal fire is the high bake temperature, though the little hint of smoke helps! Agree about the overloading. New Haven and Neapolitan style pizzas are about balance between crust, toppings, and cheese. Overloading spoils the balance, and also tends to dump topping in one's lap when the crust collapses!

Lissa - What you're describing bears no resemblance to a good coal-fired pizza, so why the straw man comparison? And what's Matthews' pizza got to do with a discussion of coal-fired thin crust pizza?

And I remain baffled as to why so many people from NYC seem to expect the rest of the world to duplicate their preferred style of pizza (or hot dogs, or bagels, or...), rather than accepting and enjoying the fact that a wide range of other styles exists. It seems like every time I see a post of the form "Well, it's not just like that from *location*, therefore it sucks", the poster is almost invariably somebody pining for NYC.

Hey, NYC - get over it. If you need to go home to get your favorite dish, do it. Enjoy a nice crab cake or deep dish pizza while you're there. The rest of us are busy exploring and enjoying what the rest of the world has to offer wherever we are, even as we cherish our favorite dishes from "back home" when we can find them.

For example, there are some "Chicago style" things one can't normally find done quite the same elsewhere, but you don't see those of us from that area whining about it on every thread where one of those foods gets mentioned. Put up the walls, call Snake Plissken to run the kitchen, and give it a rest.

As for Coal Fire, they're off to a decent start, and I suspect that unlike the Phat Pug folks, the Coal Fire crew actually has a clue and will improve their product and their operation as they go along. I hope people will give them a try and also try to judge them on their own merits, not on how close they come to some other pizza from some other place that the customer really wishes they were eating instead.


What makes you term coal fire "trendy"? Yes, there have now been three places in the area to try it over the last couple years, but why do see that as a trend? Is there some larger coal fire movement that I'm not aware of?

As for why coal fire is popular, the main thing is the heat, and the heat (in the right hands) can lend itself to a better product. There is also a certain snob appeal based on exclusivity, since new coal ovens are banned by zoning codes in some areas.

I think, though, that if one went back to the originators of the coal ovens they'd have been perfectly happy to get high temps using gas or other means, as long as the heavy thermal mass of the masonry oven structure was present. At the time the "classic" coal oven pizza places were building their ovens in the early part of the last century, coal was merely the most economical option of achieving the desired heat and humidity conditions in the oven and thus the effects that those conditions in the oven can provide.

Today, there seems to be a mistaken assumption that the classic places are are good because they use coal, rather than that they are good because of high heat, and cooking techniques that make the best use of the characteristics of the coal ovens the founders of places like Lombardi's or Pepes had available.

Coal is not a magic bullet - one needs to know what to do with it. For example, Alfred's Tomato Pie in Blackwood, NJ does a fine rendition of the New Haven style using a standard gas pizza oven. There's a bit of the smoky taste missing, but other than that, Alfred nails it. It's not the source of combustion that makes the food great, it's knowing what you're doing with the equipment you have, and knowing what you can or can't achieve within the limitations of that equipment.

I'd say that wood smoke for BBQ is the notable exception to the rule - it's hard to fake that, or work around the lack of it. In contrast, coal fire does add some smokey flavor, but that's not the big factor in why the famous coal oven pizzas are so good.

Anyway, that's my view of it, though I don't claim omniscience on the subject.

Frequent readers know that's a joke of mine. Three examples are a trend to journalists. EL

Nice to see Warthog back, both here and on Chowhound.

Warthog ... I bend and scrape!

Truth is, I've never had a Wooster street booth close enough to see what is going on when it happens at Pepe's. They've known for decades that I am Polish, not a paisano.

(I claim jet lag and you'll never get me to admit to careless spelling!).

MD Canon - No scraping - that's the oven guy's job! ;-)

I seriously lucked out my first time in Pepe's. We got one of the booths in the front room, and I sat on the side with a direct view of the oven. After about two minutes, my friend who lives up there gave up trying to talk to me, and spun around to see what had me so transfixed.

It was a very busy night, and we had gone through a 45 minute wait in a line that stretched down the block. The restaurant and the oven were absolutely packed, and the oven guy was executing a ballet with his long handled peel as the guy who made the pies and the guy who cut and plattered them instinctively dodged the long handle of the oven guy's peel.

You could tell that the team that was on duty had worked together so long that they had learned how to move around and do their jobs without getting in each other's way. It was simply beautiful to watch.

I kept expecting a "Three Stooges" moment where they would get humorously or painfully out of synch, with peel handle whacking skull or some such, but it never happened. It was just an amazing sequence of ducks, spins and near misses, most carried out without even looking.

The place was so loud, I have no idea if the crew were talking to each other as they moved to give the others audible cues of where they were and what they were doing at all times, but I have to assume that they were. Either that, or they were exhibiting zen-master level awareness of their surroundings even when looking in the other direction.

As you can tell, it made a big impression on me, which is why I place so much value on the skill of the oven guy. It's a make-or-break role in a pizzeria with a coal or wood fired oven. If that guy screws up, it all comes to a halt while the "mistake" gets cleaned off the oven floor, or the crew member who got whacked in the noggin gets treated for injuries. And with bigger oven and a busier place, the difficulty level goes up exponentially. Keeping more than a couple pies at a time under control is like being an air traffic controller while standing in a blast furnace.

Watching a really good oven guy at work when getting slammed with a full load of orders makes me want to get on my knees and do the "Wayne's World" "We're not worthy!" bit. It's one of those jobs or crafts that becomes an art form when carried out by somebody who really knows their stuff.

I know that overloading a pizza with toppings does not make it good. However, the meager amout of sausage on my pizza was beyond going for balance. If Coal Fire intends to continue scant toppings I would suggest getting sausage with more flavor. To say Coal Fired should not be judged against other coal fired pizza places just doesn't make any sense. I don't understand what the location of the comparable pizza has to do with anything. I've had coal fired pizza in three other places. Phat Pug was horrible but not because it was in Perry Hall. Joe Squared is good but not because it is in Baltimore City. Grimaldi is great but not because it is in Brooklyn.

I hope that Coal Fire does improve. I have learned to stick with cheese. I hope they will see the error of their ways and offer beer other than Bud Light on tap. I will try again in month or so to see if I like it any better.

Phat Pug Pizza was delicious, but it was easy to see that it would not be in business for very long. I think I tried to get their pizza 4 times. One time I got it with no problems. Once they said that there would be no pizza for an hour or so because the oven wasn't ready - at dinner time. Another time I had burnt pizza, and another time it took over 90 minutes to get a carryout order.

I heard about this new coal fired pizza place there in Howard County MD. So I went there and tried it> I was not impressed at all. Being a fan of Lombardies in NewYork Peppes in Connecticut and Phat Pug's when it was in baltimore this place dont compare. My pizza was kinda a raw in the middle. These owners have along way too go,but I will say the wings were fabulous and the salad was very tasty.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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