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By Eating Our Words
"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.
"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.
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
"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.
Pizza makers are just like barbecue joint owners — some are proud of their equipment, and some aren't. I stopped into a new pizzeria in a shopping center at Westheimer and Fountainview the other day and asked what kind of pizza oven they were using. What does the oven have to do with the taste of the pizza?" the owner asked elusively.
"You are using an impinger oven," I quickly concluded. The owner got pissed at me and gave me a long tirade about how many successful Dallas pizzerias use impinger ovens. I left without ordering anything.
At Russo's New York Coal-Fired Pizzeria, near the intersection of the Northwest Freeway and Highway 6, Anthony Russo is more than happy to talk about his oven.
Russo is attempting to re-create the old-fashioned coal-fired pizzeria experience in a suburban strip center. Given the limitations of the location, he couldn't build a giant coal oven like they use at Pepe's. So instead, he imported a brick oven from Seattle. The oven was originally designed to burn wood, but Russo had it adapted for coal, which burns at a much hotter temperature. The new-fangled coal oven burns anthracite, a clean and virtually smokeless variety of coal.
But the superhot oven is only part of what Anthony Russo is doing right at his coal oven pizzeria. You don't get a pizza crust with this kind of fabulous texture unless you can turn out a high-rising, yeasty dough every day. And the only way to keep such a great pizza from getting gloppy is to teach every apprentice pizza maker in the place that you aren't doing your customers any favors when you pile too many toppings on the pie. And then there's the excellence of the toppings themselves.
As long as they can keep the oven hot, the dough yeasty and the toppings high in quality and low in quantity, Russo's New York Coal-Fired Pizzeria will have the best pie in Houston.