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The salsiccia pizza at Tagolio

Last week’s Young & Hungry column flamed a pizzeria in Gaithersburg called Coal Fire, the second outlet in a budding  chain that takes its name from the joint’s purported cooking method. The truth, unfortunately, is more complicated than that.

Yes, Coal Fire’s oven is a giant Wood Stone unit that burns anthracite, a clean and virtually smoke-free coal, but the oven also generates gas heat and boasts an infrared element underneath the deck to keep the floor at a constant temperature. The contraption, in short, eliminates many of the frustrations of tending and maintaining (not to mention cooking with) coal heat.

But the unit also allows a pizza-maker, if one were so inclined, to produce pies with little char or distinction. Coal Fire is so inclined. I say this with no pride. Coal Fire is, at present, a small business run by a couple of Maryland guys. I generally prefer to root for the home team.

I could have perhaps saved Coal Fire from a public smackdown if I had only learned about Tagolio Pizzeria and Enoteca first. Located in Crystal City in the former Enjera space, Tagolio is everything that Coal Fire is not. Its small pizza oven burns only anthracite coal, which sits in a box right next to the unit. Its pies boast an excellent char. Its sauce is freshly crushed San Marzano tomatoes without a hint of added sweetness. Its crusts are crisp, bubbly, and blackened; they go down like thick slices of fresh and toasty bread.

The Margherita “DOC”

Tagolio is the first business that Gil Fornaris launched after he lost his job as vice president of operations with a high-end restaurant chain. With Tagolio, Fornaris is returning to his roots. He hails from Nice, France, which is located next to the Italian border. He was raised with the smell of pizza in the air. He even worked at pizzerias in his youth.

For his own take on the Italian dish, Fornaris hired a baker to develop his dough, and together they traveled to many of the country’s best pizzerias, from Frank Pepe’s in New Haven to Grimaldi’s in New York, to figure out what kind of approach they wanted to adopt. As much as Fornaris liked the pies that he tasted on tour, particularly Pepe’s, he didn’t “think any of those guys had the dough that I wanted.”

The dough that Fornaris and his baker ultimately developed is different from most pizzerias. It includes a sourdough starter that originated in Napa Valley from Chardonnay grapes; it has been kept alive for 30 years, says Fornaris, who feeds the starter twice a week.

That’s a good story, of course, but I tell Fornaris that his crusts (or at least the ones that I tried) don’t have a pronounced sourdough flavor. Certainly not as pronounced as the crusts at Pizzeria Orso, where Edan MacQuaid also incorporates a sourdough starter into his dough recipe.

The sourdough starter is also technically a no-no when claiming to make genuine DOC Neapolitan pizza (although MacQuaid makes a strong argument otherwise). So is the coal-fired oven. Any pizzeria that lays claim to DOC certification must bake its pies in a wood-fired oven.

Fornaris is quick to explain why he included the letters “DOC”  next to the Margherita and “Neapoletana” (which is how he spells “Napoletana”) pies on his menu. He says he’s not claiming his pizzas are certified DOC from VPN Americas; he’s just trying to inform people that those two rounds are made with Italian Caputo flour, San Marzano tomatoes, and buffalo mozzarella — the key ingredients in genuine Neapolitan pizza.

I know I may be contradicting myself after giving MacQuaid a pass on his uncertified use of  the DOC stamp, but I can’t say I agree with Fornaris’ logic. The coal-fired oven, on the face of it, is a departure from DOC rules. But I will add this: Fornaris’ liberty with DOC certification is the only fault I currently find at Tagolio. It would seem the D.C. area finally has a good coal-fired pizza.