Serious Eats: Chicago
Coalfire: Chicago's Entry into the Coal-Oven Pizza Craze
Daniel Zemans, our man in Chicago, checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. Daniel also blogs about Chicagoland pizza, along with his friends, on the Chicago Pizza Club blog. --The Mgmt.
Neapolitan-style pizza has been making headway in Chicago for a few years, but Coalfire, which opened 14 months ago, is the only coal-oven pizzeria in Chicago. The creative force behind Coalfire is J. Spillane, who brought his pizza love to the Midwest from Worcester, Massachusetts. After ten years as a bartender, he perfected his pizza-making craft at home and opened Coalfire.
From the beginning, the place has been an unmitigated success. The response was so overwhelming that they had trouble meeting demand in the beginning and actually ran out of dough a few times. They have worked out the kinks, but they're still so busy that phone orders are not accepted on Friday and Saturday nights from 6:30 to 8:30.
Coalfire is a small place with simple but nice décor. The restaurant fills one room, with the cooks and the oven in plain view. When the pizzas are served, the pans sit on old tomato cans, which I found to be a fun touch. I ate there early, just after they opened at 5 p.m., and the sunlight that came through the front window was sufficient to light the whole restaurant.
Coalfire serves 14-inch pizzas that are baked by a coal fire inside what was designed as a wood-burning oven. There are nine signature pies, but diners are welcome to pick their own combinations. I had the Fiorentino, which has mozzarella topped with tomato sauce, hot calabrese salami, and red peppers.
The dough is prepared each night for use the following day, and the ingredients for the rest of the parts are all top of the line. The salami is made by Columbus Salame. The sausage (which I did not try) comes from Bari Foods, an outstanding Italian deli and grocery store across the street. The mozzarella, which is fresh and quite creamy, comes from the same supplier that Bari uses. Most important, Coalfire uses Stanislaus's Alta Cucina tomatoes, which are arguably the best canned tomatoes around.
The crust is, as one has a right to expect from a coal-burning oven, crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, with a nice amount of blistering. The slices are foldable, but as a matter of principle I abstain from such silly behavior. Those who are horrified by sagging tips on their slices will be disappointed by the Fiorentino, but the laws of physics demand a crust that thin sag under the weight of salami.
My typical complaint about Neapolitan-style pizza is that there are not enough toppings. No matter how good a crust is, I think it needs more to make it a pizza. I find that too often those who make Neapolitan pies are so in love with their bread that they do not adequately balance it out. That is decidedly not the case at Coalfire, where almost every inch of crust was covered with mozzarella, and the hot calabrese salami and red peppers were well represented.
The tomato sauce sits on top of the cheese, which I think is the right way to cook Neapolitan pies. It helps ensure the crust remains crisp and allows diners to focus on the sauce when eating their pizza. And when the sauce is as good as it is at Coalfire, that is definitely a good thing.
Coalfire is a short cab ride from downtown, making it accessible to those visiting Chicago from out of town (though the place has yet to be discovered by tourists). It is also not out of the way if you are going from downtown to the United Center (home of the Bulls and Blackhawks). Regulars will be disappointed to learn that Coalfire has just received its liquor license, which means the BYO policy is a thing of the past. But my concern is the quality of the pizza and not the liquor policy, and the pizza at Coalfire is excellent.
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