Bill Etzel checks a crust at Coals in Morris Park.
Photo by Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
By PETER MEEHAN
Published: August 3, 2005
I MISPRONOUNCED Al Leiter's last name, making it rhyme it with "leader," while ordering a pie named after him at Coals, a pizza restaurant that opened last fall in the Morris Park area of the Bronx.
"It's Al Lighter!" my waitress shot back, correcting my error, before she cracked an ear-to-ear grin and explained why I should have known: "He's a Yankee!"
A Yankee, right. Coals is a casual, family-friendly place. Want them to change the channel on the 48-inch flat screen television over the bar? Just ask. Kids climbing all over the furniture? No problem. But mispronouncing the name of a Yankee pitcher? That makes the needle skip a groove.
Bronx bomber-boosting aside, Coals is unlike any other pizza place in the borough - or in the rest of the city, for that matter - in that it looks for inspiration to Rhode Island, not to Italy. And the pies it slings are not coal oven, wood oven or oven baked at all. They are grilled.
Bill Etzel, the restaurant's chef, said he knew after his first trip to Al Forno, the restaurant in Providence, R.I., that is widely credited with pioneering grilled pizza, that he wanted to bring it home to the Bronx. He bode his time, working the pizza station at Waldy Malouf's Beacon and traveling with his business partner, Paul Harnish, to, in Mr. Harnish's words, "anywhere that served grilled pizza within 300 miles" of New York City.
All of Coals' pizzas (and two of its desserts) start out as lumps of pizza dough made with white flour, whole wheat flour and cornmeal. The whole wheat imbues the finished crust with a fuller flavor than some other pizzas; the finely ground cornmeal lends an appealingly gritty textural note. Overnight fermentation of the dough imparts an appreciable tang that's amplified by the charred flavor from the grill.
The pizzas, stretched by hand, range from almost oval to nearly rectangular in shape; all are striped with tar-black grill marks and speckled with tiny burst air bubbles on both sides. The best bets are pizzas that count tomato among their toppings - they add a balancing sweet note - and those that aren't overloaded, dragging the dough down with them.
As it is in just about every pizza-eating scenario imaginable, the margherita ($4.50 small, $8 large) is a must. Among Coals' signature pies, the Pure Bliss ($7, $13), topped with tomato, fontina, ricotta and a basil pesto, edges out the very similar Al Leiter ($7, $13), which substitutes mozzarella for the ricotta and a three-herb blend for the straight basil. Both are winners.
Mr. Etzel's more creative offerings include a pizza topped with corn, bacon and two cheeses and named for the Yankee pitcher Kevin Brown ($6.50, $12) that falls flat. (The restaurant says the price of his namesake pizza is, fortunately, not tied to his earned-run average.) A soggy pizza called the Rasta ($7, $13) was piled high with "jerk sausage" that had no hint of jerk and, more egregiously, the texture of steamed meat. Avoid it.
That's not to say there aren't surprises lurking on the menu. The Firecracker ($6, $11), with two cheeses, tomato, corn (which looked as if it might have spent part of its life in a freezer case) and a drizzling of chipotle oil, was a charmer. A chilled cantaloupe soup ($4) was as refreshing on a hot summer night as it was surprising to find at a pizza joint in the Bronx.
And the Second Avenue panini ($6.25) is probably one of the best creative sandwiches in the city. Moist, flavorful brisket braised in Brooklyn Lager is shredded and combined with horseradish-spiked mayo on two slices of a tender white bread made for the restaurant by a local bakery. Griddled, crisp and hot, it is requisite eating on a trip to Coals.
And, space permitting, so are the two housemade desserts. A small pizza smeared with Nutella ($5) is folded over on itself and served with a dusting of powdered sugar. The other, a Coals fluffernutter ($6) adds mascarpone to the mix to good effect. And it is, thankfully, Fluff-free.
1888 Eastchester Road (Morris Park Avenue), Morris Park, Bronx; (718) 823-7002.
BEST DISHES Second Avenue panini; the margherita, Firecracker, Heaven Scent, Al Leiter and Pure Bliss grilled pizzas; Nutella pizza; Coals fluffernutter.
PRICE RANGE Soups and salads, $4 to $8; panini, $5.75 to $7; pizzas, $4.50 to $13; dessert, $5 to $6.
CREDIT CARDS - No American Express.
HOURS 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Two steps up at entrance.