The conversation turned, as it often does, to pizza.
There were three of us, strangers to each other, sitting at a bar and eating our separate lunches. A bonhomie arose, which sometimes happens among solo diners. We chatted about this and that, and then the conversation turned to pizza.
The other guy, who was drinking beer with ice in it to make it colder, said his favorite pizzas in town come from bars such as Nick & Jimmy’s and Chuck’s on Monroe, which uses French bread as its crust. The woman, who was happily downing a burger, recommended the gourmet fare at Amie’s Pizza Factory or the more traditional offerings at the J&G Pizza Palace in Sylvania.
I spoke up for the Village Idiot in Maumee. But my heart — or my stomach — was 600 miles away.
A few weeks ago, I was visiting friends in my old stomping grounds of Richmond, and by “friends” I mean “friends and restaurants.” One restaurant I especially wanted to try was a relatively new pizza place, BlowToad.
BlowToad is owned by one of those friends I wanted to see, so I stopped by for a brief visit before coming over later with a crowd. The owner, a chef of some renown, only works with food for which he has a deep passion, and the passion he now shows for pizza is that of the recently converted.
The heart of the restaurant, he said, is its coal-fired oven, the only one in Virginia (Michigan has several, including Nick & Nino’s in Monroe; Ohio currently has one near Columbus, with another scheduled to open soon near Cleveland).
A coal-fired oven is just what it sounds like; every so often, someone adds a shovelful of anthracite coal into the fire inside the oven. Anthracite has few impurities so it burns cleaner than other coals — or wood fires — it makes little or no smoke, and it also burns at a higher temperature.
With the anthracite glowing in a pit in the side of the oven, the temperature on the oven floor stays about 800°, though part of the art of pizza making lies in knowing which spots on the oven floor get hotter than the others. The ambient temperature — the air just above the floor — is about 1,000°.
It takes 90 seconds or so to cook a pizza at those temperatures, he said, but there is a problem: Cheese will break down into a mass of icky goo if it is cooked at a four-digit temperature for a minute and a half. My friend has a way to overcome that, but on the off-chance it is an industry secret, I shouldn’t share it with you. It isn’t hard to figure out.
The 90-second baking time is not set in stone, because he does not judge the pizza’s readiness based on the toppings or the cheese. He decides when to pull it out of the oven only by checking the bottom of the crust. A coal-fired pizza should be partly charred on the bottom, he said, so when one is mottled with just the right amount of char, out it comes.
I got wild chanterelle mushrooms on mine, but only because I wasn’t paying attention. I forgot all about the topping that has been getting the most publicity, the topping they discreetly refer to as “hanging steak.”
That would be the part of the bull that hangs down, the part they remove to turn a bull into a steer. At BlowToad, they serve it in delicately fried slices, either as a topping or an appetizer.
The chef kindly gave our group a portion as an appetizer, and I can see why he serves it. It’s not just for the publicity, although I suppose that doesn’t hurt. It is genuinely good: lightly chewy, with a superbly rich, beefy flavor. Several of my more squeamish friends declined the opportunity to try it, which worked out well. More for me.
Next time, I’m getting it on my pizza.
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