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It's Saturday night, and you're driving around Palm Beach County looking for pizza. Where do you go?
That's the question my friends Eric and Cristina had posed to me a few weeks ago when I visited them at their home in Boynton Beach. According to them, the food options in their little neck of Suburbanville were pretty darned lamentable. "Everything's either corporate-owned or geared toward an ancient crowd," Eric told me in a moment of frustration.
I should've said, "I told you so." After all, he was the one who decided to move to a town so chock-full of retirees that Dennis Miller might call it "God's Waiting Room." Instead, we popped in his car and set the GPS for two nearby pizza places that are anything but boring.
We started out at Corelino's Coal Oven Pizza & Cucina, the latest of a string of coal-oven pizzerias to open in South Florida. This 50-seater on the edge of Lake Worth may be small, but managing owners Sal Randazzo and Joe Tangialosi have big aspirations for their 3-month-old restaurant — they hope to open four or five more Corelino's in Palm Beach County in the near future.
Walk inside and you'll see something vaguely reminiscent of that other, better-established coal-fired chain. The one-room restaurant is dimly lit and smart-looking, with earthy tile and dark stone countertops anchored by two stone hearths churning out thin pies. At the far end is a broad wine bar that furthers the luxe impression (even though it seems to have become more of a service area where the wait staff hangs out, and subsequently clutters up).
My friends and I grabbed a seat outside on the broad sidewalk that circles the restaurant, bustling that night with families scarfing down pizzas. Our server — a young, slim guy who greeted us with a forced bongiorno — was obviously in the weeds. He was like a caricature of a forgetful waiter: He misplaced our drink orders, left off wine we'd requested, and even managed to make us feel bad asking for refills ("You want more water?" he repeated back to us).
We managed to laugh off his issues and still found plenty to like at Corelino's. The restaurant's menu is small and focused — there are coal-fired staples like chicken wings smothered with caramelized onions, and broccoli rabe served with roasted sausage. Complementing its pies cooked with environmentally friendly Pennsylvania anthracite are a handful of classic New York Italian dishes like spaghetti con aglio y olio and eggplant parmigiano, none priced more than $17.
We started with the broccoli rabe ($7.50), a generous pile of bitter broccolini that was well-cooked, albeit underseasoned. The sausage accompanying it was dry and probably bought in bulk. We liked the "JoJo pollo" ($14) Cristina ordered far better — it had two juicy, grilled chicken breasts topped with spinach, cheese, tomato, and fresh basil. She was really digging the oven-roasted potatoes that came with it too. "I could eat a plateful of these alone," she said, swiping the tender potatoes in a pool of white wine sauce.
Corelino's offers about a dozen specialty pizzas, with standard options (Hawaiian, margherita, traditional cheese) complementing more original fare ("Corelino's own," for example, has ham, eggs, artichokes, and mushrooms). The thing that makes their pizza work (or not work) is the crust. Properly cooked coal-oven pizzas have a cracker-thin texture and a crust that's pocked with flavorful char. You can get a pizza like this at Corelino's, but you have to know what to order.
The 16-inch pies are thin and well-cooked, especially if you order one with few toppings. But the 12-inch ones are thicker, which means the middle doesn't quite crisp up before the outside edges get perfectly charred. The "Corelino's own" ($12.50) I tried was proof. The rich tomato sauce, the sweet ham, and the earthy egg all tasted great on top of it. But there were so many toppings on it, it was almost like a slice of deep-dish pizza. "If I've got to eat my slice with a fork and knife, something's wrong," said Eric.
The bianca was the same — the creamy ricotta on top made for a savory slice, but it wasn't as thin and crisp as any of us would have liked. Still, one smart thing Corelino's does is place cross-hatched "plates" underneath each pie. These filter-like metal trays actually keep moisture from settling into the crust and turning it soggy (it happens with coal-fired pizza pretty often, actually). Thanks to those, if you stick to the 16-inch pies — and order the Italian desserts like flaky orange-scented sfogliatelle and handmade cannolis — there's reason enough to go back.
Still, our pizza craving wasn't quite sated. So the following weekend, Eric and I took the short trip to Lantana's boutique Ocean Avenue strip for some pizza at year-old Pizzeria Oceano. We found a scene similar to Corelino's when we arrived — big families dining al fresco on the wooden patio, under a drape of Christmas lights strung from roof to tables.
But unlike Corelino's, Oceano seems to have more modest ambitions. Owner Dak Kerprich's converted, 450-square-foot bungalow is little more than a shack. There are barstools inside facing the sole oven, which is powered by sweet black oak trucked down from Georgia. Kerprich, an inveterate restaurant manager who's worked in Palm Beach for years, has been quoted on multiple occasions saying he wants no part in "feeding the masses." He reserves the right to refuse takeout orders (it says as much on his menu) and doesn't allow customers to change anything about his custom-made pies. Ask your server to swap, say, creamy robiola cheese for the house-made mozzarella and he or she will tell you quite bluntly, "If you don't like it, don't order it." Oh, and cash only, please.
Maybe you find Kerprich's no-nonsense take on pizza endearing; maybe you think it's arrogant. Either way, you can tell that he and his wife, Marsha, who sashays around the patio as a charming hostess, have put a lot of thought into what they do. The pair has assembled a beautiful list of boutique wines ranging from affordable ($30 a bottle) to less so ($75 and up). There's also a modest craft beer list that sports interesting finds you aren't likely to see outside of a specialty bar (Bison Organic IPA, for example, a steal at $4.50). But most interesting is the collection of ingredients Kerprich sources from local and artisanal purveyors. Each day, Pizzeria Oceano prints a new menu that lists its ingredients and from where they hail. One day, it could be wild boar cacciatorini from some obscure New York salumeria that finds its way on a pizza along with English cheddar and roasted onions. Another time, it's locally grown dandelion greens from Swank Farms or lobster hauled that day off a Lantana fisherman's boat. Some of the options can climb to the pricey side (one pie listed at $23, for example). But everything about it screams fresh, current, and seasonal. It's Slow Food-style eating adapted to a pizzeria, and the results are damned good.
You'll find four specialty pies listed per day, plus a basic tomato/mozzarella pizza that allows you more leeway in picking and choosing additional toppings. On that first visit, Eric and I caught glimpses of the "vitamin green" pie ($18) at nearby tables, so we ordered one too. It came to the table as thin as a sheet of poster board, its steaming hot top scattered with a thin layer of leafy local spinach cooked just to wilting. The white pie had no sauce either — just mozzarella, garlic, and the most powerful squirt of sunshine-bright lemon juice that tasted like it had been condensed by the oven's heat. We took a bite and nodded at each other in approval. It was pizza perfection.
"And the crust," Eric said as he took a bite. "Look at this." He grabbed a slice by the charred crust and held it aloft. The dough was so perfectly cooked, it held straight up like a flag in the wind.
I decided to grab a slice and give it the old "New York fold test." As I folded the crust over, it gave a plaintive "snap," and cheese oozed over the side. That's a pass.
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We gobbled up that pie in record time. After the last slice was taken, we looked at each other knowingly. I was the first to say it. "You want to order another?" I asked.
"I was thinking that too," he said with a grin.
As we waited for our next pie, a "basic" ($13) with bright tomato sauce and house-made mozzarella, we saw Kerprich come out of the kitchen to pick fresh basil from the pot next to our bench. When the pizza arrived just moments later, it was that basil on top. "I think I've found my new pizza joint," Eric said, his mouth half full of pizza.
I think I have too.