Bee Cool pizza with three cheeses, tomato, basil, smoked pepperoni and hot honey at Coals. Staff photos by Derek Davis Buy this Photo

To call Billy Etzel’s pizza crust thin is to be a master of understatement.

Executive chef and co-owner of Coals in Portland, Etzel borrowed inspiration for his flat, grilled pizzas from pies he tasted at Al Forno, the Providence, Rhode Island, restaurant that ignited the grilled pizza trend nearly 40 years ago. Rather than mimic those pizzas directly, he took the concept further – using a slow-rising dough of all-purpose flour laced with cornmeal and whole wheat flour to produce an impossible stretchiness.

What slides off his grill’s 700-degree grates are pies with the towering verticality of a Canasta hand, or if the kitchen gets a little lazy, two stacked quarters.

On each crust, Etzel spreads a protective layer of snowy, shredded fresh mozzarella to prevent anything wet from touching the dough directly. “But you even have to find the driest cheese possible,” Etzel said. “And you have to work super quick when the dough is making contact with the surface of the grill. Moisture is out.”

What’s in are toppings that are unlikely to leach liquid – fresh mushrooms, greens like arugula, and fully cooked, cured meats (since the pizzas spend an average of two minutes on the heat).

Oil-based pestos also fit the bill, especially stiff ones like the orange-juice-spiked pistachio pesto that forms the flavor foundation for the Bayside ($17). Onto dollops of the dense sauce, Etzel crumbles tangy goat cheese, then handfuls of casually strewn arugula and the signature squirt of olive oil that finishes most of Coals’ pies. It’s all a bit too savory, missing acid or peppery heat; a little more orange juice might do the trick.

The Asiago special pizza ($17) strikes a better balance with slices of warm-spiced mortadella, chiffonaded basil leaves and heavy cream steeped with crushed pistachios to balance out wallops of salty cheese.

Coals serves as a laboratory for its sister restaurants in New York.

If neither pizza sounds like anything you’ve seen before, that’s because Etzel uses Coals Portland as a New England-based laboratory for experimentation. “We have some of the same ingredients in New York,” Etzel said. “But sometimes I get bored with them, so I play around with new ideas in Portland first.” Dishes he deems successful here may wind up on the menus of the two Coals Pizzas in Westchester County, New York, alongside pies like the straightforward, crackery Margherita ($14).

Etzel’s culinary trial balloons aren’t all pizzas, either. Take the salad appetizer ($8), for example. Here, he adds crunchy cashews, grape tomatoes, shavings of red onion and grilled pineapple to arugula tossed with a smoky chipotle vinaigrette. The pleasing interplay of peppery greens, sweet fruit and spicy heat recalls Mexico and Thailand in equal measure.

For their sake, I hope diners in Bronxville and Port Chester get an opportunity to taste one of Coals’ local inventions, the Bee Cool pizza ($17) – by a long shot, the best pie I ate across two recent visits. On a lacy, bubbling layer of Grana Padano, pecorino and mozzarella, convex discs of Claremont, New Hampshire’s North Country Smokehouse pepperoni glisten as their oil mingles with drizzles of hot, New York state honey. Every bite blooms with woodsmoke and basil, natural sugar and blistery char.

In bridging New England and the Empire State, the Bee Cool pie also mirrors Etzel’s own story. Raised in New York by an adoptive family with a lakefront camp in Sanford, Etzel discovered in 2015 that his biological family lived in Kittery. “I used to go to Badger’s Island as a teenager. The entire time, I had no idea my real sister was living just a stone’s throw from there,” he said.

When he and co-owner/general manager Ozzy Morales first saw the former Foundation House event venue that now houses Coals, they knew immediately that it was time to expand their business to Portland, a city Etzel used to visit each summer. “It looked great inside; there was a parking lot and a huge kitchen, which I haven’t had in a very long time,” he said of the space. “And it was barely used for years, so we didn’t have to do much to it other than replace kitchen equipment, paint and put up our own art.”

Not futzing with the building’s rough-edged charm was a smart move; the dining room feels comfortably worn, as if Coals has been here, dishing up impressively juicy, white-cheddar-topped burgers ($12) for four decades, not four short months.

“This reminds me of a workshop shed,” one of my dinner guests remarked, looking up at the exposed rafters, then back down at the menu. “I feel like it’s the kind of place where you order wings,” he announced.

So we did – a split order of 10 wings ($12), half dunked in an unreasonably sweet rosemary-maple glaze, the other half doused in a fantastic blend of Cholula hot sauce and a generous handful of finely chopped cilantro.

Toward the end of the meal, I added a little goading of my own to my already-stuffed tablemates: “I feel like this is the kind of place where you also order dessert.”

Our server, who groused about the space’s draftiness when she saw us slip our coats back on, recommended the Nutella pizza ($8), warning us that it would get all over our fingers, but it was worth the mess. Molten cocoa-and-hazelnut spread improves just about anything, but that wasn’t the best part of the dessert. Instead, it was the powdered-sugar-dusted crust – crisp, delicate and above all: outlandishly thin.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

A lively bar scene at Coals.


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