When it comes to pizza crust, partisanship can be fierce. Thin-crust aficionados favor the crisp-edged, slightly charred pizza cultivated in New York and Naples, Italy. Dennis Sharoky, co-owner of Coal Fire Pizza in Ellicott City, became a fan after his first taste two years ago at the Phat Pug, now closed, in Perry Hall, Md.
"It was my total awakening," says Sharoky, who also owns Nottingham's in Columbia with Brian Kannee. The business partners struck out on a due-diligence tour that led them from New York's famous pies to the Wood Stone Corp. in Washington state, where they bought a coal-fired oven with 19 square feet of baking space. Coal, they learned, burns hotter than wood, for a more uniform bake. Coal cookers might have been used by Italian immigrants in New York, who, seeking to replicate pizza from home, found coal more readily available than wood.
Coal Fire Pizza opened in April 2008, and the pizzas (13-inch, $10.95; 16-inch, $13.95; toppings, $1.50 or $2 per pie, respectively) have the requisite thin crust, with pleasing black spots thanks to the 900-degree oven. The pies are topped with fresh mozzarella (made daily in-house) and a choice of three tomato sauces: classic, spicy and "signature," the last with a shot of spicy hot pepper that keeps it from being too sweet.
The partners chose to keep the list of toppings minimal: no pineapple, crabmeat or grilled chicken. Thanks to judicious application of the usual suspects, such as fresh chopped basil, red peppers, onions, olives, spicy sausage and pepperoni, Coal Fire pizzas make it home without turning soggy or greasy in the box.
Oven-baked wings ($7.95 for eight), the only dish other than pizza prepared in the coal oven, are topped with caramelized Vidalia onions and come with triangles of chewy seasoned bread. The menu is rounded out with serviceable pasta dishes ($11.95 to $14.95), including angel hair with white clam sauce or pesto, and spaghetti with meatballs; reasonably sized sandwiches (cheesesteak, beef brisket, Italian cold cuts, roasted vegetables, $6.95 to $9.95), and five salads ($5.95 to $8.95). The Coal Fire features chunks of bacon, pecans and grape tomatoes tossed with romaine lettuce and vinaigrette; the grilled Caesar is best eaten in the 50-seat dining area while the lettuce is still crunchy and hot.
Coal Fire, which shares a strip mall called Shipley's Grant that contains a Starbucks and Cold Stone Creamery, feels like a chain. And that's the idea. A second location is scheduled to open in Gaithersburg in February or March, says Sharoky, and the partners are considering branches in Frederick, Baltimore County and Northern Virginia.
If all goes according to plan, coal-fired pizza may one day sate the masses -- and not just the folks who love a thin crust.
-- Martha Thomas (Good to Go, Dec. 2, 2009)