Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Impressions: Coal Fire

Coal Fire
5725 Richards Valley Road
Ellicott City, MD 21043
(410) 480-2625

(Photographs: Adam Lindsley)

I first heard about Coal Fire from its inclusion on the 2010 Pizza Madness bracket, composed by the editors of Slice. The place didn't get very far in the matchups, but it was near where I was staying in Westminster, Maryland at the end of my most recent cross-country road trip, so that was enough incentive for me to try it.

Coal Fire's oven does indeed utilize coal to impart heat onto its pizzas and other baked items, but the coal's heat is augmented by gas-fueled flames on the opposite side of the oven. So I guess it's possible that the pies closest to the gas flames won't have nearly as much coal-fired flavor and char as those farthest from it. The oven's third component (and this information was garnered from Pizzablogger's in-depth review) involves an infrared heating element in the oven floor, which keeps the floor at a minimum of 619°F.

The pizzas served at Coal Fire are thin, the crust crispy on the outside and chewy inside, and can come with one of three sauces: Classic, Signature, and Spicy. The Classic, in their words, "follows along Italian tradition with a delicious plum tomato taste," and this is what comes on the Margherita ($12.95). Unfortunately, the description of the sauce has nothing to do with what it actually tastes like. A true classic Italian plum tomato sauce consists of crushed plum tomatoes and a little salt, that's it. The Classic sauce at Coal Fire is peppery and extremely tangy, as if some lemon juice or vinegar has been added, and it's thick, the consistency of tomato paste and the deep color of an open wound. I've tasted sauce like this in many small-town American pizza parlors, but not in any place that really takes its pizza seriously.

For whatever reason, the triple heat-source oven mentioned earlier did not do much to char the pizza's cornicione or underside beyond a little blistering, quite the opposite of what Pizzablogger experienced during his 2009 visit (just look at the photos he snapped and you'll see the difference at once). Pizzablogger interviewed Coal Fire's co-owner, Steven Santos, and he claims the dough is allowed a 48-hour cold rise in their walk-in, in order to allow the fermentation to develop and deepen its flavor. That may very well be, but the crust on this Margherita had no more taste to it than a saltine cracker. There's also not much rise to this dough, so the outer rim is only slightly higher than the crust under the toppings, and the crumb is dry and hollow. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing here at Coal Fire, which I'll soon explain.

Thankfully, the house-made mozzarella picks up some of the slack, as it's salty and flavorful. It's placed on the pies in thin, round slices that melt perfectly over the sauce in the oven. The basil chiffonade also brings a bit of freshness to the Margherita that the sauce fails to deliver. As you may have guessed, the unevenness of the Margherita's components results in an uneven pie. It's tasty enough, but not anything you'll be dreaming about two weeks later.

As middling as the Margherita might be, it is far more in balance than the Sausage and Sweet Peppers pizza ($14.95), at least in the form my party ordered it. This time, instead of the Classic sauce, we opted to try the Signature sauce, which is a blend of the Spicy sauce and honey. Interesting in theory, but from the moment I first tasted that sauce, I knew we had made a mistake. It is achingly sweet, completely engulfing the flavors of the cheese, sausage, and peppers resting on top of it. That said, I tried a chunk of the sausage on its own, and while the bits of fennel in it were welcome, they were few and far between, leaving the gristly little pieces of pork underseasoned and timid. Had I known how sweet the Signature sauce would be, I would have ordered the spicy peppers instead of the sweet peppers; they had good flavor, but coupled with that sauce, they were a sugary sock to the gut of even a notorious sweet tooth as myself. This is where the bland crust actually became desirable: it offered a necessary reprieve from the sauce-and-pepper combo, which started to make the inside of my mouth sore after only a few bites. Take my advice and stay far, far away from that Signature sauce; you may as well be eating honey out of the jar.

As it happens, the real star at Coal Fire isn't the pizza, but their Grilled Caesar Salad ($7.95), which was absolutely the best of its kind I've ever had. Their spin on this classic salad--grilling the romaine--is so simple, but it rockets it into the stratosphere of salad greatness, if such an accolade exists. One bite into the still-crunchy lettuce immediately took me back to the summer barbecues of my youth; it tasted as if the romaine had been plucked off Dad's trusty old Weber and deposited right onto my plate. The romaine stalk is blackened from the grill and then tossed with the perfect amount of dressing and grated parmesan. The dressing also managed to skirt two problems I have with most Caesar dressings in that it wasn't too salty and didn't overwhelm my mouth with the taste of garlic. Really, really well done salad, and a must-order if you eat here.

Obviously I'd need to make a couple more visits to confirm this, but based on my one dinner here, I can't recommend the pizza. If you're coming to Coal Fire specifically for that, you're going to be disappointed, at least if your standards are high. But the Caesar salad was so good that I'd be willing to try some of the other items on the menu (the roasted wings sounded particularly enticing). If you're a fan of Coal Fire or you end up visiting, be sure to write in and tell us about your experience there; I'd be curious to know if it differed from mine.

OVEN: Coal/Gas

RECOMMENDED:  Grilled Caesar salad


  1. Adam, nice write-up. I agree with your post 100%. Coal Fire Pizza has slipped in quality over the past year, something I lament heavily.

    And while the caesar salad at CFP is good,it's a sad day when that is the highlight of a meal. Cheers and best. --K

  2. @pizzablogger: Your review was really helpful in putting this quick little impression together. As you'll discover in the upcoming Mia's review, I was hoping to get in touch with you to join us there, but it became a completely last-minute thing. Anyway, I wish the pizza we had eaten here had looked like the ones you had photographed last year!

  3. Coal Fire? I see they put lots of thought into their name.

  4. @Anonymous: Yeah. They do use coal, but it's only one of three heat sources. "Coal Gas Infrared Fire" just doesn't have the same ring to it...