by Gail Ciampa at The Providence Journal
The interior of Coal-Fired Pizza in Providence is large and inviting, with the usual dining room tables and full bar.
For something completely different, a restaurant in Providence now serves coal-fired pizza.
With high heat generated by Pennsylvania anthracite, pizza can be cooked in short order with the appealing quality of a light and airy yet satisfying crust. Like the best ovens used in old-world bakeries, there’s no on and off switch for this type of cooking. It’s all about building heat with a pile of coal in the corner of the oven to generate the proper heat for what is to be cooked. But building it to the level of heat desired, that takes some expertise. It’s organic cooking at its most basic.
It might not be easy; but the flavors make it worth it.
Providence Coal-Fired Pizza, at 385 Westminster St., is breaking new ground in the very space where musicians did the same at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel until 1988. Now there’s an oven that rises to a high ceiling where the club’s balcony used to be.
Interior designer Libby Slader has created a space with the usual dining room tables and full bar with nearby high tops. But there’s also the unexpected, with several long community tables as well as seats at a curving counter that look into the giant pizza oven, offering dinner and a show.
Mostly this place is all about the food; not just pizza but other dishes that benefit from the high-heat technique. Chicken wings are at the top of that list. Who doesn’t love a crunchy skin and moist meat? That’s what you get with the Coal-Fired Wings. They are seasoned with a blend of herbs and spices not related to Buffalo and there’s no sauce. The result: a unique flavor.
Lunch, too, comes complements of the oven in sandwiches on housemade foccacia bread. You can chose from meatball and ricotta, caprese, prosciutto or salumi.
There are many partners in the venture, which just broke ground late last year and opened in the spring. Behind the scenes are businessmen Mike Solomon, Chris Mossey and Ed Restivo. Restivo is the son of North Providence cookbook author and cable TV cook Jean Restivo. Traveling around the country for business, Restivo enjoyed coal-fired pizza elsewhere and thought Providence would appreciate “a different kind of pizza made a different way.”
Chef Rick Allaire creates charcuterie plates with meats and pairs them with local New England cheeses. The plates give the menu a composed dish that will change regularly.
The other partners are the faces of the business; three men who’ve had lots of hospitality and cooking experience. They are Michael Santos, who’s managing the restaurant, and chefs Dave Bertolini and Rick Allaire.
Santos and Bertolini worked together at Union Station in Providence, part of John Harvard’s Brewery. Santos most recently was food and beverage manager at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. Allaire was the chef at Newport’s Tucker’s Bistro and L’Epicureo in Providence.
These days Allaire and Bertolini are reveling in their $60,000 Wood Stone Oven, made in Washington. They traveled to the West Coast to learn all the intricacies of their new toy.
While the heat in the oven gets up to 900 degrees, the deck temp is at 660 degrees. They maintain the temperature with 40 pounds of coal. They commit to a temperature change every time they add coal.
“I feel like we are building a relationship with the oven,” said Allaire.
“It’s like driving a big truck,” said Bertolini of learning how to amp up the heat; but not too much.
The oven is but one part of their job. There’s still the food to prepare. But they also brought with them their other talents.
Bertolini wrestled with creating the right dough for a coal-fired oven. Because of the heat, he makes a dough that is 77 percent water. As it bakes, the water evaporates and all that’s left is the lightest of dough.
He’s settled on a composition of rye flour, barley (they are milling their own) and semolina.
“When the pizza goes into a high-temp oven, it gets a nice crackling crust,” said Bertolini.
He has also mastered a most pleasing, light tomato sauce.
Allaire meanwhile creates charcuterie plates with meats and pairs them with local New England cheeses like the Hannabell cheese from Shy Brothers Farm in Westport, Mass., and Great Hill Blue from Marion, Mass. He likes that the plate gives the menu a composed dish that will also change regularly. Right now he’s making a violet mustard and pork rillettes. Soon he’ll make a soppressata. It’s his recipe, with 10 spices that adorn the naked, baked Coal-Fired Wings. Ribs baked in the oven are also a regular special.
It seems that man, even with a coal-fired oven, cannot live on pizza alone.