The Gadabout—June 1, 2007

From thin crust to thick crust, from tomato slices and basil leaves to gloppy street-corner sauce and cheese, every kind of pizza commands its own undying breed of loyal supporters. Chicago, the origin of deep-dish pizza and its stuffed sibling, has traditionally been a difficult place for lovers of the foreign New York or Neopolitan varieties to find a pizza sanctuary. With the addition of Coal Fire Pizza to the Grand Avenue neighborhood, however, U of C flat-crust followers can find themselves a home fewer than 45 minutes away from campus.

Only three weeks old, Coal Fire Pizza is so new that its only Google hits are on foodie forums, Chicago blogs, and articles on the risks of underground coal mine conflagrations. The restaurant, located on the West Side, equidistant from the Loop and Wicker Park, is much closer than its closest competitor for flat, oven-cooked pizza, Spacca Napoli in Ravenswood.

Coal Fire’s burnt-sienna walls and tables, semi-industrial lighting, and artwork outlined in coal-black frames are entirely consistent with its name. Its sparse layout, wood floors, and Costco-sized empty peeled-tomato cans (which double as pizza stands) add a relaxed, homey touch, and the requirement of ordering at the counter before taking a seat also keeps the place a legitimate “pizza joint.”

Coal Fire’s eponymous oven stands at the back of the restaurant in clear view, mixed coal and wood embers glowing orange inside the well ventilated brick. A coal fire reaches temperatures between 700 and 800 degrees, producing several slices of perfection in two to three minutes. From the vantage point of your table, you can see your pizza hauled into and out of the burning oven by a white-aproned pizza handler armed with serious oven mitts and a very long peel.

The pizza here is a breed of New Haven–style “apizza,” famous for its crust and very different from its burlier Chicago relatives. Imagine Chicago deep dish checking into fashion rehab, slimming down its crust and excess cheese to reveal something gorgeously crisp and delicious. The crust is thin but has presence, with a clearly defined outer layer and interior.

Thanks to Coal Fire’s oven, it emerges lightly blackened on the edges, with craters and bubbles dotting the surface. The first bite reveals a delicate crunch, tempered by a slightly chewier center, and all that’s left on your lips at the end is the fine dust of roasted flour.

Given such crust, there’s no need for Coal Fire to make its ingredients, which seem secondary, as excellent as they are. Coal Fire’s ingredients, though, are effortlessly elegant without bowing to the pretensions of strange toppings à la California Pizza Kitchen or meaninglessly championing the virtues of tomatoes imported from hidden Italian valleys infested with hat-wearing, tomato-picking grandmothers.

The most expensive item on the menu, the meat pizza ($15.99), offered the promise of a gustatory orgy courtesy of cows, pigs and other toothsome animals. The tomato sauce and mozzarella were applied in appropriate quantities, but became an afterthought in the symphony of flavorful, salty pepperoni and sweet Italian sausage. Later in the evening, however, we realized that our meat pizza didn’t have any of the fennel salami additionally specified on the menu. Regardless of missing salamis, the meat pizza was still a favorite.

With the eager forum-posters on Chicago food blogs having covered and approved the other major types of pizza—margherita, white, and sausage—we tried the less typical pesto pizza ($12.99), topped with ricotta cheese, basil pesto, and black olive slices and drizzled with olive oil. The sharp, oiled pesto and embedded olives were the perfect complement to the crisp crust, and the daubs of ricotta cheese added a cooling element to the warm pizza that was unusual but well executed.

The only real evidence of Coal Fire’s youth is its rocky table service, in spite of the fact that all food and drinks are ordered at the counter. After paying for our meal, we requested two glasses of water, which the cashier said would be delivered to our table. It was only after receiving both pizzas and catching the attention of a harried waitress that our request was fulfilled. Given that Coal Fire is still in the infancy stage of what we hope is a long and prosperous life, the minor service problem is an excusable kink.

Coal Fire is in an excellent position to become a popular alternative, escape, or refuge from the all-pervasive Chicago deep-dish establishments. It is especially accessible for South Siders looking for a change after Giordiano’s and Edwardo’s have become mundane. If Coal Fire itself were not so low-key, the pizza could easily inspire a new legion of pizza snobs. Coal Fire avoids binding itself to a geographic style or promoting pizza ideology imported from Naples or the East Coast. Instead, the restaurant focuses on the pie itself, and it shows.

Coal Fire

1321 W. Grand Ave.

Chicago, IL

Near Grand Stop (Blue Line)

(312) 226-2625

Average pizza price: $13.50