Coalfire: the American Neapolitan

In search of pies like they got back home,Chicago residents Bill Carroll and J.Spillane became pizza pioneers and createdtheir own style of pizza.

In Chicago, the deep-dish pizza reignssupreme. So when two entrepreneurswith roots in Massachusetts conceivedthe idea of a New England-style thin crustpizza joint in the heart of Chicago,they understood the possibility of beingregarded as interlopers in the deepdishkingdom. Their pizza, however,has hardly been given an unwelcometreatment; instead, Chicagoans have acceptedtheir slender crusts with openarms and healthy appetites.

Bill Carroll and J. Spillane openedCoalfire (coalfirechicago.com) in 2007with a shared craving, one that dates backto their formative years in Massachusetts.“We wanted pizza like home,” Spillaneadmits. Carroll and Spillane, who haveboth resided in Chicago for more than adecade, searched in vain for years, lookingfor a pizza that could evoke the thincrust,bready pies they grew up eating.

“The thin crust in Chicago was verydifferent than what we were used to,”recalls Carroll. “It was almost like thepizza was on a cracker.” Nostalgic andunfulfilled, Carroll and Spillane realizedthat the only way they were ever going toget their kind of pizza in Chicago was tomake it themselves.

From the beginning, the idea of startinga pizza restaurant together seemedlike a perfect idea. Carroll would takecare of the business side of the enterprise,while Spillane handled the pizza making duties. “Pizza is the only thing I knowhow to make,” Spillane confesses. Meanwhile,Carroll says his business know-howcomes from watching his family’sinvolvement in private enterprise. Theharmonious rapport between Carroll andSpillane has proven to form a successfulbusiness relationship. And, although theduo met only a few years ago while Spillanewas working as a bartender, their originsare strikingly parallel: Spillane saysthat as a child he often visited an amusementpark owned by Carroll’s family inSpringfield, Massachusetts.

Chicago’s Coal-Fired Pioneers

A thin-crust pizza in a deep-dish city isa novel idea, but the aspiring restaurateursknew that they needed somethingelse unique to attract customers—someway to make a pizza that Chicago hadnever seen or tasted before. Simultaneously,the first decision Carroll andSpillane had to make involved choosingwhat kind of oven to use for theirrestaurant. “We didn’t know whetherto use gas, wood or coal,” Spillane says,“but in the end, coal was just the besthook.” Their cooking method, which thename “Coalfire” aptly pays homage to,is a first for Chicago—surprising whenyou consider the dizzying amount ofpizzerias in the Windy City—and thecoal-fired brick oven provides an honorabletribute to places like Totonno’sin Brooklyn and the coal-fired pizzeriasof New Haven, Connecticut.

The 800°F heat from the brick oven,coupled with a meticulous and tiresometrial-and-error process as Spillane createdboth the dough and sauce recipes,spawned a style of pizza that the duolikes to refer to as “American Neapolitan,”a hybrid of pizzas from Naplesand the American Northeast, seasonedlightly with down-to-earth Chicago attitude.In order to preserve the idea of theAmerican Neapolitan, Coalfire uses allAmerican ingredients, with the exceptionof anchovies and olive oil. Spillanepoints out that even the coal is a distinctivelyAmerican product, usually comingstraight from the mines of Southern Illinoisor Kentucky.

Fired-Up Food

Carroll and Spillane are quick to emphasizethat Coalfire is first and foremost apizza restaurant; the menu is dominatedby an array of specialty pizzas, such as theFiorentino (with hot salami and roastedred peppers) and the Napoli (with anchovyfilets). Calzones and salads are available,but the pizza draws the crowds. Allpizzas at Coalfire are 14’’ and typicallyserve two people. Basic toppings, such asItalian-style meats and fresh vegetables,are offered, although both Carroll andSpillane recommend the Margherita forthose who are having trouble deciding.“The Margherita is what we started with;we wanted to make that one good andthen grow from there,” Carroll notes.The traditional red, white and greenMargherita is Coalfire’s bestseller for areason: The recipe starts with Spillane’shomemade dough, which is first layeredwith fresh mozzarella and then toppedwith Coalfire’s signature sauce and finallyfresh basil (the application of cheeseand sauce are in inverse order to protectthe desired crispiness of the pizza). Thenthe magic happens when the pizza getsbaked, as the intense heat of the coal-fired oven cooks the pizza with extremespeed, usually taking no more than threeminutes to complete. The crust, freckledwith char marks from the oven’s hightemperatures, has a crispy exterior anda doughy inside that gives it a pleasantlychewy texture. Because this type of pizzais new to Chicagoans, however, the staffand owners have to dole out occasionalguidance. Carroll and Spillane assurecustomers who see the charred crustand fear their pizza might be burnt thatit’s merely a by-product of the coal-firedtechnique. Coalfire also suggests thatcustomers limit their topping choices tothree in order to prevent the pizza frombecoming soggy in the middle.

On the beverage front, the restaurantoffers a variety of foreign and domesticbeers, along with a paired wine selectionfrom Perman Wine Selections, a Chicago-basedwine outlet; the wine is heavilymarketed on Tuesday nights, whenpatrons receive half off their bottles.Coalfire also has a variety of sodas andflavored teas for teetotalers.The pizzeriadoes not accept reservationsor providedelivery, but it doesoffer carryout whenthe oven is not occupiedby pizzas forpatrons dining in therestaurant. During busy times, such asthe weekend dinner service, carryout istemporarily suspended so the sizzling hotoven can catch up to in-house demand.

A Hot Start

From its opening, Coalfire has been a hitwith Chicagoans and tourists alike, butCarroll and Spillane admit that they weretotally unprepared for the initial swellof customers. “We opened up the doorson the first day, and we got absolutelycrushed,” Spillane remembers. Sincethen, a healthy supply of positive word-of-mouth advertisement has proven to bea beneficial marketing tool for Coalfire.Although the operators have placed oneadvertisement in Chicago’s UnSceneMagazine, Coalfire has garnered mostof its attention online among food bloggersand pizza enthusiasts. Coalfire isalso a stop on the Chicago Pizza Tours,which offers visitors the chance to geta taste of some of the pizzas the WindyCity has to offer. Coalfire even occasionallyshows up in local bars as a very welcomelate-night treat, courtesy of Carrolland Spillane. After such a rapid-fire threeyears in business, expansion is also in theworks for Coalfire. Carroll and Spillanesay that they first want to try to install asecond oven in the kitchen,but if that proves impractical,a second location that servesonly takeout could be the nextlogical step.

Although Coalfire is undoubtedlya pioneer in Chicagopizza culture, Carroll and Spillane aremodest in the appraisal of their own restaurantwhen compared to the pizzeriasthat inspired Coalfire. When customersask if Coalfire’s pizza can compete withthe likes of coal-fired pizzerias in NewYork and New Haven, Connecticut, theowners humbly evade the question andleave the judgment to the customer. “Wedefinitely can’t compare rèsumès to thoseplaces; we just make pizza the way we likeit,” Carroll says. The co-owners’ humilitymirrors the unpretentious and casualatmosphere of the restaurant. The interior,though not completely spartan, isminimal and relaxed. Fresh pizzas comestraight from the oven and are placed onplatters balanced on large tomato cans infront of waiting patrons. The preparationarea and oven are visible for customerswho are curious about how the coal-firedprocess works. In other words, just becauseCoalfire is serious about pizzadoesn’t mean it takes itself too seriously.After all, Carroll and Spillane affirm, it’sjust a pizzeria at heart.

Coalfire is the perfect spot for thosewho seek something different than traditionalChicago pizza; it’s the essenceof the American pizza place, born out ofa single idea and a lot of hard work. Butthe owners know where they stand on certainpizza “rules”: If a customer asks fora pizza cut into squares, they might endup with a pizza not cut at all. When askedabout this pet peeve of the co-owners,Spillane stresses that a pizza cut squareis simply unnatural. “The crust is the perfecthandle to the pizza,” he emphasizes.“Why would anyone ever mess with thatsweet engineering?”

Carroll, whose allegiance also lies totallywith the triangular cut, says with atongue-in-cheek somberness, “We simplycannot be responsible for square pizza.”

Andrew Ousley is a freelance writer based inOxford, Mississippi.