Skip navigation
Coal-powered revivalists stoke pizza sector’s smoldering new competition

Coal-powered revivalists stoke pizza sector’s smoldering new competition

Coal-fired ovens, staples of legendary pizzerias in the Northeast for more than 100 years, are turning white-hot elsewhere in the nation as operators look beyond wood-stoked hearths for a pizza trend revival.

The new wave of coal-oven pizzerias includes 11-unit Anthony’s Coal-Fired Pizza of Boca Raton, Fla., and nine-unit Grimaldi’s Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria of Scottsdale, Ariz.

In Minneapolis, chef-owner Jordan Smith opened the 50-seat Black Sheep Coal-Fired Pizza Oct. 21 and already is dealing with waiting crowds on weekends.

“I’m a food geek from way back,” Smith said. “The best pizza I’ve ever eaten was out of coal-burning ovens in New York and Brooklyn.”

Lombardi’s Coal-Oven Pizzeria, which opened in 1905 in New York City and remains a landmark in lower Manhattan, is credited with being the first licensed pizza restaurant in the United States.

What sets coal-fired ovens apart from most pizza ovens that operate at 600 degrees Fahrenheit is that coal pushes the temperature easily past 800 degrees and can raise it to 1,200 degrees. In addition to the crisp yet tender crust created by rapid baking in that blistering heat, the coal imparts a distinctive flavor that’s superior to a wood fire, devotees insist.

In New York, environmental rules have limited new coal ovens, leaving only a handful of the old-style pizzerias in operation. However, the city allows existing coal ovens to be rebuilt or replaced under a regulatory grandfather clause.

Immigrants to New York in the late 19th century found that coal was a cheaper and more plentiful baking fuel than wood. Early pizza makers spawned Arturo’s, Lombardi’s, John’s and Patsy’s in Manhattan and Totonnio’s and Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn. New Haven, Conn., is another coal-fired-pizza epicenter, known for such places as Pepe’s, The Spot and Sally’s.

Transplanted New Yorkers are now spreading the coal fires to other parts of the country. Anthony Bruno, who grew up in Brooklyn, started Anthony’s in South Florida in 2003, and the company is about to open its 12th location. The chain has been growing with help from an early investment by pro-football legend Dan Marino.

Grimaldi’s Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria, the nine-unit chain based in Scottsdale, has units in Arizona, Texas and Nevada.

Partner Eric Greenwald, a former director of operations for the Arizona-based Maestro Group, said his original Grimaldi’s unit was a spinoff of the New York original. The branch debuted six years ago in Old Town Scottsdale.

“It’s a very touristy area, and it was a great area to introduce both visitors and locals to the coal-fired pizza,” Greenwald said. “The ovens flash-cook the pizza. Our cooking time in the oven is about three minutes. It cooks the pepperoni all through, but it’s still moist. Wood has different densities, so it burns at different temperatures. It can be inconsistent.”

After first expanding to six Arizona branches, Greenwald’s company took two years off “to build our manuals, our systems, our policies and procedures,” he said. In the past year, Grimaldi’s opened a unit in Las Vegas and two in Dallas.

Fuel costs are nearly identical for coal and conventional pizza ovens, Greenwald said.

“Coal probably is about the same as gas,” Greenwald said. “We care a lot about the environment, but anthracite [coal] actually burns cleaner than wood.”

Grimaldi’s ovens are built to order by two specialists from New York and take from six to eight days to construct, Greenwald said.

“We have bricklayers that we bring in from Brooklyn,” he said. “It’s the same architectural plan, obviously brought up to code, from the original drawings that they used in the Brooklyn store. We re-engineered it. It’s 25 tons of concrete and brick. It’s a massive piece of kitchen equipment. But that’s it for equipment. In the back, we have an ice machine, a three-compartment sink, a mixer, some prep tables, and a walk-in and a dishwasher.”

Average Grimaldi’s units have about 180 seats and comprise between 3,200 and 4,000 square feet. Greenwald said his company looks for outdoor, high-end malls. A branch that opened earlier this year in Allen, Texas, a suburb north of Dallas, is tallying sales running 15 percent to 18 percent above expectations, he said.

“The people there have been supportive right off the bat,” Greenwald said.

Training the pizza chefs is paramount to success, he added.

“What those guys do at that oven is an art,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s a very difficult thing to do properly. The hardest thing to do is to not burn it. The training on that oven takes months and months to do right. We make the oven our center stage because of that. We also make our own mozzarella and mill our own flour to accommodate the high temperatures of the oven.”

Some problems have cropped up for operators of some coal-oven pizzerias, however.

Coal Vine’s, a two-unit chain in the Dallas-Fort Worth area created by Joseph Palladino, a partner with restaurant impresario Phil Romano in Nick & Sam’s Steakhouse there, has converted its original Dallas outlet to gas because of “consistency and pollution” reasons, a manager said. For now, at least, the Coal Vine’s unit in Southlake, Texas, remains coal-fired, he added.

At Grimaldi’s, pizzas and salads often are shared, but the average check for two people is between $35 and $37, including beverages, Greenwald said. His company has plans to open a unit in Houston and another in San Antonio within the next year while scouting potential sites in Florida for expansion in 2010.

Training seems to be a key factor in succeeding with coal ovens, several operators said.

At his new Black Sheep Coal-Fired Pizza in Minneapolis, chef-owner Smith has found that the oven “is a pain to get lit, but once it’s dialed in, it’s amazing.”

“Unlike wood, there’s no roller-coaster of temperature,” he said. “You get that coal-oven bad boy set up the way you want, and it just cruises. It’s great.”

Smith bought his oven from a manufacturer in Washington state who had provided wood-burning ovens for restaurants where he worked previously.

“It performs beautifully,” he said. “I don’t think it’s more expensive to operate than gas. I burn 70 to 80 pounds of coal a day, and I’m finding the operating costs of the fuel aren’t higher. The labor costs required by the three-to-four-hour lead time to get the oven up to the needed temperature might be a little higher.”

As for the environmental concerns that led to the moratorium on new coal-fired ovens in New York City, Smith said he’s not concerned because of the 21st-century shift to anthracite, versus dirtier-burning bituminous coal.

“It’s a virtually emissions-free fuel,” Smith said.

TAGS: Archive
Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.