If you have spent any time at all with an East Coast expat, you’ve probably been apprised of the embarrassing state of pizza in Indianapolis—our dearth of pizzaioli dusted in doppio zero flour, dough spiked with mineral-rich water, and slices that fold neatly down the middle. But when a place like downtown’s Coal Pizza Company comes along, cooking its pies in a 900-degree oven in the big-shouldered tradition of America’s first pizzerias, redemption is served by the slice.
Coal Pizza’s ownership group, Four Fellas, opened this slim two-story eatery just under the wire for January’s Super Bowl blitz. Beyond that initial rush of Tweets and celebrity-sightings, the owners saw themselves tearing off a piece of the Neapolitan-style pizza market currently dominated by Neal Brown’s locavorian Pizzology and Martha Hoover’s cobalt-walled tribute to puffy crust, Napolese. The pizzas here have the same wildly bulbous base, wafer-crisp on the outside while soft and chewy on the inside—a suitable launch pad for the featured ingredients.
A tomato-less white pizza is scattered with spinach and softened crumbles of feta that pick up the saltiness of Parmesan and house-pulled mozzarella. The Tuscan, topped with loose clumps of lean fennel sausage and sweet strips of roasted pepper, proves that a carnivore’s pizza can be both flavorful and refined. And the crusty Formaggi’s combination of mozzarella, Parmesan, and Gruyere’s nutty essence takes cheese pizza to a higher level. From there, things get a little more complex. In addition to a pizza topped with duck confit and goat cheese, servers scale the restaurant’s staircase with Buffalo Chicken pizzas hoisted over their shoulders, as well as an elaborate bacon-and-Gruyere–topped Tarte Flambe.
Sometimes the mad-scientist fusions work. Sometimes they don’t. One evening, we could only pick at the vegetarian Ratatouille pizza, wishing the drab combination of zucchini, yellow squash, and caramelized onion had been cooked long enough to actually caramelize.
At the other end of the food chain, a Philly Cheesesteak pizza seemed more like an open-faced sandwich than something you might order when the moon hits your eye.
A pizzaiolo stands at the oven’s mouth, poking purposefully at the coals like a very contemplative dragon slayer.
In other ways, the restaurant sticks to tradition. Its Mugnaini oven, imported from Italy, burns coal or wood only (not, as with Pizzology and Napolese, gas). And an assigned pizzaiolo stands at the oven’s arched mouth, poking purposefully at the coals like a very contemplative dragon slayer. “You almost need a degree in physics or thermal dynamics,” says Jason Tipton, one of the Four Fellas and owner of The Ripple Inn. “People are going to see some irregular sides. There will be some blistering, which is a byproduct of the oven and something true pizza aficionados really seek out.” Even the leopard-spotting of char is considered desirable, to a degree.
Servers are quick to tell customers that the shiny behemoth cooks pizzas at 900 degrees, in 90 seconds. That does not, however, mean you will get your pizza in 90 seconds, apparently, or that it will arrive in camera-phone–ready condition. The same elaborate oven that churns out a lovely wild-mushroom pizza with a shatteringly crisp bottom and billowy sides can turn the crust of a Margherita pizza to embers and leave the crimped-dough edges of a veggie calzone raw in the middle. Fingers crossed that it’s just new-oven jitters.
The spot that Coal Pizza occupies, tucked between Libertine and the Symphony Centre on the long-neglected first block of East Washington Street, most recently housed the clubby Hue Dine and all of its modular furnishings. Before that, Taste of Tango offered Argentinian cuisine and dance nights there. The new owners gutted the place, sacrificing seating for about 30 to accommodate the oven.
Sepia-toned images from the Bass Photo archives adorn the dining-room walls, a nice touch. The one over my table one day depicted this very strip of buildings in the 1930s, when Richman’s Clothes occupied the Coal Pizza space. I showed my server how the masonry in the old photo matches up perfectly with the current streetscape, willing her to get as excited about the discovery as I was. Because just like a respectable pizza, this is something we can proudly claim as our own.
Coal Pizza Company
36 E. Washington St., 685-2625, coalpizzacompany.com
HOURS Sun.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–1 a.m.
Photos by Tony Valainis.
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.