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Coal and wood are the two most traditional fuels for pizza ovens. Each has its proponents, but in this era of gas ovens, neither is easy to find. A new restaurant makes pizza in both a coal oven and a wood oven. Try both kinds, and you be the judge.
At the newly opened Millie’s Old World Meatballs and Pizza in Morristown, you can order pies from the coal-fired side of the menu or from the wood-fired side. Each has its own characteristics.
The wood-burning oven is used to make traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas, which have a soft, puffy, light crust, thanks in part to the use of imported Caputo 00 flour, an ultra-fine milling that contains no malts or preservatives. The characteristically blistered, "leopard-spotted" (charred) crust owes something to the intense 900-degree heat of the wood-burning oven. The pizza is fully cooked in about 90 seconds.
The coal-burning oven is used to make traditional American-style pizzas, which have a thin, crisp crust and are made with an American Gold Medal flour from General Mills. The coal-fired pies cook for about six minutes at 650 degrees.
Millie's is the first restaurant project for the Carabba brothers, Vince, 38, and Brandon, 35, who own a retail security guard business. They named their restaurant for their grandmother, who introduced them to Italian culinary traditions when they were growing up in Brooklyn and Staten Island.
"As a little kid on Coney Island," says Vince, "I first tasted pizza from a coal oven [at the famous Totonno's], and then later at a place under the Brooklyn Bridge.
"We’re big pizza people,” Vince says of himself and Brandon. “We know what good pizza should taste like.”
When the brothers decided to open a pizza restaurant, they couldn’t decide which type of oven to go with. “I’m just not sure which I really like better—it depends on what mood I’m in,” Vince says. “We finally decided that we wanted to give customers the option.”
The pies range in price from $14-$23.
The wood-fired side of the menu lists 16 12-inch pies with interesting toppings such as sliced house-made mozzarella, prosciutto, pistachio pesto and white truffle cream. The dough is placed in the oven raw with a traditional pre-cooked tomato sauce.
On the coal-fired side dough is rolled out, shaped and precooked, then topped with a fresh sauté of tomatoes, house-made mozzarella and toppings.
Both sides of the menu offer a topping of chopped meatballs made from Grandma Millie’s ground sirloin meatball recipe. Additional menu items include cheese-topped meatball platters, meatball sandwiches and a takeout option called “Bag of Balls to Go.”
The wood oven, a Stefano Ferrara model, was built by hand in Italy from volcanic stones from Mount Vesuvius, the brothers say, and shipped by sea. "We prefer ash wood," Vince says, "because of the taste it lends and because it burns longer at high temperature. It's also important to use small pieces of wood because if a large new log is added, it draws heat from the oven."
The coal oven imparts a slight smoky taste. The brothers say they use Famous Reading Anthracite because it is long-burning and has a muich lower chemical content compared to other types of coal.
Coal fires are notoriously difficult to manage. "Coal has roughly twice the heat/energy potential of wood," notes the Millie's website, milliesoldworld.com.
"In the morning," Vince says, "we get a nice bed of flames burning before we are able to add coal to the fire. Once the fire is lit, the coal cannot be moved because dust is emitted, which would ruin the pizza and soil the oven area. We continually monitor the temperature throughout the day. Whenever the temperature drops, we must add oxygen to the fire using the coal-blower, a fan underneath the coal bed."
For all its traditional recipes and techniques, Millie's has a thoroughly modern look, a mix of gleaming stainless steel, shiny black furniture and sparkly red lights. The two ovens sit side by side in the open kitchen. Covered in tiny, bright red tiles, the domed wood oven looks like a space ship that just landed to deliver a delicacy from another world. The Old World.
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.