1321 West Grand Avenue, Chicago, IL 60642 (map); 312-226-2625; coalfirechicago.com
Pizza Style: Neapolitan-American
The Skinny: Beloved coal oven pizzeria comes through in every respect except for the crust
Price: Coalfire Creations range from $14.50 - $19; build your own starts at $13.50
When I planned out which pizzerias I was going to revisit for the Chicago Essential series, Coalfire was the only one that gave me any pause. Since the place opened its doors in 2007, it has been wildly popular, drawing a consistent crowd and finding itself on every respectable "Best Of" pizza list in town. But my last couple of experiences had been really disappointing, including a visit with Ed Levine and the Dinner Tonight boys that saw most of our pizza go uneaten.
The problem with the pizzas was in the crust. And while there are certain styles of pizza where the crust is there more for function than flavor, that is definitely not the case with the Neo-Neapolitan pies at Coalfire, which meant that the undercooked and flavorless crusts I was getting were just killing the pizzas. Surprisingly, when I first reviewed the place and in my other early visits, the crust was their strength. That said, Coalfire still has a large and passionate fan base that includes some people whose food opinions I respect greatly. So with Chicago Essential winding down, I decided to head back to the small spot in West Town one more time.
The menu has 10 "Coalfire Creations" as well as a design your own pizza option. I stuck with predetermined combinations and started with the appropriately named "Meat". The pizza comes with a trio of meats in the form of calabrese salami, Italian sausage, and pepperoni, along with mozzarella and tomato sauce. The sauce is solid thanks to clean and bright tomato flavor and the mozzarella is a quality commercial version that is nice and creamy even if it's not a standout version.
Not surprisingly, it's the pork that really stands out on Meat pizza. The calabrese salami and the pepperoni offered layers of spiciness in the form of chewy and, in the case of the pepperoni, crispy pork. The small chunks of sausage were loaded with fennel and were able to stand out against the spicy meat competition. The quality of the meats is in line with Coalfire's topping standards, which are universally very good. The quantity of meat is generous, reflective of Coalfire's tendency, which I appreciate, to go big when it comes to toppings.
The Napoli is a more restrained pizza that comes with fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce, and anchovies. There is significantly more sauce and cheese than is typical for the style, but that's not going to get a complaint out of me. The fresh mozzarella, which comes with the Napoli and is available (and well worth it) for an extra buck on other pies, is a particularly creamy and apparently easily melted variety. The anchovies, a controversial topping in some circles, delivered the salty fishy punch that I like more and more these days.
When it comes to the crust, I have good news, bad news, and worse news. I ordered the Meat pizza with no additional requests and asked for the Napoli to be well done. The good news is that the kitchen delivered on my request and, based on the Meat pizza, it seems undercooking is no longer a problem. The bad news is that the crust is too dense and way too dry. The worse news is that the crust is, with the exception of the charred portions, devoid of flavor. I generally don't get worked up about a lack of salt in the crust because I almost always order, as I did here, salty toppings. But on this style of pizza, where the crust plays such a prominent role, I need it to be a quality piece of bread that I'd be happy eating plain and neither crust came close to that level.
Coalfire was an early pebble in the recent avalanche of pizzerias in Chicago that do not fit into the city's traditions of tavern, deep dish, or stuffed pizza. And four years later, the owners remain committed to putting out a quality pizza using top of the line ingredients. Unfortunately, the crust I loved at Coalfire during the early years seems to be a thing of the past. For plenty of Chicagoans, Coalfire remains a top pizza destination and is popular enough that I still think it belongs in the Chicago Essential series. But for my tastes, if I feel the need for a coal oven pizza, I'm going to make the long trek out to Wauconda to visit Slyce.