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]."
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.
Less of a palate pleaser in the ingredient department was the white pizza topped with Long Island littleneck clams, garlic, oregano, and Romano cheese. DiMeo assured me that the clams are shucked daily in-house and delivered fresh each Tuesday. Yet on a Thursday-night visit, the clams came minced finer than the garlic and packed a brackish and fishy bite. It's a shame for freshly shucked clams to taste so similar to canned.
Service was friendly but inattentive at times. A neighboring party was seated after us — yet ordered, received food, and even paid the bill before we placed our order. "The service is horrible, isn't it?" our young male server joked after finally arriving to the table. It was hard to stay frustrated since he seemed genuinely apologetic for the delay, so we followed his suggestions to try some of the nonpizza fare. He sold us on the appetizer of mozzarella in carrozza ($5.95), which he described as "a really delicious deep-fried grilled cheese." Carrozza translates as "in a carriage," so our waiter's description was fairly accurate; generous slices of oozing mozzarella arrived sandwiched between fried white bread. A side of chunky tomato dipping sauce added bite to this decadent starter.
For an informal pizzeria, Luigi's offers an extensive wine list. Varietals range from inexpensive selections by the glass to specialty bottles costing upward of several hundred dollars. I opted for the Tiiziano chianti ($9 a glass); the smoky berry flavor complemented the carrozza's fiery marinara dipping sauce. And of course we tried the oven-baked wings ($8.95 for ten). Baked until intensely hot, the mixture of drumettes and wings seasoned with flecks of rosemary came with a pleasant char on the exterior and were topped with sweet caramelized onions. Don't let the char fool you — the meat was so juicy, the wings appeared to break a sweat.
Second in deliciousness to the oven-roasted chicken wings was a meatball sandwich ($8.95). DiMeo makes succulent and velvety meatballs the size of golf balls, painted with homemade tomato sauce and melted mozzarella.
I was looking out through the large dining-room windows, taking a satisfying crunch into the warm white-bread sandwich, when the neighboring diner bumped the back of my chair with Heimlich-maneuver force. VPN rules be damned, the Las Olas crowds are here — and they're claiming every one of those tables.