Remember when brick-oven pizza was unusual in area restaurants? Now even wood-fired pizza, once rare and wondrous as an albino buck, has become common as cows in today's pizza marketplace.
Not coal-fired pizza, though. Made in an oven heated to 1,000 degrees or more by blazing anthracite, it has been a fixture in New York City and East Coast coal country for a century, but hadn't arrived in these parts until Gallo Coal Fire Kitchen opened in Lewiston.
The intense heat and a rapid cooking session can provide a crisp exterior with an ethereal, pillowy interior, with extra flavor from the almost-scorching. That's what I found the last time I had coal-fired pizza, at Lombardi's in Nolita. So when it was time to try Gallo's pies, I was in search of something special.
First, I had to find the place. The restaurant was converted from an automobile repair shop on Center Street. If you've never been there, it's next to Macri's Italian Grille, with a sign that all three of us drove by without identifying.
I got the last space in the small parking lot. The din that greeted me in the full dining room had me wishing I'd brought my ear trumpet. I could feel the glow from the open hearth as I passed. On a frigid night you might consider a seat at the pizza bar, so you can feel it on your thawing cheeks. There's a patio out front, too, where one might enjoy the breeze in season.
Appetizer choices included Italian-American standards like fried calamari ($10), with marinara and cherry peppers. Stuffed peppers ($10) included nduja, spreadable Calabrian salami, in the cheese mixture. I enjoyed the pepperoni-like flavor it added to the filling, a pleasure undercut by the peppers being undercooked and served lukewarm.
Meatballs ($9) come in regular, chicken and turkey, and fried. The latter was three oblong orbs of well-seasoned meat golden-crusted in hot oil, dusted with romano cheese. They were presented on a bed of arugula and rounded, satisfyingly so, with a dollop of ricotta on a pool of emphatically sweet tomato sauce.
Sicilian wings ($10) had been tossed with salt and pepper before getting a ride in the coal oven, which left them crusty but not quite crispy. Tossed with onions sautéed until sweet, they still left me looking for a dipping sauce to give these wings a lift.
Polenta with Portobello mushroom sauce ($9) was served homestyle, if at home you like your cornmeal mush lumpy and topped with sweet Marsala-like mushroom gravy. I don't mind a few lumps, so I appreciated the hearty appetizer, even though with eyes closed you might have thought it was dessert.
My favorite dish of the night was a chicken cutlet piccata ($19). The thin, crumbed chicken was impeccably crispy. It came on firm ziti pasta with a sauce that balanced the elements of a perfect piccata: tangy with lemon, savory with butter and briny with capers.
Then there was the pizza. I wish I could say the coal-fired pies I tried that night stood out, but they didn't. They weren't awful, just average. I ate my slices, just not all the way. Great pizza crust makes itself disappear. The chewy sameness, even with blackened spots that added flavor, left me abandoning the pizza handles.
My favorite of three was the salciccio ($17), bearing artichokes, sausage, garlic, Parmesan and romano cheeses, and Calabrian chiles on a bed of white béchamel sauce. The margarita ($14), with that sweet tomato sauce, chiffonade basil and fresh mozzarella, was tasty, too.
The Buffalo chicken pizza ($17), sporting shredded braised chicken, Calabrian hot sauce, béchamel, mozzarella and caramelized onions, was a disappointment. Instead of chicken or Frank's-style hot sauce leading the flavor brigade, it was overwhelmed by onions. Give me instead the original, with its chunks of chopped chicken fingers and forthright foundation of blue cheese dressing.
Our server said she only had a couple of weeks' experience, and it showed. She knocked over a beer bottle with a pizza, and later chatted with a co-worker for several minutes while we sought her attention, then helped ourselves to water from an unoccupied table.
Desserts ($7) included a blueberry crème brulee, a chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich, and a warm fudge brownie with ice cream. Pureeing blueberries into crème brulee created grainy custard without a reward on the flavor side. The ice cream in the cookie and brownie sweets was excellent, but the cookies' flavor had faded. The brownie number, served in a little cast iron pan, was a joyous affair, warm gooey and worth the calories.
My dinner at Gallo Coal Fire Kitchen included an adorable chicken cutlet piccata, and pizzas comparable to many in the area. I didn't find the transporting pizza experience I sought, but I'm picky. I blame Lombardi's, and the ambitious pizzaiolos of Western New York, who prove every day that making extraordinary pizza is not, in fact, easy as pie.
Gallo Coal Fire Kitchen - 6 plates (of out 10)
Coal-fired pizza arrives in the area.
800 Center St., Lewiston (405-7596)
Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 4 to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; closed Sunday.
Price range: Small plates, $7-$12; pizzas, $13-$17; pastas; $14-$19
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Gluten-free options: Salads