Coal Fire could be just another pizza joint. But its location — albeit storefront — in the Ellicott City development of Shipley's Grant gives it a certain cachet. So does the fact that the pizzas, which you can see being prepared in the open kitchen, are cooked in a coal-fired oven. Hence the name, which, as it turns out, is the moniker for a trio of eateries in the area. One in Gaithersburg, the one in Ellicott City, which opened in April of this year, and the newest edition, in Frederick, which premiered in late June.
The décor in the Ellicott City location is a mite more modern than in your grandmother's pizzeria. There are a pair of narrow-ish rooms. One features the bar and several high-top tables with concomitant bar stools. The main dining room, with the aforementioned open kitchen duded up with mosaic tile walls, is done in earthy tones of taupe and brick red. The walls are hung with black and white pictures. Tables and booths are set here and there, bare-topped and utilitarian.
Additionally, the menu at Coal Fire helps set it apart from "the usual." For one thing, you'll have your choice of three different "artisanal" — I'm beginning to be bored with this word, even though I seem to use it all the time — pizza sauce styles and a trio of designer pies, plus myriad other options (more later). For another, while the bill of fare features all the popular Italian pub-style offerings, including angel hair pasta with white clam sauce and spaghetti and meatballs, plus Italian cold cut and meatball subs, there are a few "different" dishes that fire the curiosity. Sweet and hot pepper calamari, for instance. And baked crabby mac. Not to mention a grilled caesar salad, as well as the currently chi chi Caprese, featuring mozzarella cheese and tomatoes, with the only green being fresh basil.
Since its April opening, Coal Fire seems to have caught on with its neighbors. The dining room and bar were quite busy on the recent Tuesday night four of us visited. The kitchen and wait staff seemed able to handle the pace, though, and coordinated their efforts so that our food was nicely cooked and delivered promptly. The only thing the front of the house didn't keep up with were the crumbs (and even grease) stains on our chair seats, presumably from the (sloppy) party that had occupied our space just before we did.
We chose to share three appetizers: the oven-baked wings (8/$7.95), the baked crabby mac ($13.95) and one of the small pizzas.
First the wings: An interesting take. They arrived in a round cassoulet, well seasoned with thyme, crisp and a bit chewy, yet moist and meaty. And, surprisingly, topped with sweet and tender roasted Vidalia onions. These wings are about as distant from Buffalo as you can get. No choice as to "heat," as far as spice factor is concerned, but who cares?
Baked crabby mac is simply macaroni (penne) and cheese (sharp cheddar), with crab (blue). Easy to describe, delicious and comforting to eat. A rather small portion for $13.95, but rich and filling. You could get a salad and this casserole and create for yourself a happy meal indeed.
The small pizza here is a 12-inch pie, costing $10.95 unless you add some favorite toppings (and there are a baker's dozen from which to choose). Each topping for a 12-inch pie is $1.50 extra; for a 16-incher, $2 extra.
Or, you can choose a 12- or 16-inch designer pizza. There's the Margherita, the classic with olive oil, red sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil. There's the Rustic Red, featuring roasted red peppers and red onions. And there's the Ring of Fire, with banana peppers and hot Italian sausage atop the house's spicy sauce. Prices for these are a mite higher than for the basics.
We chose a basic with two toppings. But still had to choose from among the three house sauces: "classic" (tomatoes, herby, traditional); "signature" (a smooth tomato-ey blend of sweet and spicy flavors); and "spicy."
We overrode the spice lovers in our group, and we'd tried the "signature" sauce during another visit (not with great reviews), so it was the "classic" for us, topped with pepperoni and sausage. Aptly served on a pedestal. The yeasty crust was thin and chewy-crisp and bubbly. The sauce was just the way we like it: smooth, not too thick, not too sweet, and herby. The pepperoni and sausage were generously supplied and satisfied the spice lovers among us. Ample cheese, too. There's wasn't anything not to like on this pizza.
Not that we needed more to eat, but for our readers, we sacrifice. And try to run the gamut of menu categories. Ergo, two ordered from the pasta section. One from the "Coalby's" section (sandwiches/subs) with a salad ordered separately to go with, and one from the (main dish) salad section.
Spaghetti and meatballs ($11.95), featured four large, meaty and tender ground beef orbs set on a bed of marinara-tossed angel hair pasta. As traditional as you can get, and still a winner. A large side salad that came with featured mixed lettuces, black olives, cukes, tomatoes, celery and radicchio tossed with a sweetish vinaigrette. Plus toasted, buttered Italian bread. Talk about home sweet home.
The angel hair pasta with white clam sauce ($13.95) was nicely al dente to enjoy with all the chopped clams, which were bathed in a fragrant, garlicky and lemony broth.
A cheese steak sandwich ($9.95) was arguably the best version we've tried. Tender juicy beef, melty cheese, mayo, lettuce, tomato and grilled onions in a lightly toasted chewy Italian sub rolls. Hot and drippy and satisfying. With sweet pickles on the side. Is that kosher?
Plus the caprese "salad" ($8.95): An ample serving of housemade mozzarella, thin sliced, colored with red bell peppers, sprinkled with plenty of snipped basil and drizzled with a thick, shiny, mellow balsamic vinegar glaze.
And the grilled caesar salad ($7.95/plus $3.95 with the addition of grilled chicken.) This main-dish salad featured a good-size romaine lettuce heart, which had, as promised, been grilled to add flavor. Slightly wilted, but still crisp, the salad was enhanced by the tender grilled chicken, by the generous amount of shaved parmesan cheese partially melted over the warm lettuce, and by a creditable creamy caesar dressing.
The vote? Coal Fire was a place to merit a return visit (or two or three or…).
Coal Firehttp://www.coalfireonline.com (410-480-2625, http://www.coalfireonline.com), is at 5725 Richard's Valley Road (Shipley's Grant), Ellicott City.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun