Bargain Restaurant Review: Coals in Port Chester
Bringing happy back (to pizza)
Have you noticed that Westchester pizza has become deadly serious? It’s all about wood-burning this and house-made that, and is spun by intense young chefs with culinary tattoos. Wisely, Coals—the new Port Chester branch of an eight-year-old Bronx original—doesn’t compete for the title of Westchester’s Most Serious Pizzeria. Though located just a few doors down from heavyweight Tarry Lodge, Coals punches in its own class, and, judged on those terms, is successful.
This persimmon-hued joint plainly states its business on Main Street, using its narrow storefront windows to display some dried hops and imported cans of tomatoes. Inside, in place of Carrera marble, you’ll find a dinged wooden bar, exposed brick, and a patchy, vintage tin ceiling. Also look for a velvet Elvis, some moth-eaten taxidermy, and, next to the toilet, a grimacing Hulk Hogan. Over the bar, you’ll find the suave, mustachioed face of Billy Dee Williams molded into a lighted malt liquor advertisement.
Beer is a theme at Coals. While Tarry Lodge and Arrosto may have cornered Port Chester’s market for pizza paired with serious wine, the bar at Coals is unrepentantly biased toward American craft beer. (There is no hard liquor.) Wine picks at Coals are few and, though cheap, uninteresting. Take a hint from the Lagunitas Brewing Company poster on the wall and stick to beer offered in 10 draughts ($6-$8), eight cans ($4-$7), and six bottles ($4.50-$14). Flights ($8) are also available.
While the new breed of serious pizzerias usually offers restrained, European portions, the Port Chester Coals retains big, Bronx bravado. Look for massive, sharable starters of basic salads ($7.50-$11) that make up for some lack of finesse with sheer, outlandish size. We liked the pile of crisp, lightly oiled arugula leaves with a crunchy scattering of sea salt. It was served with some (unfortunately, rinsed) house-roasted red peppers and the restaurant’s firm, house-stretched mozzarella. Don’t miss seasonal salad specials (we lucked into local tomatoes with chunks of pecorino cheese) and surprisingly delicious soups. We were fans of a deep, hearty bowl of tomato-bean soup.
The Coals pie is unusual among reverent new Westchester pizzas in that it offers no Pledge of Allegiance to Italy. This pizza is a completely novel American construction that is grilled over a gas flame. The dough—intriguingly chewy—is made with a blend of white, whole wheat, and corn flours. It takes its inspiration from the landmark, wood-charcoal-grilled pies served at Al Forno in Providence, Rhode Island. The thin-crusted, amoeboid pies at Coals arrive on huge plastic platters: one pizza ($11-$15) can feed two.
In keeping with the joyfully kitschy décor, the pies are offered under celebrity names. Look for the Dean Martin (Fontinella, fresh mozzarella, tomato, pepperoni, pecorino, $13) to make a surprisingly eye-catching appearance. The pie’s blobby, irregular outline is accented by a perfect geometry of regularly placed toppings. Tomato is represented by spare spoonfuls of a sweet, confit-like purée of imported tomatoes. Paper-thin slices of pepperoni are miles above the quality at your corner slice standard, and, sending the Dean Martin home, pecorino adds some funky salt.
In the Marlon (fresh mozzarella, tomato, pecorino, arugula, roasted peppers, spicy oil, $14), the Coals version of a salad pizza, vegetal crunch and chili pepper alleviate all that cheese with mouthwatering success. The same could not be said of a comparatively leaden Rustic (Fontinella, fresh mozzarella, roasted mushrooms, truffle oil, Grana Padano, and garlic, $15): All that mouth-coating luxury needed some spark. But the Smokey Joe (Fontinella, smoked mozzarella, tomato, pecorino, sweet coppa, red onion, $14) was a knockout—a balanced ode to the charms of bread, pork, and cheese.
You’ll be overstuffed, but diehards should skip a forgettable warm chocolate cake for the Fluffernutter pie. It’s amply scaled for a foursome and offers rounds of that compelling dough, grilled and folded over Nutella and mascarpone cheese. Triangles of the resulting stromboli, showered with confectioner’s sugar, make an irresistible, rich finale.
In the face of serious pizza, plucky Coals dares to offer a cheerful, no-tablecloth joint where one might spend a carefree, beery evening and not a lot of money. Coals is simply a good-vibe, neighborhood place—who doesn’t love that?