• King coal

    Tags: Cheese

NEW YORK — New Yorkers brag a lot about their city: its skyline, its fine arts, its restaurant scene and sports teams. If they weren't such a likeable lot, the chest thumping would get boring quickly.

They brag about their pizza, too — but that never gets old. Prattle on, boys, it's music to my ears.

No, on second thought, stop it. Your reminders make me jealous, because there's nothing like it back home.

How much do I love New York pizza? Let me count the clichés: It's the bomb, the big "oh," the

The coal oven at the legendary Lombardi's.

big bam-boom ... arguably some of the best in the world.

Even Big Apple pizza that New Yorkers call "bad" is better than some cities' "best." The town's pizza legends have set the quality bar so high that even their fair-to-middling competitors can't get away with low-quality stuff.

If you want the best pies in Manhattan, just search out the coal-fired pizzerias. (Yes, I know there are many fabulous wood-fired spots here, but for the purposes of this piece, let's stick with the anthracite burners.)

A century ago, as Italian immigrants poured ashore by the boatload, those starting bakeries and restaurants found hardwood, their oven fuel of choice, in short supply. Instead, they used coal, which was cheap, plentiful and burned hot.

Ridiculously hot. Coal-fired ovens used for pizza baking cook at an average temperature of 900 F, about double the temp of the sirocco blowing through the average conveyor oven. Cook times range from 1.5 minutes to 3 minutes, depending on the oven load — half to one-third the time in a conveyor oven.

New York's coal fires nearly were extinguished a few decades ago, when smog concerns forced a ban on their new construction. But those still operating at the time the law passed were, thank God, grandfathered.

Fire starters

After nearly a century, the fires inside Lombardi's Coal Oven Pizza still glow brightly. The black and white hand-laid tile on its facing bears the pizzeria's name and the date of its 1905 founding when Gennaro Lombardi opened the country's first licensed pizzeria. According to owner John Brescio, tending such an oven is no mean feat. Each morning, the cooking chamber must be cleared of the prior day's ash and the fire restarted at 6 a.m.

"You've got to feed a coal fire slowly or you'll smother it," Brescio told a group of about 40 pizza operators during a November tour. Cooking in it is even harder, he added. "I know you guys all work hard, but to do what we do with a coal-fired oven, you've got to times that by 50 to get the quality we want."

While some New Yorkers contend a slice of "real pizza" is floppy, foldable and greasy, pies born of a coal oven bear little resemblance to that standard. New York Times food writer Ed Levine describes properly coal-fired pizza as crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Peter Reinhart, author of "American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza," describes the perfect slice as one that snaps when you bite it, but "dissolves into cream in your mouth" as you chew it.

That's what I found during visits to John's Pizzeria (on Bleecker Street in the Village), Lombardi's and Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano (2nd Avenue on the toney Upper East Side).

(Yes, I know there are several other coal burners on the island, but a man of my means, employment and stature has only so much money, time and stomach space.)

I'd add this to Levine's and Reinhart's descriptions: Coal-fired pizza is impossibly thin yet bears a puffy

The classic coal-tanned pizza slice at John's Pizzeria.

cornicione (edge) that's lightly charred during cooking. In the intense heat, the crust picks up a slightly nutty flavor you don't find in slower-cooked dough. Such an inferno heats but doesn't dehydrate the simple crushed tomato sauce on these pies. The result is a bright tomato note rather than the earthy, slightly tobacco-toned flavor of more concentrated pizza sauces.

Fresh mozzarella is a natural for coal ovens. All three pizzerias' cheese was made from a curd much drier than you'd find on, say, an ensalata caprese; when cut by hand, the fresh cheese doesn't weep. The result is a silky-smooth pull and delicate mouthfeel.

By design, toppings choices in all three coal fired pizzerias were limited, and proprietors like Bob Vittoria, owner of John's, dissuade customers from adding more than two on any pie.

"In a coal-fired oven, you can't pile a lot of stuff on because the pizza's in there for such a short time," said Vittoria, talking to the tour group. "The dough gets cooked, but the toppings don't, and that's no good." He also said too many toppings also mask what he believes are a pizza's most important components: dough, sauce and cheese.

Surely that's the logic behind Totonno's Bianco pizza — olive oil, garlic and mozzarella — which is about as minimal as a pizza can get. Straight out of the oven, each slice is rigid-crisp, but after a minute or so on a pan, the residual heat steams some slack back into the pizza. Crisp, chewy and fluffy reunite for a superb slice.

"Great pizza isn't about toppings, it's about crust first," said Reinhart. "When made with a few simple ingredients, you can taste everything individually and at the same time see how they work together. I think a mistake made by too many pizza makers is that they try to do too much in such a small space."

Kings of coal

As Brescio implied, an operator choosing to run a coal oven has to want to do it, has to want the result and has to understand the work involved. He has to know how much coal to add, when to add it, how close to the heat to place the pizzas and how soon to move them away.

A coal oven cooks a pizza in the blink of an eye, Vittoria said, and a pizza maker who isn't paying attention will burn more than he browns. Much as is done in a wood-fired oven, a pizzaiolo starts the pie near the heat source to set the crust. About 60 seconds later, the pizza is moved further away to let the reflective heat within the bricks finish the work and allow the dough to rise.

"To make this dough right,

The coal oven at John's Pizzeria.

you've got to do it every day," said Vittoria. "This isn't something you just give to somebody off the street. "Or to someone who likes to show off. "We don't do much spinning at all because it's got to be so thin. Spin it one time and that's all."

The pizzaioli technique at Totonno's, Lombardi's and John's were nearly identical. All started with a tempered dough ball, patted it out with flattened fingers, formed the cornicione with the fingertips or by pressing it lightly between the fingers and palms of both hands, and then hand-stretched it to size.

Pizzas were built directly on well-worn wooden peels rather than metal ones because the raw dough sticks less easily to wood. Sliced mozzarella was placed directly on the dough, followed by cooking spoonfuls of simple crushed tomato sauce splashed-spread semi-randomly over the top.

All the pizzaioli worked amazingly fast and with incredible precision. Even the experienced pizza operators in our group mumbled in amazement.

The heat emanating from the purple-flaming mound of coals inside the oven could be felt from several feet away. (Not surprisingly, there are very few hairs on most pizzaioli's arms.) Upstairs in a party room at Lombardi's, the oven's chimney serves as a wall, and the tremendous heat passing through it leaves the bricks.

As we arrived, Brescio ordered the kitchen to start making pizzas of all varieties. Margherita arrived first, followed by pies covered with freshly shucked clams, others with pepperoni, mushroom and sausage — seemingly everything accented with fresh basil. Beer and wine flowed while servers bearing fresh pizzas ascended the stairs every few minutes.

Levine, whose own book on pizza is due out this spring, told a few tales about New York's pizza history to the group.

"Thankfully, chains have not made many inroads into New York," he said, before catching himself when he remembered chain operators might be among the tour group. "I hope none of them are here tonight!"

A lifelong New Yorker, Levine explained his belief that chains have "sort of ruined pizza in America by reducing it to such a low quality." Too many American pizza eaters, he said, are conditioned to think pizza is good if they get a lot of food for a little money, and that's not what great pizza is about.

"This is great pizza," Levine said, motioning to the dozen platters spread about the tables rimming the room. "It's made by people who are passionate about it and care enough to do it right."

Lombardi's owner John Brescio (right) talks with a pizza operator who was part of the November tour.

The reason there are so few pizzerias like Lombardi's, he said, is because of the effort and costs involved. Plus, many great pizzaioli are hands-on cooks, and they're the masters of their houses. In many ways they are the institution.

The evening before, people who are passionate about it and care enough to do it right.Vittoria recalled how he'd been approached on many occasions to open more John's, but he said one is enough for him. (There are two others licensed by him, but he owns neither.) Running another John's would divide his attention, and he said he can't give his all to both.

"I don't want to be the richest man in the cemetery, you know," he said. "I want to go to Florida and relax sometime.

"I've had people come to me and say, 'Goombah, come to Queens and open a new place.' I could do that, but I don't want to do that. ... And we all know it's easy to open a place, but it's not easy to keep it going."

Like his oven, his restaurant and his pizza, Vittoria is unashamedly old-fashioned. Real service and great food are his stock in trade, and that's what he's sticking to until he retires. He doesn't deliver and he discourages carryout because "when you get it home, it's a mess. The pizza should be eaten here."

Competition doesn't scare him because he knows his niche and his customers.

"I don't care if somebody opens across the street from me, because I have my own clientele," Vittoria said. "If you get a bad pizza, you don't pay and you get a bottle of wine. Let's see the guy across the street do that and stay in business."

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