I tried a sliced sausage and green pepper pizza at Russo’s New York Coal-Fired Pizzeria at 290 and Highway 6 over the weekend. The sausage was real Italian with a nice fennel aroma. But it was the crust that set this pizza apart. It was crunchy and slightly charred along the perimeter with a very crispy bottom and big yeast bubbles along the edges to add chewy texture.
So I can say with authority that the first coal-fired pizza oven in Houston is turning out an outstanding pie. The oven was one those red brick jobs that you find in gourmet Italian restaurants only Russo’s was burning coal in it instead of the usual wood. There was a big pile of anthracite coal bags piled up on the floor in case you were wondering what kind of coal they used.
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It was a very good pizza alright, but don’t get your hopes too high. If you grew up on Frank Pepe’s New Haven pizza like I did, you may have already realized that all coal ovens are not created equal. The coal oven at Frank Pepe’s is so deep the pizza bakers have to use 12-foot-long peels (that’s what they call those wooden paddles) to reach in a get a pizza. The coal is burned in a chamber underneath the floor of the oven. The depth of the oven allows it to stay super hot (over 700 degrees) no matter how many pies are cooking. Pepe’s has a big thermometer on the front of the oven so everyone can see the temperature. There is always a little black char around the edge of a Pepe’s pie.
Russo’s claimed in a press release that its shallow coal oven was running as high as 900 degrees. Based on the cooking time and lack of black char on the pie I got, I doubt that the oven was even 700 degrees the day I ate there. I think Russo’s needs to put a thermometer on the front of the oven like Pepe’s does so the public can see for themselves.
Suffice to say Russo’s isn’t going to rival Pepe’s anytime soon. But if Russo’s is brave enough to get its coal oven super hot and really char the pie, and smart enough to resist the local tendency to add too many toppings and make the crust soggy, then the place is going to have the pizza to beat in Space City. – Robb Walsh
Russo’s New York Coal-Fired Pizzeria, 19817 Northwest Freeway