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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.

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.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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