References to the rock were everywhere - pictures, statues, signs. Along the railroad behind my house, an old breaker building stood, perched next to a glacier of black coal like a defiant skeleton daring anyone to topple its delicate and outdated glory. And when I say, "coal", I allude to the mighty anthracite. Denser, shinier, cleaner than any other coal. It was supreme.
But amazingly, in the two decades that I grew up there, never once did I think of the what now obviously seems to be the ultimate combination - a coal oven and pizza. At least not until Vito's Coal Fired Pizza recently opened in St. Clair, Pennsylvania.
It's not a new idea.In fact, the first coal oven pizzeria opened in early 1900's. In 1897 an Italian immigrant named Gennaro Lombardi opened a grocery store in Little Italy in New York City. In order to feed the local factory workers, Lombardi began selling tomato pies. In 1905 he expanded to a pizzeria which included a coal oven and he earned a loyal following with his gourmet creations, continuously operating in the same neighborhood for over 100 years. The last time I was in New York I visited the restaurant and it is hard to describe how good the simple, thin crust creations crowned with tomato, top-notch mozzarella and a few slivers of basil truly are.
But why coal and not wood? Coal burns efficiently and hot; in fact, twice as hot as wood. And emitting the same amount of heat, coal weighs half as much and takes up half the space, making it cheaper and easier to transport.
The Italian immigrants were ever resourceful bakers and were experts at producing good and inexpensive thin crust pizzas. Upon its introduction in the United States, it was mostly consumed by Italian immigrants and was sold on the street to workers for mere pennies a slice. However, its delightful goodness was slow to catch on and its popularity did not spread until after World War II, when good cheap food was sought out by the troops and populace here and abroad.
And so, a mere thirty years after I left the coal region for college, I recently walked into the newly opened Vito's Coal Oven Pizza in St. Clair. The place was jammed, filled with bustling soccer players and families.
But for the bags of anthracite coal perched atop oven, the oven itself looked no different than any other wood oven I had ever seen. But the pizza... ahh. The taste was delicious and the lightly-singed texture of the chewy and crispy crust was sheer perfection. The perfectly caramelized onions on the mushroom truffle white pizza, ricotta and mozzarella cheese melted just right and was heavenly.
I never thought I'd see such pizza this side of New York. But now it is here, right in our own back yard... or coal bank.
Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, Cranberry, Pa. http://acfp.com/
Pietro's Coal Oven Pizza, Philadelphia, Pa. http://www.pietrospizza.com/
Lombardi's New York, New York.http://www.firstpizza.com/
History of Coal Ovens: http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2011/07/scotts-pizza-chronicles-rise-and-fall-and-rise-of-the-coal-oven.html