I’m not typically a fan of pizza—mostly because so little of it is actually worth the calories involved. Then, every once in a while, I hear about a new pizza place—one that looks like it might actually serve some really good pizza. At that point, the pull of trying a new place overcomes the opposing force of being healthy, and I make my way over to said establishment. You never know, the adventure might actually lead something good.
In the particular case of Pi Coal Fired, the results were mixed: great pizza, plenty of veggie options, and even a few craft beer options. The pizza was even fairly healthy—very well balanced without being overcome by a thick layer of cheese. That’s not to say the place is perfect—you need to tolerate a few (manageable) shortcomings along the way, but I still recommend checking it out.
Pi Coal Fired
1707 E. Carson St
Pittsburgh, PA 15203
There seem to be quite a few people who had never heard of Pi Coal Fired. Given their proximity to some other well-known South Side destinations, that’s a little surprising. They’re right on Carson near 17th Street—somewhere between Fat Heads and Carson Street Deli. Based on a City Paper commentary, it sounds like they opened in February 2010 with a goal of bringing great Neapolitan pizza to the South Side. I think they manage to meet that goal—with one caveat: the restaurant is attached to a night club (Jimmy D’s). That association has a somewhat significant impact on the overall atmosphere, but I’ll dive into that issue a little later.
A little hard to find, and a little empty. Some places in the South Side have a rather substantial sign out front. Pi Coal Fired isn’t one of those places. They have a small self-standing sign on the front sidewalk and the restaurant name printed on the front canopy. That’s really it. You can look in through the front windows and see a rather nice interior with a substantial bar along the right side, but it’s still not clear what to expect: they could offer a good beer list, or not; They could serve good food, or not. It’s unclear.
On my first visit, I stepped in and found the place nearly empty—with the bar tender being the only visible employee and only one table actually filled with guests. A big opening in the back of the restaurant gives a pretty good view into the kitchen—including the brick pizza oven, but I didn’t notice a lot of activity back there. Luckily, things picked up when I asked for a menu and grabbed a table.
A highly focussed menu. One of the counter-intuitive indicators of a questionable restaurant is a large and diverse menu. There aren’t many restaurant kitchens out there that can really show mastery over every item on an enormous menu, so a big menu often foreshadows a wide selection of mediocrity. Pi seems to avoid that trap with a highly focused menu: they serve a few basic salads, but only as accompaniments to an assortment of pizzas and calzones. If you’re interested, you can check out the full lineup on their web site.
Toppings for the pizzas and fillings for the calzones focus on a small number of traditional Italian staples: roasted red pepper, prosciutto, mozzarella, mushroom, pickled peppers, sausage, and various fresh herbs. I was pleasantly surprised that very nearly half of the available options were vegetarian by default. They have a tendency to throw in some prosciutto in a couple of pies that seemed otherwise vegetarian-leaning, so it feels like several additional options could go veggie rather easily if you asked for it.
Surprisingly good salad. I opted for both a salad and a pizza: the salad della casa and a caprese pizza. I’ll be the first to admit that I had low expectations for the salad. That’s probably why I was so surprised to receive a plated piled high with fresh arugula and a light dusting of almonds, tomatoes, and toasted bits of prosciutto. Note the prosciutto: it was only a minor player but you’d have to put in a request for a strictly veggie option. The tomato preparation was notable: I’m guessing they were fire-roasted and shrivled cherry tomatoes that had been cut into small wedges.
Contrary to my initial expectation, the salad was great. It was nearly as good as the ingredient list makes it sound, though the 100% arugula could very easily be too much. My biggest complaint would be the dressing—it was a good balsamic vinaigrette, but it had been applied with a somewhat heavy hand. On the second visit, the dressing situation was a little more tolerable—though I still wish I could actually remember to request it on the side.
Sophisticated pizza. From reading the restaurant’s web site and the owner’s rather ballsy (but respectable) response to some Urbanspoon criticism, it’s pretty clear that they care about their pizza. From their insistence on very specific ingredients (Tipo 00 Flour, San Marzano Tomatoes) to strict adherence to Neapolitan style guidelines, they make a strong effort to present a classic Neapolitan pie. I don’t have much to compare it to, but what they do serve adheres rather well to what Peter Reinhart describes—and his word tends to be law when it comes to all things dough.
Beyond adherence to a particular style, the pizza is good. When you think pizza, it’s pretty easy to imagine crust reminiscent of cardboard topped with bland sauce and a thick greasy layer of cheese. That’s not what you get at Pi. Here, the pizza is exceptionally thin, but yet not all that crispy. Thanks to the high heat of a coal fired brick oven, the pizza carried a few attractive char marks but the interior was still soft and somewhat chewy—that’s where the finely milled 00 flour really shines through.
The various toppings are added with a great deal of restraint. For example, my caprese pizza included a very thin layer of sauce, a few splotches of fresh mozzarella, a few slices of tomato, and fresh basil leaves tossed on after baking. No one ingredient was overdone, so you could easily pick out several layers of flavor without being overwhelmed by any single topping. I also went home without feeling all that guilty about having a few slices.
They need to figure out the beer thing. I absolutely love that a good beer list is becoming more the norm and less the exception, and Pi follows that trend with what appears on the surface to be a pretty good beer list, but only on the surface. With 21 draft options, you might think there has to be something good. That’s only partially true. Yes, they had some good craft options on the list (e.g., Rogue Dead Guy and Lagunitas IPA), but they also had an inordinate number of macros (e.g., Labatte Blue, Newcastle Brown Ale, Stella Artois). There are enough good options that I could pick something but it was a little harder than I expected at first.
A mediocre blend of options wouldn’t necessarily be a show-stopper: the real problem here was the quality of the output. Most of the beers I tried were served far too cold, stale, and often riddled with other off flavors—to the point of wondering whether they pay any attention to cleaning their draft lines. I think there are a few problems here: 1) they need to take better care of their beer and beer lines, and 2) they don’t get enough traffic to turn over a keg in a reasonable amount of time. I’m really hoping that over time, they’ll work to solve problem (1) and the community will reward them by solving problem (2).
More on the night club problem. In the Post-Gazette’s review, Munch called Pi Schizophrenic—in the sense that the place couldn’t figure out if it was a quality pizza destination or night club bar. I very much agree with that complaint. The audience for each type of establishment has very different expectations and rarely overlaps. On both of my visits, there were several hints of night club that called out from just below the surface. The club feel wasn’t overwhelming but the run-down bathrooms and aforementioned beer problems can definitely fall into that category of “club-ishness.” That, and I would be a little afraid of stopping by on a Friday or Saturday night.
I’m rooting for them. My feelings on Pi are mixed. I can definitely say I like the place, and I would even go so far as to say that they deserve far more attention and far more praise than they have received so far. The food and staff were excellent, but a variety of beer problems and an unsettling “club feel,” though not overwhelming, both serve to detract from the overall experience. I, like Munch, really hope they make take steps to clean up their act on both fronts. With a few minor course corrections, I think Pi could be a great place—and I’m definitely rooting for them to succeed.