Heat, Three Ways: Your pizza at Coal Fire could be subjected to coal, gas, and infared heat sources. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

As an energy source, coal enjoys a reputation just slightly better than Kim Jong-il’s—unless, of course, we’re talking about coal in pizza ovens, which is when those evil little nuggets suddenly assume an almost saintly quality. Pizza obsessives regularly make pilgrimages to Frank Pepe’s in New Haven or Lombardi’s in New York City, the pie cathedrals where we can bow before the coal-burning altar and break our daily bread in round, red-sauce form.

But if coal-fired pizza is something of a dark, dirty-fingernail religion to its pilgrims, it’s one with few priests to spread the gospel. These days, wood-fired pizza is the denomination that packs the pews.

Which is why when my wife told me about Coal Fire in the pre-fab village of Kentlands Square in Gaithersburg, I was both excited and skeptical. I was skeptical for the obvious reasons: Coal is expensive, difficult to ignite and bring to temperature, tricky to keep lit throughout the day, and notorious for losing its heat when overcrowded with pies. Coal, in short, is a pain in the ass for anyone but the most experienced pizzaiolo. I decided I better call Coal Fire to make sure its name was true to its cooking method, and not some marketing nod to a sootier past; the woman on the phone assured me the oven there burns hot with coal.

An hour or so later, I was standing in front of the giant Wood Stone oven asking the pizza maker at Coal Fire all sorts of invasive questions. I had my reasons. The oven, it was clear on inspection, has two heat sources: a pile of glowing coal on the left and neat row of gas flames on the right, looking as uniform and erect as Buckingham Palace guards. The pizzaiolo told me he starts his pies on the cooler, gas side of the unit and rotates the rounds to the left to finish (and flavor) them next to the infernal heat of the coal. I silently noted that the temperature gauge on the Wood Stone read a constant 590 degrees Fahrenheit, which confused me even more. I decided to hold further questions for later.

Over the phone, general manager Shannon Toback told me that Coal Fire’s Wood Stone oven actually has three heat sources. The third source, she said, is located underneath the oven floor, where an infrared heater maintains a constant deck temperature whenever the Wood Stone threatens to lose heat from a crush of doughy pies. The gauge on the exterior, Toback added, measures only the temperature of the deck, not the temperature of the oven chamber, which can vary from 900 to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. She also confirmed what the pizzaiolo had mentioned earlier: that pies start on the gas side and rotate over to the mound of coal. If they cooked next to the coal exclusively, Toback said, they would turn too crispy too fast.

But the GM wasn’t completely secure in her knowledge of the Wood Stone and suggested I contact co-owner Dennis Sharoky, who opened the first Coal Fire in Ellicott City in April 2009 before launching the second outlet in Gaithersburg this May. Sharoky took small exception to some of his employees’ comments: He said the Wood Stone derives its heat almost exclusively from the coal—which does not rule out the possibility, he was quick to note, of hot spots in the oven. Sharoky said he chose coal over other heat sources specifically because he wants pies with a healthy char. His intention is clearly stated in Coal Fire’s tagline: “Charred to Perfection.”

“In the beginning, we had to explain char all the time” to customers, Sharoky told me.

I’m not sure why he needed to bother: In practice, and maybe even in operational philosophy, the char on Coal Fire’s pies doesn’t approach the blackened rounds regularly produced at Lombardi’s or Pepe’s. At first I thought this might be due to the coal that Sharoky and his team purchase: It’s anthracite, a hard coal that burns fairly clean and almost smokeless. But then I called Pepe’s and Lombardi’s and learned that they burn the exact same coal. The difference seems to boil down (if you’ll excuse the mixed heating metaphors) to how long you bake the pies and how long you keep them next to the coals. Coal Fire’s rotating, twin-heat system, and its shorter cooking times, limits charring.

This wasn’t the only limitation I found with my pies at Coal Fire. Before I began inspecting the oven alongside the pizzaiolo, I’d sampled the wares like any regular diner. The flat crispy slices of my Margherita had barely any rise to them, which made me think the dough wasn’t developed over any significant period of time. Sharoky set me straight on this matter—or as straight as he felt comfortable without disclosing company secrets. He said the house-made dough is fermented at room temperature, then portioned and stored in a refrigerated walk-in for more than 24 hours before being shaped and cooked into rounds. The lack of air pockets and char bubbles is by design, he said. The pie-makers here employ a common practice: They use a special tool to deflate those bubbles when they appear in the oven. It allows the pizza to cook evenly and maintain a consistent flavor.

But I also found the dough overly sweet on the pies I sampled, regardless of which sauce topped it. Coal Fire’s “signature” sweet-and-spicy sauce is prepared with honey. But even the Margherita, made with Coal Fire’s “classic” sauce—little more than a fresh plum-tomato puree—tilted heavily towards the saccharine end of the scale. I had to figure Coal Fire was borrowing a page from the Wolfgang Puck playbook and adding a sweetener to the dough, though GM Toback claimed otherwise. (Her boss preferred to remain mum on the subject.)

Whatever the source of the sweetness, I found the pies mostly cloying, devoid of the lusty, yeasty, salty, and charred flavors that attract me to pizza in the first place. Even the pie I put together from the optional toppings—a combination of sausage, red onions, and Coal Fire’s signature sauce—proved more sweet than savory. (I haven’t yet tried the joint’s “spicy” sauce on a pie, which may solve the problem.) The one saving grace was the home-made mozzarella. True, it was sometimes sliced so thin that it almost melted completely into the sauce, a mere ghost of its pre-cooked condition. But the cheese also provided a fresh, creamy element to the pies, which, for me, was the often missing element.

For all its home-made ingredients, Coal Fire doesn’t produce pizzas that strike me as simple, straight-forward, and fresh of flavor, those qualities I most admire about this humble Italian dish. No, the pies strike me as oddly pre-meditated and pre-fabricated, as if Coal Fire were developing recipes and systems that could make it easy for the two-location chain to become a mini-empire. I’m sure I’m being too cynical about this and should be ashamed of myself for not embracing Coal Fire’s admirable, everything-from-scratch ambitions. But I can’t get over this feeling that the owners have figured out a way to transform the artisanal, hand-crafted charms of coal-fired pizza into something that feels corporate and that perhaps even caters to our lowest common dominator, Americans’ undying love for sweet things.

Coal Fire, 116 Main St, Kentlands Square, Gaithersburg, (301) 519-2625

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.