Can coal-fired pizza take a slice out of the coal industry's slump?

Utilities in the United States are cooling their appetites for coal as natural gas becomes the fuel du jour for electricity generation. But in the small but pungent universe of gourmet pizza, coal is running very hot with restaurateurs who want to bring Old World flavor to the American pizza palate.

Artisans of the thin, carbon-crusted pizzas baked in ovens stoked to more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit say the preparation and eating of coal-fired pizza is unique among culinary experiences. They argue that there is a light-year's difference from what chain stores are preparing in the electric and gas-fired ovens that have become the standard for commercial pizza-making in the United States.

But the prospect that pizza, a niche market even within the restaurant industry, can help soften coal's hard landing from the days when it fueled 50 percent of the nation's electricity is unlikely, experts say. Comparing small businesses like pizzerias to massive electric utilities -- the coal industry's largest consumer by far -- may be stretching the bounds of meaningful analysis.

Nevertheless, there may be lessons baked into the trend about where coal may be heading in the modern economy.

While bulk sales to power plants are expected to see continued marginal decline over the next decade, the industry could reap some benefits -- perhaps in public relations, where it has taken a beating by environmentalists -- by embracing niche markets where coal can help small businesses that need high heat over sustained periods.

This is clearly the trend in coal-fired pizzerias, which by rough estimates number between 100 and 150 restaurants in the United States. The majority have opened their doors in the past half-decade.

The eateries range from small independents to larger chains promoting coal-fired cooking as much for marketing purposes as for culinary tastes. All are trying to capitalize on patrons' growing taste for charred dough, caramelized toppings and an experience that coal-fired pizzeria owners describe as uniquely American.


Topping the modern palate with Old World flavor

The center of the coal-fired culinary movement is the cities of the Northeast, particularly New York, where in the late 1800s Italian bakers began converting coal-fired heating stoves into ovens to make breads and other delicacies. Sure, the mostly brick ovens were often unbearably hot, and the firing, stoking and venting of coal ovens was labor-intensive, smelly and sometimes dangerous.

But when properly handled, coal could convert flour, water and yeast into manna from heaven, at least in the minds of those who consumed the crusty, sometimes sooty concoctions.

Just ask employees and patrons of institutions like Grimaldi's Pizzeria, whose flagship store lies in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, and Patsy's Pizzeria in East Harlem, whose repeat client list since 1935 has included Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Joe DiMaggio and Francis Ford Coppola.

"You can absolutely taste the difference," Gina Peluso, manager of Grimaldi's Brooklyn store on Front Street, said of her coal-fired oven. "I mean, everything cooks different inside of it. You put pepperoni on it, it just curls to a crisp. Sausage, the onions, it's, you know, delicious. The heat level, so everything just cooks differently."

Slightly farther afield, in New Haven, Conn., an ambitious Italian immigrant named Frank Pepe in 1925 started making simple pizzas in coal-fired ovens from his storefront at 163 Wooster St. Today, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana is a cultural institution and landmark for foodies around the world. The London-based Guardian newspaper named Pepe's pizza among the 50 best things to eat in the world in 2009.

Scott Wiener, a food blogger who leads restaurant tours of New York City's pizzerias, said that for early adopters of coal-fired cooking, the attraction was more for economic reasons than culinary ones.

Wood had been the preferred fuel for Old World baking. But bakers found it took half as much coal to do the same job as wood. And with the discovery of rich seams of anthracite coal from nearby eastern Pennsylvania, bakers would never risk running out of fuel.

"It was all about having coal because it took up less space and was therefore a lot cheaper," Wiener said of the turn-of-the-century establishments. An alternative to wood fuel also mattered in places with little in the way of forests -- places like New York City.

But by the end of the 1930s, he said, coal seemed to have run its course. The advent of natural gas, oil and electric ovens allowed bakers to leave behind the mounds of black coal and the gigantic coal-fired ovens they had used for a half-century.

Peluso, an Italian Brooklynite herself, said Grimaldi's pies are in many ways inspired by the wood-fired pizzas of the past. The tomato sauce isn't precooked, for example. Instead, fresh tomatoes are crushed onto the pizza just seconds before it enters the oven.

There, the pizza does a rapid waltz: Within three minutes, it emerges from the oven's mouth, steaming and ready for a final dash to the table. The result is a melting, flopping, almost injuriously hot slice of satisfaction.

The Grimaldi's recipe hasn't changed in decades, nor has the eatery tinkered with prices despite rising costs for ingredients and fuel. Frank Ciolli, Grimaldi's current owner, bought the restaurant in 1998. The coal he feeds his oven, from eastern Pennsylvania's anthracite belt, cost about $80 a ton at opening, he said. Today it's roughly $300 a ton.

Niche market smolders in Minneapolis

The cost of anthracite -- which emits more carbon than some other coals but burns hotter with few byproducts such as heavy metals -- runs even higher for the latest generation of coal-fired pizzerias, which are sprouting across the country from Miami to Minneapolis to Las Vegas.

Jordan Smith, co-owner and founder of Black Sheep Coal Fired Pizza in Minneapolis-St. Paul, said his costs are driven not so much by the coal itself, but by the challenge of getting pallets of anthracite shipped from Mahanoy City, Pa., home of supplier Blaschak Coal Corp., to his restaurants in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.

In a typical day, Black Sheep's ovens consume 80 to 100 pounds of anthracite coal, or between 14 and 18 short tons annually. Such quantities would hardly register on a coal-fired power plant's fuel inventory. But for nonpower applications, it's a healthy amount, and many pizzerias burn coal every day of the year, from midmorning to late night.

Smith said his coal-fired ovens produce a much drier heat than comparable wood or gas ovens. They can run for most of the day with a single charge of coal, though the coal pile must be stoked between lunch and dinner rushes and then burned down and cleaned out after closing to prepare for the next day's cooking.

"It was harder to get a handle on than I thought it would be," he said of the firing process, "and I think that's why there aren't very many people doing it. A wood fire is very intuitive. You see the fire is going down and you add wood. Coal is different. If you wait until you think you need to add fuel, you're going to put your fire out."

Yet even with the challenges, Smith said the experience cooking with a coal-fired oven has changed his perspective on the culinary arts. "It's honestly the best piece of kitchen equipment I've ever bought in my life," he said.

What do his loyal customers think of their favorite pizzeria burning the world's most polluting fossil fuel?

"I was worried about some backlash at first," Smith said, "but it was almost nonexistent. If people ask me about it, I explain what we're about and where the recipes come from. They haven't had a problem with it."

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