I was a bit skeptical when I heard that the 18-month-old Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza on South Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale used an authentic coal-burning brick oven to bake its pies. Not too long ago, I learned that in some cities, coal-fuel emissions are no longer allowed. As a result, pizzerias like the century-old Lombardi's in New York City (the country's first such specialty eatery) are permitted to use coal-burning ovens only if they were installed before the anti-coal law was passed. New ovens can't be built or imported. Lombardi's, in fact, slipped in through the grandfather clause, which makes it just about the only coal-fired pizzeria in the Northeast.
In the wide-open space of South Florida, these pollution concerns don't apply, says Deborah Mozzicato, co-owner of Anthony's (named for partner Anthony Bruno of Anthony's Runway 84 fame). Plus, "We use anthracite," she notes. "It's the cleanest-burning coal."
Still, she and husband Michelangelo Mozzicato, Anthony's official pizzaiola (pizza maker), likely have the local exclusive in the coal-fired market. "Nobody wants to install an oven because it's so labor-intensive," Deborah Mozzicato says. "You have to shovel out the ashes twice a day and reload the coals. It's a lot of work." And, no doubt, just a bit messy.
Typically, the coals then take about 90 minutes before reaching the 900-degree cooking temperatures (about 200 degrees higher than most pizza ovens); midafternoon prep, during what would be downtime at other eateries, is crucial if the Mozzicatos want to be ready for the dinner rush. Literal cooking timing is also important -- a pizza cooks in a bare three-and-a-half minutes, has to be moved from station to station about five or six times, and can become overdone in seconds. Even cooked perfectly, though, the results take on a dark cast. So kids (and adults who behave like them) who are comfortable eating only the familiar Americanized product might be a little put off. Thus the disclaimer on Anthony's menu: "Our pizza is 'well done.'"
Why bother, then? Simply because what goes into the oven may be coals, but what comes out is diamonds.
In other words, Anthony's is currently producing South Florida's best pizzas, bar none. The traditional pie, composed of mozzarella and Romano cheeses, San Marzano plum tomatoes, whole-leaf basil, and a drizzle of olive oil is a beautifully executed version of the classic Margherita, the pie named for a young queen and boasting the colors of the Italian flag. It really needs no adornment -- the acid-balanced tomatoes are the ideal compromise between sugar and spice, the basil is kitchen-garden fresh, and the crust is a steamy crunchy confection as much air as flour and yeast. The small pie, at 12 inches, also qualifies Anthony's for the Denominazione di Origine Controllata's (Italy's board of regulations) supreme honor: membership in the Associazone Vera Pizza Napoletana, which monitors the production of authentic pizza. (Though the large, 16-inch pie just as easily disqualifies it.)
Still, it's hard to resist adding toppings, which range from arugula and anchovies to prosciutto and long hot finger peppers; these cost $1.50 to $2.50 per extra, depending on the size of the pie. Pizza specials are listed on a blackboard and can prove equally distracting to the purist: One night, we scored a pizza layered with thin-sliced, lightly breaded eggplant that added a wonderfully soft textural component. Another pie, called the Philly cheese steak, impressed us with the quality of the tender skirt steak that hid, along with sautéed onions and green bell peppers, just under the lacing of cheese. And if sautéed broccoli rabe and sausage is available, go for it either on a pizza or as a side dish -- any way you order it, the just-bitter broccoli is countered by the juice and zest of such appropriately seasoned sausage that it returns the palates of homesick New Yorkers to Little Italy.
Aside from pizza and related calzone options, the menu is limited. Yet every dish is supremely delicious, owing in part to that coal oven. The Mozzicatos use it to roast some signature chicken wings, which they top with grilled onions and serve with wafer-thin coal-baked focaccia. The oven lends a unique intensity to the wings, which are healthier versions of the deep-fried favorite, and the bread, spiked with rosemary but not overwhelmed by it.
The oven also cooks roast beef to its rarest perfection. The meat is then sliced and piled high with romaine and tomato, then dropped on the focaccia. Tuna salad, garnished with arugula and tomato, is the single other choice when it comes to these sandwiches. Just don't expect the pedestrian mayonnaise-based albacore. This tuna, like the pizza, harks back to the boot. It's dressed with lemon and olive oil and has an addictive quality that only people who adore the more pungent tonnato (chunk light tuna canned in olive oil) will appreciate.
Two dishes round out the menu: Anthony's Italian salad, a mixture of romaine, kalamata olives, tomatoes, and crisp celery lightly tossed with a pleasant vinaigrette; and New York-style cheesecake, which comes in huge creamy chunks. They also tempt diners to stay a bit longer than they might have otherwise, which in most cases would stress out the patrons waiting upward of an hour for one of the 50 cherry-wood-stained seats in the dining room. But the crowd, which Deborah Mozzicato says can also be overwhelming at lunchtime, is unusually patient. Perhaps that's because the décor, which includes signed sports souvenirs such as pictures of a very young Dan Marino and framed music memorabilia such as Beatles' 45 singles, is interesting enough to provide a distraction. But more likely, it's because the repeat clientele knows that the pizzas, like seats, are guaranteed to be at a premium.