Providence Coal Fired Pizza

More than just a place to grab a simple slice, Coal Fired Pizza satisfies with upscale combinations of ingredients and flavors.

Photography by Angel Tucker

Providence Coal Fired Pizza half star

385 Westminister St., Providence, 454-7499, Hours Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Valet parking. Cuisine Really? Capacity 100-plus. Vibe Bar food meets family restaurant.  Prices Appetizers $3–$16, entrees $15–$20, desserts $4. Karen’s picks Wings, ribs, salad and, obviously, the requisite pizza.
Key  Fair  Good  Very Good  Excellent half starHalf-star
There's a certain group of people who refuse to allow pizza into the serious and selective culinary world. In the fast food lexicon? Sure. On a lunch menu? Yep. But the gastronomic elite has made clear that a dish loved by toddlers isn't worthy of earnest consideration. To be fair, it's tough to sell sticky linoleum tables and Diet Coke as a privileged dining experience. You're more likely to grab a slice between meetings than consider a twenty-minute scarf down something to talk about at the proverbial water cooler.
Half a dozen investors from the restaurant world are hoping to change pizza's old-school reputation, among them chef Richard Allaire who handled a very different kitchen around the corner at the now-defunct L’Epicureo. It's worth noting that no one involved with Providence Coal Fired Pizza is trying to usurp or diminish grand dining. Instead, they're determined to offer an alternative to the chain restaurants that draw in more than $100 billion a year in revenue, most without a waitstaff or even the dream of cloth napkins. 
Located on the far end of Westminster in downtown Providence, Coal Fired might already have dibs on the takeout crowd, given the slow but still formidable condo and rental market. There's certainly no shortage of weary workers who want nothing more than a marinara cheese melt while supine in front of the television. Nonetheless, the desired demographic are theatergoers, families and those making their way over to the Convention Center. No need for expansive seating if everyone's at home in their sweats waiting for dinner to be delivered. 
Accordingly, the restaurant is rich in earthy colors: dark woods, amber walls and leather-seated stools. The showpiece, despite the central bar and myriad TVs, is a massive steel oven firing Pennsylvanian coal by the tens of pounds. This is the heart of the kitchen, not just for pizza but any dish that requires cooking. Wings and ribs — not surprising in a pizza joint — are surprising in their simplicity. The only flavor that the staff is unabashedly committed to is the taste of fire and, subsequently, sauces are eschewed for dry rubs and an open flame. 
The wings ($12) are crispy and intense, more reminiscent of a deeply roasted bird than a vehicle for hot sauce. Ribs ($8), too, taste more like the pig they came from than a concoction of molasses and mustard but, served with red cabbage, there's still a play on texture and disparate flavors. Remaining appetizers are standard — hummus, Caesar and arugula salads — though they're important because there are so few other opportunities to balance the richness of the cheese to come. 
The pizza has been long in the making, not only because of the intricacy of the massive oven and the import of anthracite, a nearly smokeless coal. No less important are the techniques applied to the oven and, here, the dough is two-thirds water that quickly evaporates in the 900-degree heat, resulting in a crust that is both chewy and charred. For a city steeped in grilled pizza, this is a novel approach, though coal oven pizza has long been appreciated in New York City where Lombardi's and Grimaldi's alternately carry the trophy for best version among nearly infinite gas-powered options.
Many of the varieties at Providence are heavily meat-based — not pizza for the delicate or demure: duck confit, sausage, prosciutto, meatballs, porcini and truffle oils pair with equally aggressive cheeses such as Gorgonzola, goat, parmesan and pecorino ($15 to $20). The key is to balance the depth with acidity (no surprise: a bright red sauce) or a spicy arugula that tops the Rocket pizza. 
The restaurant usually has a special or two, often as assertive as the pizza. Braised beef shows up in short rib form, on pizza or served alongside a single massive ricotta ravioli. This is a menu for the hale and hearty (save for the occasional salad) and has a drink menu to match. Given the handful of community tables and the extroverted atmosphere, cocktails come as no surprise. You could easily make an evening out of a football game, a slice of particularly good pepperoni and a couple of blueberry, mango or apple-tinged vodkas. What’s better is that there’s ample opportunity to steal a booth outside the trajectory of ESPN and savor a bottle of red from the generous list. Pizza, after all, doesn’t have to be an eat-and-run incident. 
As to whether dessert falls short, that’s subjective. Since the restaurant opened, they’ve offered two streamlined options: butterscotch pudding and chocolate mousse ($4). It’s not that they’re unpalatable; both are good. But the decision to rework American attitude, to slow down our frenetic pace and savor a meal, seems destined to fail if it overlooks the one course we do linger over. Staff members admit that a sweet pizza has been in the works since the doors opened but remains stalled while they develop a sweeter crust that could hold fruit, pastry cream or a number of ingredients that require less briquette flavor. Truth be told, these are projects that would be better tackled before the doors opened. In a generation that can barely wait out the silence between text messages, customers grow impatient in the face of additions that continue to postpone their arrival. 
Providence Coal Fired Pizza has become the cornerstone of the still-evolving neighborhoods of Downcity. After all, apartment dwellers may eat out a lot but even elevated cuisine grows tiresome on a nightly basis. Pizza, on the other hand, never grows old — particularly with a cloth napkin in hand.



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