Meet the Maker: Coalfire Pizza's Pesto Pizza
Last night I was on the phone with Apple, dealing with a defunct iPhone, and when the Scottish technician saw my address on his computer screen he said, "Chicago! Man, you guys have some great pizza." That's something this site has covered, and continues to cover, from top to bottom. Which is why I went against the grain when choosing which pizza to write about for this week's piece when I dropped by Coalfire Pizza on Grand Avenue, west of Ogden.
Coalfire, which will see its five-year anniversary in May, has a style of pizza that's uniquely its own, drawing from regional variations in different ways. Its coal-burning oven is uncommon for pizzerias and harkens back to old school New Haven joints, and yet its thin crust is almost Neapolitan in style, but with more crisp. Co-owner Bill Carroll says, "Sometimes we refer to ourselves as 'Neapolitan-American,' but we don't really believe in labeling. There are so many forms and expressions of pizza, our theory is: We just are what we are, and if that fits some category, fine. If not, also fine!" Bill is from Springfield, MA and his business partner Dave is from Chicago. Both saw the opportunity for a different type of pizza in the city, and the idea for Coalfire was born.
When I moved here in 2009, Coalfire is where I was constantly told to go, especially for their red sauce pies (the Margherita is the goods). On a menu of nine different pizzas, all but two have red sauce: its White pie (mozzarella, ricotta, romano, fresh basil, garlic infused evoo, oregano, ground pepper) and Pesto pie (homemade pesto, ricotta, kalamata olives, olive oil). I walked in hoping the menu would help me decide which pizza to order, but instead found myself listening in on the order of a regular ahead of me. He was about to head to O'Hare for a flight, but had to get his Coalfire fix before taking off. And it was the Pesto pie that gave him that fix—so I had to get mine too, despite the popularity of its red sauce pies.
Coalfire makes its pesto in-house, and though Bill was shy to reveal how it is made, the basil was pretty forward with the expected soft grainy feel of parmesan and creamy nuttiness of pine nuts. When layering the pie, the dough is topped with a thin layer of mozzarella cheese, and then spread with a couple tablespoons of the fresh pesto. It's then sprinkled with a ricotta cheese that definitely lacks the moisture of a homemade ricotta, and I think with good reason. It'd be a shame for the water in a fresh ricotta to pool on top of the pie after cooking and mute out the texture and subtle flavors working on the thing, especially because the pizza is finished with sliced kalamata olives. The brine of the olive, and its soft flesh, is a great complement to the bright and herby pesto.
The 14" pizzas are baked in a Valoriani brick oven that was pieced together in Minnesota before seeing its final assembly in the kitchen, and it's fueled by coal. Bill and Dave chose the coal burning oven because not only was it hard to get coal-fired pizza, but the coals burn hotter and longer than wood. The guys wanted a hot, hot oven—and they got it. Even standing a few feet from the open oven, the heat really jumped out of its open front. The pizzas cook on incredibly hot bricks, with an oven temperature near 800 degrees, with an internal coal temperature that can climb to over 1,300 degrees (just look at the flames in the picture).
The cooking method is a pretty brilliant tool for the business, too. With their thin crust pizza, after three minutes in the oven the pies are done—a convenient thing for a dining room with several dozen seats and a booming carryout business (but no delivery). The pizzas come out of the oven with a raised and bubbly crust, charred and perfectly crisp. The bottom of the pie was nearly black after baking on the hot bricks. And that's what the pizza is all about. The char on the crust is literally an ingredient on the pizza, but without being invasive to the pesto or cheese or olives.
Bill gave a heads up that the Pesto pie doesn't sell as well as some of their others, and I'm not sure why that is. But then again I was like most kids who grew up despising olives on pizza, and maybe that's just a stigma we don't ever shake. But in this case, it's definitely one worth shaking.