Featured Restaurant: Coal Fire Pizza

Politics. Religion. Pizza?

The most hotly contested food item since, well, ever...

The most hotly contested food item since, well, ever...

Let’s be honest with ourselves folks; when it comes to divisive topics in this country, few issues cause more of a strain in our national conscience than pizza.  Nevermind New York vs. Chicago.  These days you’ve got literally dozens of different thought patterns as to who makes the best pie, with locations ranging from New Haven to St. Louis to California all claiming a distinct – but always ‘the best’ – form of one of America’s most beloved foods.  Myself somewhat of a connoisseur of this hotly debated Italian transplant, I knew that I just had to check out Maryland’s latest “it” pizzeria last Saturday night, and sure enough made my way to Coal Fire Pizza in Ellicott City.

I :heart: Suburbia brick facades. This was a good sign...

I :heart: Suburbia brick facades. This was a good sign...

I first heard about Coal Fire from Brad of the excellent Maryland restaurant blog HowChow.  Advertising thin and rustically charred crusts, Coal Fire cooks their pizzas in a single large oven that is heated from both anthracite coal and electricity.  With temperatures in the oven approaching 800 degrees, Coal Fire’s pizzas not only form a charred crust, but they literally cook up in a flash.  The pizza my party ordered was done in only about five minutes – a point which we considered a saving grace after waiting 10-15 longer than the advertised “five minutes” for our table after we had originally arrived.

Good sweet Mike it looked awesome!

Good sweet Mike it looked awesome!

As for the food, my party and I split a 16-inch pizza with “spicy” sauce that included red onions and green peppers as toppings. I loved the charred and thin crust, which while not “crispy” like New-Haven style pizza, still had a solid texture that gave it a nice bite. The flour itself had a good neutral flavor that imparted just a hint of the smoke – making for a subtle yet welcomed base for the rest of the pizza. The sauce was outstanding in my mind. While not as spicy as I would prefer, it was full-bodied and flavorful, with both a complimentary sweetness and surprisingly rich tomato flavor. The cheese – which our waitress talked up as being fresh as all get-out – had a slightly smoked flavor and indeed was very flavorful. Applied in slice style and opposed to grated, I liked how it wasn’t overly greasy or running with oil. I thought the red onions were outstanding as well – sweet and caramelized, but done so from the oven, not a skillet. Thus, the onions and the green pepper still had a fantastic crunch and avoided the excessive oiliness that you sometimes find with pre-cooked vegetable toppings. Amazingly neither the onions nor the peppers showed a hint of char, telling me that the guys behind the counter making these pizzas knew what they were doing. While a bit pricy at 16.95 for a two-topping 16-inch pizza, I found that the pizza was well worth it and dare I say the best pizza in Howard County, Maryland.

Don't be fooled by the picture; that was some very good mozzerella!

Don't be fooled by the picture; that was some very good mozzarella!

Unfortunately, some of the other items sampled from Coal Fire could not match the pizza. I sampled half of the Oven Roasted Vegetable Sandwich. A combination of red peppers, mushrooms, squash, and onions, I thought this sandwich was medicore. It seemed a bit small, while the eight-inch hoagie it was served on wasn’t anything you couldn’t find at a standard sub shop. I thought the vegetables were a little too oily, and oddly enough were not as sweet as I would have liked or expected. I don’t know if the coal oven failed to caramelize the vegetables or if the sandwich could have benefited from just more red peppers and red onion, but it was lackluster as a combination. I had wanted a sweet balsamic flavor that would have helped to transform the otherwise plain hoagie; but instead I received a somewhat oily and soggy collection of otherwise flavorful vegetables that was a little steep for the $6.49 price tag. One member of my party enjoyed a pasta dish, which he thought was a bit too olive oil happy and heavy given the restaurant’s profile. The garlic bread which came with his side salad seemed over saturated in olive oil, almost to the point of being deep fried. That being said the pasta was still enjoyed, and the sandwich wasn’t anything to lose sleep over.

Could have used some balsamic vinager.

Could have used some balsamic vinager.

Despite some issues with a longer than expected opening wait and lackluster sides, my party and I found the wait staff at Coal Fire to be especially knowledgeable and helpful. They clearly know and love their style of pizza, and it’s that kind of passion which will ultimately allow a place like this to work out the kinks. The menu (which you can view here courtesy of Chowhound.com) is limited, but that’s o.k. This is a place that takes good and fresh ingredients and lets the uniqueness of their coal oven do the rest, which for my money is a welcomed relief in a county which has for far to long hung its hat on places like Papa John’s and Mama Illardo’s. If pizza is about balance between the crust, toppings, sauce, and cheese (and I truly believe that is what pizza is about) you will find the minimalist approach of Coal Fire to be one of the best Pizza experiences in the state of Maryland that you could possibly ask for.

Hey mom, look at me, I'm a pizza blogger now!

Hey mom, look at me, I'm a pizza blogger now!

  • Recommendations: Any personal pizza combination which includes spicy sauce and red onions. Any pizza option at all, for that matter.
  • Food: 8.25/10
  • Menu Variety:  6.00 /10
  • Atmosphere:  Casual/Family/Take-out
  • Price: $$ Moderate $7.01-$14.00
  • GrubGrade:  8.00/10  (Very Good)

Coal Fire Pizza

5725 Richards Valley Rd
Ellicott City, MD 21043
(410) 480-2625

27 comments on “Featured Restaurant: Coal Fire Pizza

  1. Looks good, though green pepper on pizza….not a big fan. It sounds like the sandwich tasted as good as it looks… I imagine that Coal Fire is a cool palce to grab a pizza and a beer. Ha on suburbia brick facades….

  2. Hehe – “Recommendations: Any personal pizza combination which includes spicy sauce and red onions. Any pizza option at all, for that matter.”

    What a fantastically well written review. I am dieing to have you try my pie!

    ..another thing I am dieing to do is cook in a wood fire or coal fire oven like this. We use conveyor ovens and it doesn’t have the same old-style artisan feel. Too cool. I’m glad at least the pizza was good.

  3. rob says:

    Good looking pizza but what about coal and global warming, maybe they are just using a little bit, two or three pieces of coal to give it the flavor.

  4. nuttyturnip says:

    Don’t forget to mention that there’s a Coldstone Creamery in the same parking lot. Best pizza in MD + ice cream = win.

  5. Keith says:

    As a New Yorker, I can make a very solid claim: you haven’t lived until you’ve had coal-fired brick oven pizza.

    Now that said, just having a coal-fired oven doesn’t automatically make your pizza the best. It’s difficult to maintain a constant and even temperature and it’s easy to over-cook. But this is why it’s always worth getting pizza from a great pizzeria; you just can’t replicate that 650+ degree oven at home. And I hate to say it, but conveyor pizza is barely a step above frozen…

    So the greatest places in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are considered those that use coal-fired ovens. Wood is acceptable but you don’t get that awesome charring on the bottom you would from a coal oven. Totonno’s and Lombardi’s are just a couple example of where to get a great New York pie.

    That said, many pizza experts agree… the best pizza in the country– or perhaps on Earth if old world Neapolitan pizza isn’t your thing– is often considered to be Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix (yes, Phoenix), Arizona. Have any readers had the pleasure of trying their pizza?

    http://www.tucsoncitizen.com/ss/byauthor/18294

  6. Matt says:

    I was very disappointed when I went there. I love my pizza but something was just a little off with their pizza. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read a interview with the Joe Squared dude:
    http://www.pizzablogger.org/index.php/2009/05/31/interviews/fit-to-be-squared-conversation-with-a-coal-firer-joe-squareds-joe-edwardsen/

    Joe Edwardsen: It’s a whole different style of pizza. These aren’t hand tossed pizzas, they are stretched pizzas. The dough is too soft to actually throw it up in the air. To make a dough you can actually toss up or spin around, you need a different texture. When we are cooking in the coal oven, that real high temperature hot, you need too moist a dough to be able to toss.

    Coal fired tosses them. and when I thought about it, Joe was right. the crust was dry on the outside, and a weird layer of moist crust that wasn’t quite a good pizza crust. The texture was not right, and also affected the taste of the crust.

    Also, their specialty wings that the server sold me on were pretty substandard.

  7. Keith says:

    Ah yes, it’s all about the crust. I was considering swinging by and trying it out during a planned trip to the College Park Ikea this month (I live in Central PA). Maybe I’ll have to try somewhere else….

    Any recommendations?

  8. Adam says:

    I would give Coal Fire a try. They may not be perfect. They may not be New York. But like I said, for pizza in the area I think they are pretty good. You have to remember that they are only a few months old as well – lots of time to work out the kinks.

  9. Keith says:

    OK, good deal… I’m going to give them a try. I’ll send you my amateur thoughts.

  10. Ryan says:

    I’ll probably give them a try at some point. Pizza is the perfect food in my opinion…it has everything I look for in a good meal…meat/cheese/veggies/bread…and when I go Hawaiian style…fruit. I think it’s almost impossible to make a bad pizza (but I also must add I’m not a pizza snob) … I’m ok with even a Mama Celeste from time to time. The only pizza I can’t stand is the pan-style crust from Pizza Hut. I get queasy just thinking about it. It’s like deep fried pizza dough.

  11. @ Matt: An early Baltimore Sun article about Coal Fire Pizza stated the oven temp at Coal Fire is 580°F, which is very low for a coal fired oven. If this is in fact true, it would make sense coal fire would make a dough with a lower hydration ratio (moisture level) than someplace like Joe Squared, which has a much hotter oven.

    I’ll try to confirm this when I go to Coal Fire. Thanks for posting the link to the interview! –PB

  12. Adam says:

    @Pizzablogger,
    From what I understand, the oven at coalfire has two seperate temps, with one side of the oven being hotter than the other. I don’t know a ton about pizza, but my waitress there said that the difference in temperture forces the pizza makers to have to move the pizzas back and forth during their short time in the oven. Once again, I’m not pizza expert, so I’ll be interested to here about your experience once you go to Coal Fire.

    BTW- Big fan of your blog!

  13. Raiders757 says:

    The last part in bold print is exactly how I like my pizza. coal fired pizza in my neck of the woods is few and far between, but the mom and pop pizza place I have been going to since I was a child, has geared themselves up and now serves coal fired pizza. I can’t wait to to see how well they have done. I’ve had brick oven pizza from N.Y., and it just can’t be beat, so I don’t hold my standard that high anywhere else in the country. I’m sure it will be great.

    The pizza in the pics from coal fire Pizza look pretty damn good to me. I’m sure once the place gets their ovens good and seasoned, the pizza will only get better. That happens with all decent pizza ovens, even the gas ones the New Yorkers poo poo on so often.

    • mothaladi says:

      Ur so right, when I first moved south from one of the five boroughs and had to cook on a gas stove….I hated it. lol. But about the eats, now here in the Columbia area my children and I have been on a search for something really good, PIZZAAAAA!!!! I love the stuff. I tried Ledo’s ( what the heck) I tried Mama Lucia, same thing but this was also extra oily and very salty and the white cheese I ordered… yuck. If ever in the Newport News area the pizza to get is, Dino’s really good. I also tried Three Brothers ehhhh not quite the taste I was looking for, at all. So my next pic will be Coalfire. If theres something better feel free to let me know. What Ive experienced so far left me unhappy… I could also go for some good chinese, I’m a big fan of a good fried rice.

  14. Michael Eggerling says:

    That pizza looks incredible, sounds like it tastes as good as it looks too. Reading this was painful for me being thousands of miles away from the nearest Coalfire. I know where to go next time I’m in Maryland.

  15. Adam says:

    It’ll be my treat Michael, just give us a ring!

  16. Keith says:

    I thought pizza should be cooked around 650 degrees?

    That pizza looks like it has real buffalo mozzarella; can anyone confirm that?

  17. Adam says:

    Keith,
    Not 100%, but I don’t think so. At least my waitress did not mention that.

  18. No, the mozzarella they used was cited in the Baltimore Sun as being sourced from Ceriello Fine Foods in Baltimore’s Belvedere Square market.

    The mozz is pretty damned good at Ceriello and can often be obtained while still warm…..which is like adult crack with a little extra virgin olive oil, cracked pepper and basil on top…or just all by itself.

    I have finally sourced a farm whose milk I really like, so I’ll be tinkering with making my own mozz as well, but it will be a long time, if ever, until I can make it as good as at Ceriello! Link to Belvedere Square tenant map following:

    http://www.belvederesquare.com/documents/BelvSq_TenantMap.pdf

  19. @adam

    Read this post and was going to comment on what an excellent review this is and then I realized this is your post (like, duh!)….lol.

    Really good stuff. I’ll be sure to link back to this when I post a review myself. Good stuff comrade! –PB

  20. Matt says:

    @pizzablogger

    that’s pretty low for a pizza oven, no? those are temps I can get close to in my home oven… why would it even be worth using coal at that point, besides the hype/trend? (ok, maybe a bit of smokiness, but smokiness does not a pizza make)

    Even brick oven pizza in fells gets theirs to 800 in their regular oven….

    I don’t know why, but all of a sudden, I feel like I’ve been had.

  21. @Matt

    That’s what the Sun article mentioned….but that article was published soon after Coal Fire opened, so they could be firing their oven much hotter now. I do not know.

    Keep in mind a great oven alone does not make a great pizza. Anyone reading this reply would be very surprised that with a little time, a little effort and care, you can make pizza out of your standard 550°F kitchen oven which is better than most of the pizza sold in America. That’s the truth and a stark reminder of how sad the state of pizza is when viewed as a whole.

    Based on Adam’s pictures from this review, I would speculate the floor in the oven at Coal Fire does have parts of it which are hotter than 580°F….the color of the char on the bottom of the crust is indicative of a higher temperature. The real question would be is whether the side of the oven heated by electicity is hotter than the side fueled by coal? If it’s the former, then it could be argued the coal in the oven and in the company name is largely a marketing tool which could be interpreted as gimmicky.

    However, as long as a pizza tastes really good, I don’t care how it’s fired! –K

  22. bob says:

    I have been to Coal Fire numerous times and after reading some of the posts i decided to ask the chef about the temperature of the oven. He informed me that the oven’s temperature reaches 800-900 degrees. The 580 that many of you speak of is actually the deck temperature and has nothing to do with how hot the oven gets. If you watch them make the pizza you will see that once it is in the oven it takes only 4-5 minutes to cook. I would highly suggest coal fire to anybody in Howard County that is looking for high quality food. Not only is the pizza delicious but I actually thought the cheesesteak was one of the best I’ve had. The quality of the meat is unmatched by any other restaurant serving a similar sandwich

  23. @Bob:

    When you say the deck is 580°F, do you mean the actual floor of the oven…..as in the surface where the bottom/crust of the pizza is placed directly on?

    If so, that is somewhat low. 800°F to 900°F is the usual floor temperature in many naturally fueled pizza ovens (coal, wood)…with common temperatures of around 1200°F to 1500°F reflecting off of the top/dome of the oven…..hence the 2 to 3 minute bake times commonly found in many of the classic coal fired oven pizzerias.

    Please understand I’m not being critical of the finished pizza as, A: I have not had it yet and B: an oven alone does not make great pizza. I am just an intensely curious person by nature….and very much so about pizza ovens (and plan on building my own wood fired Neapolitan domed brick oven in the not too distant future).

    Sounds like you have had some good times at Coal Fire already….nothing like having a new place to enjoy! :)

  24. SkippyMom says:

    I am definitely not a fan of pizza – but dayum that looks delish! Wow. Must have.

    Hmmm…must mapquest Ellicot City from Northern VA – ROAD TRIP! [thanks :)]

  25. Ryan says:

    Pepperoni and Roasted Red Peppers with the spicy/sweet signature sauce is pretty stellar.

  26. Ryan says:

    There are a couple more locations of Coal Fire now… Gaithersburg and Frederick.