A real, coal-fired brick oven is a rarity in San Antonio. In fact, I know of only one. Sure, there are wood-burning ovens, and they get plenty hot – certainly hot enough to make a mean pizza. But I knew we were on to the real thing a few days ago after a friend of mine polished off his first piece of Grimaldi’s pizza and raised his hands.
“Look,” he said, showing his fingers. “Black crumbs means it’s real New York-style pizza.”
Both he and I have trod the sidewalks of New York, stopping into the odd hole-in-the-wall pizzeria as well as the famous.
At John’s Pizza in Greenwich Village, late one frigid winter morning, I happened to share a battered old wooden booth with a stranger, a Swedish photojournalist. We were both there, some years ago, to reveal the secrets of New York pizza, she in photos, me in words.
I don’t know if Swedes have a great love for pizza that I might not be aware of, but the expression on this woman’s face, at first bite, transcended nationality, age or gender. “Oh God, this is good,” she said.
My friends and I had a similar experience at Grimaldi’s Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria at La Cantera the other night. I’d ordered a sausage, meatball and roasted red pepper pizza, large enough to take some home to my husband, who was working late.
Unlike the two guys with me, I didn’t grab a slice and insert half of it into my mouth. (Not that there is anything wrong with this. If you’re a guy.) I approached it slowly, picking off a couple of pieces of crumbled sausage. That was good. The pork was flavorful and it had enough salt, a hint of fennel and what tasted like white pepper.
I slid off a slice of meatball, which was moist, with a little more garlic to offer. The roasted red peppers were laid on with a generous hand. The cheese was sliced fresh mozzarella. The bottom of the crust was seared with black char marks from the fiery floor of the oven. The bottom of the crust, even toward the center, was crisp and stayed that way. The sauce was mellow and tomato-y, and not laid on so thick that toppings were in danger of sliding off.
Put this all together and you have one fine pizza, indeed.
After the second bite or third, a couple of us got up and headed toward the nearby kitchen area to gaze upon the oven. I wanted to see real bags of coal, see the bright pieces of coal burning, and check out the depth of the oven. A person facilitating orders told me the fire was started at 9 a.m. each day, well ahead of opening. The oven, he said, was one of the main requirements for making “true” New York style pizza. The other factor was the water. Grimaldi’s uses a reverse osmosis filtering of the water, which he said helps give the dough the characteristics they want.
Here, I should back up and talk about salads. We ordered a large Mediterranean salad and shared it. Our waitress was personable and informed, and did a good job of taking care of our table in the busy restaurant. This salad was our first clue that yes, this was a restaurant we’d return to, if only for the salad. The greens, mostly crisp, leafy romaine, were fresh. The dressing was simple and not heavily applied, so that the salad was ready to eat and not at all drippy when served. It was generous, however, and an ample amount for the three of us. For normal eaters, I’d say it would probably feed a family of five.
Grimaldi’s serves three other salads, including a Caesar, a Mixed Green Salad and a Caprese Salad, with slices of fresh mozzarella and Roma tomatoes. Salads come in small and large sizes, costing between $5 and $10. An antipasto was tempting, but we’ll leave that for another visit.
Instead, we ordered a white pizza with fresh garlic (you can also get a pesto topping) and asked for a side of anchovies. The chewy cheese combined with the equally chewy crust, the oil-soaked garlic, the salty little fishes combined into a pie that disappeared in record time. The other pizza we tried was sausage and Kalamata. Again, we couldn’t criticize.
This restaurant, so squeaky clean and new, out in squeaky clean La Cantera, probably has nothing approaching the atmosphere at the Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn. That was one pizzeria I didn’t get to on my tour of New York City pizza joints. But spanking new though it is, the San Antonio representative of the chain puts out an honest representation of New York style. And even if you could give a hoot about “authentic” New York pizza, I’ll bet you’ll like it anyway.
Lunch and dinner: Daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.