The number of times Dallas has attempted to coach pizza to at least mediocrity seems uncountable. Of course, it's possible we never really tried to perfect pizza. It's possible we just put enough effort into these pies to differentiate them from cardboard. They still sell like hotcakes, after all. Some places, though, got ambitious and traveled the gourmet pizza route, installing the requisite kilns and securing the necessary timber, but it all somehow fell flat.
But that was before Pastazio's and Fireside Pies began sending dough airborne. OK, sometimes the Fireside renditions can be cluttered, and they collapse under the weight of their gaudy opulence. But more than a few of us like to make a mess of ourselves in the quest to tackle Dallas baroque.
Enter Coal Vines. The name doesn't have the same emotional hook that Fireside or even Piggy Pies does, especially after you discount the too-clever-by-half wordplay. Roll "coal vines" around in your mind a few times. Does it generate visions of sausage and anchovy trapped in mozzarella and accompanied by a nice glass of Chianti? I get visions of doomed canaries, black lung and glassy eyes staring from sooty faces. When I say Coal Vines, I think of a black lump and kudzu. I feel grit in my teeth. No fired pies. No Silver Oak corks. But that's what they want you to think of.
Coal Vines is fueled by a pair of distinctive ovens of a kind that are apparently the rage in New York. Instead of fired by wood, the ovens are fired by lumps of low-sulfur coal. After the coal reaches baking temperature, the ovens cook the pies in less than two minutes.
Yet on one visit we ordered our pizza like you might order a soufflé. Our server explained there was a pizza backlog. The cooks let the coal burn down too low, and it had to be refreshed. She suggested we order our pizzas as soon as possible since they might not enter the coal queue for some 20 minutes.
The servers at Coal Vines seem unflappable. Coal Vines is an earsplitting space with exposed brick, concrete floors, screaming babies, loud guffaws, high-pitched giggles and clinking glasses in impossibly tight quarters. Meanwhile, Dean Martin elbows his way through the clamor. So do the Four Lads with "Standin' on the Corner." Kiss does better. You can actually hear "Ayyyyeeee wanna rock 'n' roll all nyyyyyte," etc. But why on earth would Kiss follow Dean Martin and the Four Lads? At Coal Vines, you sometimes feel like a canary.
Anyway, the servers don't mind repeating the specials into your ear, and they smile as they do it. They check your Spiegelau glasses and refill them at regular intervals. They're prompt and attentive, and they never flash those smiles that brim with under-breath cusses, even though most of us would if we were in their shoes and burgundy T-shirts and tight black trousers.
The pies are delivered to the table on a round aluminum sheet, which is installed on a wire rack. It's cut into wide triangles, just slightly larger than is comfortable to operate. Fold it. Roll it. The toppings stay in place: pepperoni, wild mushrooms, sausage, anchovies and cherry peppers. Extras incur additional fees of $1.50 per each, which can really jack up the pie prices if you go baroque. Spend the money. The slightly scorched crust is crisp and moist. The sauce has a good range with a nice acidic bite on the finish that invigorates the palate. (In theory, you really don't need wine, because of this sauce competence; then again, when Kiss follows the Four Lads, you need wine).
This crust is graceful and resilient, strong enough to support the toppings but insubstantial enough not to clutter them up. In its stock form, the pizza is underwhelmed with cheese, so it's a good idea to order extra if gooey pizza slices with long elastic tethers is primal in your fetish repertoire.
Revel in these pies, because things generally cascade down the coal chute from there. Owner Joe Palladino is linked with Phil Romano in several other endeavors including the "exclusive" nightclub Medici (a pizza slice at Coal Vines will grant you entrance to the semi-private public club should you wish), Nick & Sam's and the unfortunately defunct Il Mulino New York. "We got salads for the ladies," Palladino says, so they have something to chew on while they sip wine. Guys drink beer with pies. Gals sip Jordan with Caesar.
And well had they better. The Coal Vines Caesar is dramatic in its dullness. It's romaine hearts and croutons in a dressing, if there was one, that is barely perceptible: no lemon surge, no garlic sting, no anchovy richness.
Citrus salmon roll salad is different. It's a rat's nest of micro-greens, pushed near the edge of the plate and dewed in a brisk lemony dressing. Fanning out from one end of the heap are four rolls of salmon binding daikon and alfalfa sprouts. They look like freshly pulled carrots, albeit with ribbons of citrus aioli spread across the root. But the salmon sheets are just barely below room temperature, making them a bit alarming.
Coal Vines has a semi-open kitchen so that you can watch the little piles of black coal smolder and glow in the ovens. Wedged into the upper corners of the restaurant are little shelves crowded with candles and wine bottles. Wood wine racks fill the rear wall. An oil painting of Frank Sinatra occupies another. Frank and his music are now to restaurants what "baby on board" placards were once to rear car windows.
Coal Vines has an expansive patio with fans and clean views of the parking lot or the dining room depending on your position. Coal Vines has fish and steak specials too. The former was baked red snapper, drenched in marinara and posted on a bed of dandelion greens. Or at least our perky server said it was a bed. In reality it was four or five leaves, which doesn't even constitute a slipcover. The fish is soggy, and the potent Coal Vines marinara overwhelmed its mild flavor. Plus, the watery fish didn't taste fresh. Coal Vines billowy lump crab cake was soggy too.
Steak is something you'd expect Coal Vines to execute exquisitely given the Palladino/Romano combine's experience broiling it at Nick & Sam's. When our server asked how we wanted our rib eye cooked, she made sure we were aware that the chef recommended medium-rare. Well then, bring it on.
Only it wasn't medium rare. Medium to medium well maybe, but there was no medium rare rose to be found. The cut was slightly parched and lacked richness.
The wine list is a little thin, too, at least in regional variety, which you'd think would be robust given Coal Vines' implied Italian (Manhattan-Italian) pedigree. Yet it's almost monolithically California, with a Chianti and a Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio thrown in as tokens. Prices seem modest, and they can be purchased to go (pizzas too) if you wish. Still, prices seem to spike without warning. On one visit we paid $27 for a bottle of Coppola Pinot Noir. A mere 24 hours later, that same bottle was $30. Hard to believe the wholesale price surged on a weekend.
But wine isn't the most compelling beverage here. It's the tiramisu float, a thoroughly refreshing dessert composed of lady fingers, mascarpone and tiramisu gelato in espresso soda. It's brisk and sweet and a little dark, the perfect pizza end cap. At Coal Vines, start with the pizza, end with the float and skip everything in between. 2404 Cedar Springs Road, 214-855-4999, Open 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Thursday-Friday; and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$
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