Restaurant Reviews

Oven Lovin'

Andrew Garavuso labors in front of the twin stone hearths in his restaurant, Sicilian Oven in Lighthouse Point. He's thin and youthful, with a penciled mustache and a ball cap that covers his bald head. In one smooth motion, he flicks his pizza peel underneath a pie sitting near the fire and plucks it from the oven, setting it down on a smaller, wooden peel. The steaming pizza sits on the countertop for all of five seconds before our waitress hoists it up and brings it over to our table. She slips a spatula under a piece and offers me the first slice.

The pizza smells damned amazing. It's a small pie, 12 inches wide and traced with vibrant green strands of flowery broccoli rabe and thick, dime-sized pieces of cervellata, an Italian rope sausage. Small pools of tart tomato sauce settle between the toppings, above a lava flow of milky mozzarella. I take a bite, teeth clenching through a thin, crisp crust that reveals a surprising yeasty plush, and I get it all: waves of silky cheese, the bitter vegetal rabe, the savory fat of fresh sausage, and the bright, clarifying call of simple crushed tomatoes. It's the kind of convergence of texture and flavor that makes grown men and women wax poetic between overflowing mouthfuls.

It also has those same grown men, like me, asking questions. Questions like: If pizza this good can be made in a wood-fired oven, why is everyone so obsessed with coal?

Over the past few years, coal-fired pizza joints have propagated in South Florida like upskirt shots at a Lady GaGa concert. Ever since Anthony Bruno of Anthony's Runway 84 opened up Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, the demand for coal-charred crust has gone stratospheric. Now, there's a legion of joints touting coal-fired pies, from Carolina's and Vic & Angelo's in Delray Beach to Coal Mine and Tucci's in Boca — so many, in fact, that last year, Florida eclipsed New York in sheer number of coal oven pizzerias. And more open by the week — Rack's, Giovanni's, Hot Pizza Pie ­— each of them trotting merrily down a path paved not with gold, but with "environmentally friendly" anthracite.

Garavuso, on the other hand, thinks the coal craze is nothing but a bunch of soot. With coal, a pizza oven can reach temperatures as high as 1500 degrees, cooking an entire pie within minutes. The high heat produces what many pizza aficionados have come to characterize as char — crisp, well done areas around the lip and bottom of the crust that toe the line between blackened and downright burnt. What side of the spectrum the pizza comes out on depends on the exact temperature of the coal, the time spent in the oven, and proximity to the heat. But coal is finicky. It takes time to catch and ignite, and since the moisture inside has a tendency to cause it to shatter, sending pieces flying around the oven, adding more coal in the middle of a service can be tricky. Temperatures can vary wildly throughout the day, sometimes resulting in a pie that burns on the outside before it's had a chance to cook thoroughly in the middle.

Wood, Garavuso says, can also burn incredibly hot, but it allows much better control over the temperature. "With wood, I can keep the temperature right in the 650 to 750 range," he says. "If it drops, I just throw another log on. That way, I don't have to cook my pizzas too fast, so they cook through like a nice piece of bread with an authentic crunch."

The proof is in the pie. Sicilian Oven's pizzas sport golden brown crusts with a moderate amount of caramelized char along the lip. Because they cook at a slightly slower clip than coal oven pizza, the thin dough gains a marked amount of rise. It translates to a chewy, slightly firm crust that stands up well to the judiciously placed toppings. Garavuso accounts for the lengthened cook time by offering slightly smaller pies; the small cervellata and broccoli rabe I tried on two occasions ($15, $18 for a large) would feed one hungry person or a pair looking to split an appetizer beforehand. Another specialty pie, the Calabrese Margherita ($15/$18), combined gooey mozzarella with house-roasted red peppers and strips of juicy grilled chicken set among wisps of basil and pesto. My favorite, though, was "the boss" ($11/$16). That pie coated Sicilian Oven's wonderful crust with fresh mozzarella — slick with nutty, sweet flavor — and set it alight with capriciously scattered splashes of barely cooked crushed tomato, plus more strands of licoricey basil. It shows an appreciation for simple, good ingredients afforded by a lifetime in the business.

And Garavuso is a lifer. He grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where his family owned a pizzeria and he hopped buses to sample fried rice balls at competing restaurants (which he's adopted at Sicilian Oven). Once he moved to Florida, Garavuso spent 15 years working for the local red sauce chain DiSalvo's where he met his current partner, Ralph DiSalvo. After a stint with Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, where he worked as operating manager, opening seven locations in 14 months, Garavuso was approached by DiSalvo to open a new restaurant in the defunct DiSalvo's location on Federal Highway in Lighthouse point. The two decided to fuse the brick oven concept with a full-service Italian restaurant — DiSalvo would handle the look and feel of the place, while Garavuso formed the menu in his vision.

DiSalvo's side of the bargain holds up as well as the food. The restaurant opens to a modern-looking wine bar bordered by a smart, black granite bar top and rows of high tables lit by dark blue wall sconces. The room flows toward the gorgeous, open-faced kitchen, itself framed by rough gray brick that showcases the dual, copper-hooded hearths. It's casual and hip all at once, and at capacity the place whirrs to life. Well-to-do types zip in from Lighthouse Point in their Bentleys, tucking in alongside working-class families who truck up from Pompano Beach. In the midst of it all is the wait staff, draped in black and operating in quiet efficiency like some food-service version of Bunraku puppeteers. They sweep in to scoop plates and refill drinks, to take orders and then scurry off without a trace, only to materialize with dishes of fire cracker calamari ($9) lavished in vibrant, garlicky marinara sauce and skillets full of mussels "Mario" ($10), white wine steamed crustaceans redolent of wood smoke. The latter are positively covered with the most fantastic Italian bread crumbs you could ever imagine; brusque crumbles the size of small ball bearings that also appear on wood-oven-roasted chicken wings ($10/$15) and smoky shrimp Palermo ($12).

Those heavenly crumbs will likewise coat the crunchy exterior of supple eggplant slices in the "stack of Sicily" ($10), a leaning tower interspersed with inch-thick slices of tomato and fresh mozzarella, then painted with sticky-sweet balsamic reduction and a smattering of basil. And they'll line the inside of a halved, stuffed artichoke ($10), one of the many daily specials — others include eggplant-stuffed pork tenderloin and penne con salsiccia con funghi served with a sage and truffle cream sauce. All are great to enjoy with a bottle of Banfi Pino Grigio, a fruity, tannin-laced wine that, at $34, costs barely twice the price of retail. Other Italian bottles like a Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva, priced at $46, follow the reasonable trend.

Still hungry? There's plenty here for round two, including gorgeous salads filled with roasted peppers, walnuts, shaved celery, onions, tomato, and three kinds of olives ($9). Also: escarole and bean soup ($7), truffled Tuscan fries ($6), pasta with meatballs ($12), and those amazing Sicilian rice balls, greaseless orbs of fried risotto stuffed with beef and peas ($9). Chowing down on all these dishes, you might be tempted to forget about the pizza. But after a succession of stellar courses, I still found room for a slice of Popeye bianco ($15) laced with runny ricotta, wilted spinach, and cremini mushrooms.

Garavuso knows what he's slinging has promise — he and DiSalvo are currently scouting out locations in Boca to open a second store, and they're hoping to have five in the next few years. Tracking the success of Florida pizza chains like Anthony's Coal Fired, it's easy to see there's room for aggressive expansion. But I hope Garavuso decides to move slowly. I'd like to see him tossing wood into those stone hearths for a while to come.

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John Linn