It’s all about the oven

Updated: June 22, 2009 - 8:50 am

Wood-burning pizza ovens may be trendy, but Black Sheep Pizza has found something better: coal

Jordan Smith used to think of coal as the poor man’s wood — when it came to pizza, at least.

When he first discovered coal-fired pizza, in New York City, he assumed the restaurants there couldn’t afford wood. “But in fact, those were the most sophisticated ovens you could buy at the time, the coal-burning ovens,” he says. “The best pizza I’ve ever eaten was made in a coal-fired oven.”

His wife and business partner, Colleen Doran, remembers wondering, “Why are we going for pizza in New York? We can get pizza anywhere. But you can’t get coal-fired pizza anywhere.” And that is the revelation that led the pair to open Black Sheep Coal-Fired Pizza last fall. “You should build what you want to eat,” Doran says. “If you can’t get it, make it.”

Making coal-fired pizza in Minnesota, however, was easier said than done. With decades of experience on the local dining scene and 23 restaurant openings under his belt, Smith knew that out-of-the-ordinary equipment can slow the whole process down. So, rather than having someone custom-build a coal-burning oven in the small basement restaurant space in the Brin Glass Building, built in 1918, they chose to purchase one from the only supplier in the United States, in Washington state.

The problem is, this oven is about the size of two compact cars, side by side.

The memory makes Smith groan: “The install was arduous. Right now you’d have to destroy the restaurant to get it out. We cut a hole in the loading dock. We had to destroy a good portion of the restaurant to get it in, then we built everything back up around it.  

Then there’s the small matter of fuel. The oven burns anthracite coal, among the hardest and purest of all types of coal. Smith describes it as “virtually particulate- and emissions-free.” He and Doran found a supplier in Reading, Penn., but that’s all they’ll say. “We worked our asses off to find that coal, and if anyone else wants to do the research, well, good luck!” Doran laughs.

There are two types of coal-burning ovens: white (the fuel burns in a firebox underneath) and, like the one at Black Sheep, black (the coal goes right on the deck of the oven where the food is prepared). Smith and his staff start shoveling that coal onto the 6-inch cast ceramic deck at 2 p.m. (they’ll go through just 80 pounds of coal in a typical day, about two king-size pillowcases full). By 3:30 or 4 p.m., it’s ready to go, meaning that the deck has hit 560 degrees and the ambient temperature is 850 degrees, rising to a searing 1400 at the top of the dome. To get a crisp and chewy crust in just 4 to 6 minutes, the chefs are in near constant motion, shifting nine pizzas at a time around the deck in a complex dance meant to make the most of the oven’s hot spots.

Smith had to learn that dance on the fly, cooking in his new oven for the very first time when Black Sheep opened for test meals. “Oh my god. It was really challenging trying to learn how to use that oven,” he says. “Coal isn’t like wood because it’s a rock. It doesn’t want to burn. So it was a matter of learning how to get the coal burning and what’s the right amount and how to get it settled in there. Once that piece was done, it’s the greatest piece of equipment I’ve ever worked with in my life.”

And, Doran notes, that oven makes a mean roast chicken. But you’ll have to take their word on that, because Black Sheep is sticking to coal-fired pizza.

Black sheep
600 Washington Ave. N.