By Sara Ventiera
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These days, there is a glint in the food-permeated air on Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Boulevard, especially around the 1300 to 1500 blocks. In February, the vivacious Rocco's Tacos & Tequila Bar replaced the ho-hum Smith & Jones restaurant. In June, Jack Mancini opened tapas-style eatery M Bar, filling a long-vacant corner. Just a few doors down, a former lingerie shop was renovated to become a casual pizzeria — Luigi's Coal Oven.
Ovens fired by the abundant fossil fuel became all the rage for pizza-making in South Florida after Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza chain debuted in Fort Lauderdale in 2002 and soon expanded to other states. When regulated correctly, a coal oven blazes at 900 degrees (though Anthony's fires its pizza at 800), producing a crisp and flavorful pizza in mere minutes. But simply owning one of these grand infernos doesn't guarantee success. Notably, Bellini's Coal Fired Pizza closed this summer after only 17 months.
Chef Luigi DiMeo's menu parallels Anthony's Coal Fired, with pizza balanced out by family-style house salads, oven-roasted wings, and a few pasta specials. But DiMeo says: "I'm not trying to copy anyone. This is what I know. I try to make it as close as I can [to authentic Neapolitan style]."
1415 E. Las Olas Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
Region: Fort Lauderdale
Now, Naples is a place that takes its pizza-making seriously. In fact, an organization called the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) has established strict regulations about what does and does not constitute an authentic Neapolitan pizza. Those regulations were adopted into law in Italy in 2004.
One of the rules? Pizza must be cooked in a wood-fired oven that's built to specific dimensions.
But DiMeo takes liberties with those rules. As Luigi's website (luigiscoalovenpizza.com) states, DiMeo "follows most of the VPN Rules set up by his ancestors. However he will not be following 'ALL' the VPN Rules." The website points out that Italians who immigrated to big American cities at the turn of the previous century were far removed from forests full of wood, so they used coal instead. DiMeo actually adds wood to his coal oven.
Fidelity to the VPN rules seemed to matter little to the crowds. On each of my three dining experiences a line of customers twisted out the door. Disco hits blared through the outdoor speakers into the parking lot.
Inside, though, Luigi's is a tight space. It's so small that your gut will plunge into the table when the diner behind you so much as fidgets in his seat. The L-shaped dining area, which fits no more than ten tables, borders a bar area in the middle. To the rear of the dining room, cooks visibly sweat beside the glowing coal fire oven. Framed Hollywood caricature pictures add a splash of whimsy, while espresso-stained wooden tables give a more polished look.
My dining companions and I opted for the 12-inch bruschetta pie ($11.95, or 16 inch for $15.95). (The website of VPN America states that "Pizza Napoletana is not larger than 11 inches.") Garlic and oregano topped with leafy arugula and shaved Parmesan crowns the crust. The bruschetta is so light, in fact, that I found myself lusting over the neighboring table's cheesier pie. Food envy led me to my order of the tomato pie topped with my selections: sweet peppers, sausage, pepperoni, and mushrooms on my next trip (12 inch for $9.95, 16 inch for $13.95, plus $1.50/$2.50 for toppings). We also tried the white pizza with freshly shucked Long Island littleneck clams (12 inch for $19.95).
All three pizzas — made on two different dates weeks apart — had something in common. Although each pie showcased an exterior crust baked crisp with beautiful dark blisters bursting the surface, the middle of the pie was limp, thin, and undercooked. A trademark of coal-fired ovens is supposed to be crisp dough with a pillowy interior. So what gives?
Obviously the law of gravity can cause considerable sag at the tip of a triangular slice, but even with the lightest of toppings, Luigi's slices flapped like a directional wind flag. What was to blame? It could have been inconsistent temperatures in the oven itself. Regulating the heat source is a great deal more challenging than turning a dial on a kitchen appliance. It's difficult to maintain a steady temperature with an open flame.
DiMeo adds wood to assist in temperature regulation throughout the long lunch and dinner services, because a coal fire can slow down after just a few hours. "A gummy pizza can be caused from the temperature going up and down," he said.
If you can forgive the not-so-crisp pie (although, I should note, a colleague who dined at Luigi's said that she specially requested a well-done pie and got a crispy one), the imported ingredients may win you over. DiMeo imports many of his pizza toppings from Italy and, whenever possible, Naples.
The pizza dough is made fresh daily in an 80-quart mixer (VPN rules allow for hand mixing or a low-speed mixer) with imported Neapolitan flour. Only real parmigiano reggiano, Italian mozzarella, and romana are used for cheese. The tomatoes, prosciutto, Parma ham, and salami are all from Italy too.
The Italian sausage and pepperoni on my tomato pie were testament to the quality DiMeo promised: flavorful and succulent, interlaced with fresh veggies. A light dousing of homemade tomato sauce was sweet and tangy and topped with gooey mozzarella. All good stuff — if only it were coupled with the tasty crust I craved.
I had the clam pizza and it was the grossest thing I've ever eaten. I thought even if the pizza came out crisp it didn't matter because it was gross. Even the plain pizza was soggy and inedible. It's a pizza place people, not politics. Everyone has opinions and to be honest mine leads me to Anthony's Coal Fired or Big Louies. Primantis if it's late.
Hey at least Big Louie's doesn't throw minced canned clams on dough and try to pull it off as a pizza that's supposedly better than sliced bread. They make pizza. They don't make this crap that people are going to now because it makes them feel like some sort of educated foodie. I don't dislike the whole food revolution but it's only good when the food is good, not when people just want to say it's good because of a hip sign out front or the over-hype of an opening to a mediocre dinning experience.
I have eaten the regular pizza here many times and find it excellent. crunchy and delicious. Is it Italy? Not even close, but for South Florida it's great!
Succulent pepperoni. Ok. Maybe your pizza was floppy because of all of the crap on it? Perhaps try ordering a regular pizza if you're going to review a pizza place?
First of all, In Naples everyone eats their pizza with a knife and fork. They don't pick up their pizza as it fall over and loose all the sauce and cheese. The pzza in the center is soft not crispy due to the sauce and cheese. As a critic you should know this...
Actually I do. Pizza was invented in Naples so theirs is the gold standard. My grandparents are from there and make awesome pizza, better than anything you could buy.