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"Was the crust black on the edges?" a fellow pizza geek asked me when I reported on my first experience at Russo's New York Coal-Fired Pizzeria.
19817 NW Freeway
Houston, TX 77065
Region: Jersey Village
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Small pizza with one topping: $12
Large pizza with one topping: $17
Manhattan Special: $20
Extra toppings: $1.50
"It was dark brown here and there, but not black," I reported.
"Didn't you tell them to make it extra-crispy?" my friend nearly shouted in disbelief.
"No," I had to admit I had left out this critical bit of info from my order. Evidently, in order to get a real East Coast coal oven pizza with scorched black spots on the crust, you have to assure your waitperson that you want your pizza well done.
Not that I was complaining. The first pizza I got at Russo's on 290 was very impressive. They had my favorite topping — sliced Italian sausage with fennel. And the pizza had a spectacular crust. There were big yeast bubbles and some dark crunchy spots on the edge of the pie. It's this kind of uneven texture, thin and crispy in some spots and thick and bready in other places, that makes for a great pizza.
Since that first experience, I have eaten two more pizzas at Russo's Coal-Fired, and I have found that "extra-crispy" is indeed the secret password.
I tried a "Manhattan Special" pizza off of Russo's menu ordered extra-crispy. It featured the thin-sliced Italian fennel sausage I like so much with green peppers, onions and mozzarella. But while the crust was slightly charred and very crispy along the edges, unfortunately, the raw onions and peppers gave off so much liquid in the cooking process that the pizza quickly grew gloppy in the middle while it sat on the table.
It was an extra-crispy mushroom-and-pepperoni pie that came out just about perfect. The whole pizza was extremely crisp, and it stayed that way. In fact, a couple of slices taken home and refrigerated overnight crisped up just fine when I reheated them the next day.
The owner of Russo's New York Coal-Fired Pizzeria, a New Yorker named Anthony Russo, went to a whole lot of trouble to build the first coal-fired pizza oven in Houston. It's odd when you think about it. After all the technological advances in pizza ovens over the last few decades, somebody had to revert to a century-old style of baking to remind us what pizza is supposed to taste like.
America's oldest pizzerias — such as Lombardi's in New York, which was founded in 1905, and Frank Pepe's in New Haven, Connecticut, which opened in 1926 — were built at a time when coal ovens were common for bakeries. The huge coal oven at Pepe's is made of shiny "fire bricks" that are built to withstand the intense heat of a coal fire that is never extinguished. But coal-fired ovens became obsolete when gas and electric-fired stainless steel bakery ovens came along.
The best stainless steel ovens, like the Baker's Pride, turn out a decent pizza. But in the 1980s, these were in turn made obsolete by the super-fast "impinger" oven. This style of conveyor-belt convection oven revolutionized the pizza business by cooking a pizza in six minutes. And thus the promise of a 30-minute delivery time became possible.
Impinger ovens are ubiquitous today — you see them in all sorts of fast-food applications, including sandwich shops that sell toasted sandwiches. The fast, easy-to-use and relatively inexpensive impinger ovens turned pizza into fast food in the United States.
In the last 20 years, in a backlash against the declining quality of pizza, upscale Italian restaurants like Dolce Vita have turned their backs on all this new technology and revived the primitive, wood-burning brick oven. These ovens turn out wonderful pizzas, but they don't get as hot as coal-burning ovens.
When I visit a barbecue joint, I try to walk around back and take a look at the pit. Real barbecue men are proud to show you their equipment and talk about what kind of wood they are burning. If the pit is hidden away or the management doesn't want you to see it, odds are it's a stainless steel "virtual barbecue" oven that is heated with gas or electric power with a couple of logs added for flavor.
It's getting to be the same story with pizzerias and their ovens. A couple of years ago, I stopped by the new Frank Pepe's pizzeria in Fairfield, Connecticut. The Pepe's folks had been in business for 80 years on Wooster Street in New Haven, and nobody thought they could equal the quality of their old coal oven pizzeria somewhere else. But the first thing they did at the new place in Fairfield was to build a brand-new coal oven.
On my first and only visit to the Fairfield Pepe's, I parked in the lot along the side of the building and walked around back to see the coal oven. There was a guy back there shoveling big chunks of coal who was happy to take a break and talk. I felt like I was visiting a barbecue joint. The pie at Pepe's Fairfield location proved to be just as awesome as the original. Which proves that they can make coal oven pizzerias like they used to.
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