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Pizz-Off, Manhattan!
Joe Rocco

Pizz-Off, Manhattan!

Boo-hoo-hoody-hoo-hoo. If I hear one more transplanted New Yorker whinging and sniveling about how there's no good pizza in South Florida, I'm going to explode in a shower of marinara. It's not enough that we give you people 363 days of brilliant sunshine, endless beaches, 15 varieties of mango tree, and an ocean the temperature of bathwater — you've got to have exactingly charred pizza crusts too?

New Yorkers can dry their eyes; in the past four years, seven coal-fired pizzerias have opened between Aventura and West Palm Beach. That means we have roughly as many coal-burning pizza ovens in our vicinity as Manhattan and Rome. Those cities can't build any new coal ovens because of strict environmental codes, so guess what happens? Down here, where it's totally legal — nay, encouraged — to decimate the environment, suddenly everybody's firing his pizza with coal.

Bring it on! It's a 21st-century American gold rush. New York pizzaristas are swarming to Florida to stake their claims before the enviro-Nazis get wise: This is the last, lawless frontier, pizzarily speaking — the Deadwood of tomato pie. The question these days is not whether South Florida purveys any "real pizza"; it's whether we have the patience to sit through the inevitable arguments and dissertations that will surely follow. And the equanimity to watch friendships fizzle over the question of crust density and sauce consistency.


Red Rock Coal Fired Pizza

Coal Mine 399 SE Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton. Lunch and dinner daily. Call 561-826-COAL.

Red Rock Coal Fired Pizza 50 NE First Ave., Boca Raton. Lunch and dinner. Closed Monday. Call 561-361-6655.

Anythony's Coal Fired Pizza2203 S. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale (also in Pompano Beach, Weston, and Aventura). Lunch and dinner. Closed Tuesday. Call 954-462-5555.

Fire Rock Pizza 1 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Lunch and dinner daily. Call 561-837-9050.

Hot enough fer ya? Yeah, baby. It's 800 degrees Fahrenheit in the oven I'm staring dreamily into, give or take a few degrees. That oven is burning anthracite, the world's hardest and hottest and cleanest-burning coal, one many a Pennsylvania miner has lived and died to pull from the earth. The coal in that oven draws a sooty black line connecting today's lunch to the Carboniferous Period 354 million years ago; it burns 200 degrees hotter than wood, 300 hotter than gas. At Coal Mine Pizza in Boca, the cocky dude behind the counter has just given my dough a few fancy flips, sprinkled it with mozzarella and razor-thin slices of sausage, and shoveled the pie into a pit that defines "fire and brimstone." Me and my right-hand gourmand, Steve Ellman — a New York transplant himself and an annoying, inveterate know-it-all — are on a quest to find the best. We'll bicker and cavil over the details, but we fall uncharacteristically silent over a great one. It's like looking into the face of God; besides, it's rude to talk with your mouth full.

Coal-fired. Those two words turn pizza aficionados into drooling, squabbling idiots. Those two words mean the pie landing in front of you is probably going to be bruciato if it's been handled right, its cracker-thin crust poufed with charred pockets of air that crunch when you bite, dissolving to waves of cream on your tongue, with faint flavor echoes of sourdough and roasted nuts. It means when you fold your slice in half, you'll find gorgeous striations of umber and amber, like a rock formation, beneath, pocked with jet-black pits and further gilded with gritty semolina. A good coal-fired pizza, which cooks in about three minutes, is a symphony of textures, of gentle harmonies and crashing timpani, of mild bitters and transcendent, vegetal sugars. Think I exaggerate? Pizza is the most hotly debated and defended comestible in America and the most democratic, the food that turns Everyman into a connoisseur — if you doubt me, simply type the word Grimaldi's into your Google search engine.

Patsy Grimaldi's methods in the famous Brooklyn pizza emporium were handed down by notable Italian Gennaro Lombardi, who brought the art of Neapolitan baking to New York at the turn of the last century and built the city's first coal-fired oven. Lombardi set the standards that, 200 years later, we're still obliged to eat by: the question of the crust, the distribution and water content of the mozzarella, the piquancy, placement, and texture of the tomato sauce, the ideal balance. These three elements — crust, cheese, sauce — are a holy trinity.

Ellman and I scored Anthony's in Fort Lauderdale, Coal Mine and Red Rock in Boca, and the newest, Fire Rock in West Palm Beach. What follows is our oh-so-objective evaluation of four pizzas and accompanying salads. We tried to order roughly the same pie, a broccoli rabe and sausage, but in a couple of cases, we had to substitute the closest approximation. Read Here Our Proclamations, and Weep No More.

Number One: Red Rock Coal Fired Pizza in Boca, a tiny, bare-bones room now a couple of years old, makes an authentic Neapolitan pizza that just barely edges out its competition. (We had a split decision, but guess who gets the last word?) Pizza salsica costs $10.95 for ten inches, $20.95 for 16, and it arrives exuding gigantic clouds of steam. The crust is beautiful — impossibly thin, barely soft toward the center but still holding shape, great black airy puffs along the cornicione, or rim. Mildly sweet tomato sauce — not peppery or savory (a great counterpoint to bitter broccoli rabe) is peasant-like and chunky, distributed unevenly (which is good) across the pie. Red Rock uses very creamy high-water fresh mozzarella, white blobs scattered across the surface, which I personally prefer to the chewier and stretchier low-water mozz. The sausage on this pizza was also my favorite of the four — medium-thick slices of spicy, fennel-laden fresh Italian sausage with just the right amount of tooth. On the downside, the balance was off — too much rabe, which weighed down the pizza and edged it into bitterness, and too many whole cloves of roasted garlic. Their Italian salad ($9, serves two) of romaine, cherry tomatoes, hard egg, gorgonzola, red onion, olives, and garbanzo beans was identical to Anthony's in Fort Lauderdale: mild and cooling but otherwise not notable. The bread here, fresh-baked hot ciabatta dusted with parmesan, was absolutely awesome.

Number Two: Coal Mine, with a full liquor bar and outdoor patio, was Ellman's pick for the gold. In the absence of rabe, we ordered a large sausage-arugula ($20) and a delicious Tuscan salad ($14, large) — an ideally proportioned mix of romaine, white beans, salami, tomato, artichokes, and diced pecorino chopped into cubes and thoroughly — not heavily — coated in tart Italian dressing. Our pizza came puffing and steaming to our waiting rack, fresh raw leaves of arugula melting into the hot cheese. The thin, pleasantly sour crust had lots of textural things going on — some toothsome, some pillowy, some airy, some dense, with lovely pockets and black holes and areas of crunch and oily bits — a single slice as varied as a life well lived. Mozz and sauce melted together to make a uniform, dappled sea upon which tiny rounds of paper-thin sausage had been tossed like life preservers. The whole was happily olive-oily. Coal Mine makes a fantastic, authentic, New York-style pizza that ought to bliss out the crankiest snowbird. And for the wealthy gourmet, in a couple of weeks, the place will start serving black or white truffle pies, at $75 for a small one.

Number Three: Fire Rock opened just a few weeks ago on Clematis Street; it just nips under the wire by a nose the much-lauded Anthony's (these, I realize, are fighting words). Fire Rock was "out of broccoli rabe" and suggested we substitute broccoli (horrors!?) — we ordered, instead, a medium pie, the Mob-affiliated "Gigante," ($14.95) with black olives, hot yellow pepper rings, and sausage. Crust was airy, puffy, and gleaming with olive oil, dusted with semolina beneath, but it showed not a trace of coal-oven charring (subtract 10 bazillion points) and was a mite too limp for our limp-wristed predilections. "A sort of simulacrum of good pizza — an approximation but not quite the real thing," Ellman pronounced. Balance of ingredients: excellent. Hot peppers in proportion to salty olives, creamy squares of fresh mozzarella nestled into a spicy tomato sauce, thin slices of evenly scattered dried red sausage. Drawbacks: a truly pathetic salad of barely dressed mixed greens dumped straight from the bag (including the dreaded baby spinach) and a blaring, insupportable sound system. West Palmers, though, could do (far) worse than drop in for a Margherita pizza scattered with freshly torn basil leaves and an icy Oktoberfest.

Number Four: And finally, Lauderdale's beloved Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza. Anthony's is just 4 years old and claims to have installed the first coal-fired pizza oven in Florida, but the place already has the easy, lived-in, faintly smug look of a venerable, insanely successful pizzeria. So successful, in fact, that co-owners Michelangelo and Debra Mozzicato and Anthony Bruno have opened three new Anthony's in the past couple of years — in Aventura, Weston, and Pompano Beach, with another scheduled in Plantation any minute now. A sign above the bar announces (or warns) that "Our Pizza Is Well Done." It is. The crust is certainly blackened around the rim, but it has failed to heft itself up at all — there's no air there. Without those luscious pockets of faintly nutty nothingness, this crust's texture is uniform and less interesting. And a faintly unpleasant sour undertone asserted itself through each bite — I couldn't tell whether this weird flavor emanated from sauce or cheese. Anthony's uses the low-water chewy mozzarella, quite a lot of it, and a nicely chunky, variably distributed tomato sauce. Another plus: The broccoli rabe is sweeter than Red Rock's and used more sparingly. Meat, though, is practically prosaic — clumps of ground sausage no better or worse than what you'd pick up for breakfast at Publix. And the topping was too heavy and wet for such a thin pizza. Even with these caveats, they make the fourth-best pizza in South Florida. And that's something to chew on.

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