Monday, October 23, 2017

Review: Providence Coal Fired Pizza - Providence, RI

As neighbor to nearby Boston and New Haven, it's not surprising to find some very good pizza in Rhode Island. Providence is known for one famous pizza, the thin but densely chewy pies at Al Forno. In 2014, the first Providence Coal Fired Pizza opened on Westminster Street (there are now two more locations in Rhode Island). Can the newcomer compete for top spot in this tiny state?
You might answer that question with another question: What happens when you deploy your 900 degree coal-fired oven to create a pizza that is a hybrid of Neapolitan, New Haven, and Trenton tomato pie styles?

I visited the original Providence location on a Tuesday night, and the huge modern interior (housed in a vintage-style building) was bustling with groups of happy patrons, some still sporting name tags from whatever conference they'd been attending. 
In my experience, some of the best pizzas come from hole-in-the-wall joints where decor is a second thought if a thought at all - places like Di Fara and Totonno's in Brooklyn, Tacconelli's and Beddia in Philly, or Santarpio's in Boston.
Here, though, was the mark of some seasoned restaurant professionals, from the sleek yet warm decor, the open feeling in a crowded space, the inventive and varied appetizers, and the thoughtful selection of cocktails, wine, and craft beers.
Trenton cut yields some triangles ....
Providence Coal Fired Pizza looks like a chain, much like another coal pie joint - Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, which is approaching 40 locations. Could a place this slick have authentic pizza?
... and some rectangles
Once I learned that the sausage is house-made, I opted for a Margherita pie ($15, personal size) with sausage ($2.50 extra).  For another $6, I enjoyed a pint of Allagash White Belgian-style beer; the total with tax was just over $25.
Dense, chewy, puffy cornicione
My pie arrived on a nice elevated slate serving rectangle. The pizza itself was oval (New Haven style) but with a large puffy cornicione, substantial char spots, and a thin soft-but-not-soggy crust (Neapolitan style), where the tomato sauce was more prominent than the cheese and sectioned with one long cut down the middle, then a series of perpendicular cross-cuts (Trenton style).  
Under the hood
Despite the multiple influences here, the pie was largely Neapolitan. Where it departed from Neapolitan, I found it to be an improvement. The crust had the thin center and puffy cornicione of a Neapolitan, but the dough was dense and al dente chewy. The mozzarella cheese was applied in modest proportions relative to the red sauce.
Another look at bottom of the pie
The crust was superb - just a little too soft and weak in the center - but wonderful at the edges in texture and a bready/yeasty flavor. The red sauce, though, was the star here. A deep and bright red, vibrant in a salty but not sweet way, simply bursting with flavor.
The cheese seemed to be of good quality, but it was a reliable role player here, taking a back seat to the sauce and crust. On my next visit, in fact, I want to try to marinara pie to isolate the superb simplicity of that crust and sauce cooked at 900 degrees with Pennsylvania anthracite coal.

The sausage was an excellent choice - salty, spicy, and cooked-on-the-pie as it ought to be. The pie contained just the right amount of oil on top and the post-bake strips of fresh basil brought it all home. The cornicione was slightly oversized relative to the rest of the pie, but overall this pie had nearly perfect balance of flavors and textures.
Not only did the interior at Providence Coal Fired Pizza look like Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, but there was some overlap in flavor, too. The crusts are very different - Anthony's is a round pizza with a thin and very sturdy/crisp crust. The similarity was mostly in the red sauce and perhaps whatever flavors the coal oven imparts.
From Next time I might need to try the pepperoni
In general, I'm dismissive of the hoary myths about pizza, like "it's the New York water" or that "brick oven pizza" is superior. Most of my favorite pizzas come out of conventional gas deck ovens, and not all are in New York City. But there may be something to this coal-oven approach, even if it means that any pizzaiolo going to the trouble of using coal isn't going to be using inferior ingredients.

Bottom line - the pies at Providence Coal Fired Pizza are spectacular and clearly qualify as "destination pizza."  Better than Al Forno? I loved both so much that I won't choose a favorite. You can't go wrong with either when visiting Providence.

Providence Coal Fired Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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