Sunday, November 13, 2011

[EID Feature] Tony Sacco's Coal Oven Pizza: Reinventing the Pizza Wheel

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

In 2009, Slice (a subsection of Serious Eats) proclaimed coal-fired ovens the hottest new trend in pizza, also citing Florida as Ground Zero for the explosion of the trend. This is due, at least in part, to Tony Sacco's Coal Oven Pizza.

Tony Sacco's opened their first store in the Bonita Springs area of Florida in July 2008. By early 2009 there was a demand for franchising, and by summer of '09 they began selling their first franchises. A franchisee opened a second Florida location in Fort Meyers; others franchisees opened stores in Illinois and Indiana with more scheduled in Ohio, North Carolina, and a slew more in greater Chicagoland (yep--Chicago will FINALLY have a decent pizza franchise). There are now a total of 18 Tony Sacco's restaurants already open, sold or planned, and in SE Michigan we're about to see several more open in 2012.

Owners Chuck Senatore and Geoge Kurajian are originally from Michigan, so it was only natural that as they opened more of their own stores that they would open one here. The Novi location opened in January 2011, and brought with it what might actually be among the first of its kind in metro Detroit: a coal-fired pizza oven. (The only other local pizzeria we know of using a coal-fired oven is Tomatoes Apizza.)

The idea for Tony Sacco's came into existence as Senatore and Kurajian were looking for a project. At the time they also had a third partner, Tony Sacco, but he left the business before they even opened their first store. "We liked the name," Chuck says. "It's a cool name, and we already had the fuse lit with that name so Tony let us use it and now we own the trademark so it's our name to use." Besides, it sounds a lot better than "George Kurajian's Coal Oven Pizza" (sorry, George). "People call me Tony half the time but whatever," Chuck laughs.

In 2008 they got a good space in the largest lifestyle mall in America, and because of all the snowbirds and tourists descending on that area they were able to share their concept with people from all over the country and world, getting exposure that wouldn't have been possible if they had been located anywhere else. "It was really strange how all the pieces fell into place," Chuck reflects. "We've never even tried to sell a franchise; this has all been people who came to us!"

They decided to go with coal-fired pizza because it was a simple concept they could go anywhere with that appeals to everyone. It was also a solid concept during down economic times because pizza is reasonably priced but also gourmet in its own right. "We could see how coal was going to be the next big thing on the horizon for pizza," explains Chuck. He traces the history of pizza in America from the immigrant-owned Italian eateries who brought traditional pizza styles with them, to the mass-production corporate chains making pizzas glopped high with cheese and toppings, to the "esoteric weird pizzas [places were doing] after chains sputtered out." Chuck says, "Until you start cooking something different with a different method you’re still making the same product. We’re doing something completely different by cooking it with coal. You're not going to change the flavor profiles until you start cooking it differently."

Coal-fired ovens may seem like a "new" concept, but really it's a very old one. Chuck insists they aren't reinventing the wheel here; they're just doing things in a more traditional way that has since been all but forgotten. "We had been to some of the old authentic coal oven places," Chuck says. "We wanted to do something that was high-end, something we could run with." He identified that the trend in pizza and food was moving more towards healthier, natural, gourmet items, which is really how pizza started.  "There's always a need for high-quality, high-end product. Pizza has gotten so far away from that it was just crap. There are not a lot of sit-down high-end pizza places where you can bring your family, a date, an office party, whatever. And we also knew if we have a high-end environment with high-end product then we need a high-end cooking method."

Enter the $50,000 custom-made coal-fired oven from Wood Stone in Washington. The oven at the Novi store weighs 7,000 pounds. The oven in their new Lansing store (breaking ground on Nov. 14) will be the largest coal oven Wood Stone has ever manufactured. The oven uses only anthracite coal from Pennsylvania, the cleanest burning solid fuel on the planet (cleaner even than wood with no soot no odor). It burns at a very high temperature allowing pizzas to cook in 4-5 minutes so the crust will be crunchy but still chewy on the inside and the toppings don’t get killed.

At Tony Sacco's, there are no freezers, no fryers and no microwave ovens. Vegetables are fresh and cut by hand. They make their sauce and dough from scratch. "We aren't really being magical," Chuck says. "We're just going back to the beginning when things were done right and were high quality." They strive for a balanced flavor profile--the don't overwhelm the pie with cheese, don't over-cook the toppings, don't add much salt or sugar. "Even our sauce is just olive oil, fresh basil and ground tomatoes." Because of this, their pizza is ACTUALLY healthy; a slice of cheese pizza from a 12'' pie is only 135 calories and 3.5 grams of fat. "If anyone asked me how we could make it better I honestly don't know. Every restaurant says, 'We use the finest ingredients,' but we actually do."

Everything here is made from scratch in-house and with hearty, fresh ingredients. The antipasto salad has big, beautiful slices of tomato and huge chunks of ham and salami. The marinated chicken wings are oven roasted for a smooth, smoky flavor. The garlic rotoli are roly-poly rounds of soft, homemade dough slathered in olive oil, garlic and Romano cheese (at $5 for a basket of 8 they're a damn steal; pace yourself because you won't want to put these down).

The pizzas are true Neapolitan style--big and round and semi-thin with fresh toppings and generous amounts of olive oil. Choose from toppings like Roma tomatoes, Kalamata olives, roasted garlic, zucchini and standard meats, or select one of Sacco's Specialty Pizzas like the Margherita (made simply with crushed Italian plum tomato sauce, fresh soft mozzarella and basil), Bianco (made with olive oil, ricotta, provolone, Romano and mozzarella) or Capo (pepperoni, sweet Italian sausage, roasted mushrooms and caramelized onions). The flavors are at once light and full, fresh and colorful, and the crust is a perfect balance of crunchy and chewy, tender and resistant. The robust olive oil creates a delicate harmony between the flavors; close your eyes and imagine you're in Italy, because this is exactly what the pizza there is like.

Cap off your meal with their Sacco's Shortcake, a coal-oven baked shortcake loaded with plump, juicy berries and homemade vanilla mousse, or try the liquid version under their "Specialty Cocktails."

Inside Tony Sacco's is more upscale than your average pizzeria. The floor plan is very open and casual, but they ditch "mom and pop red and white checker cloth" look of most eye-talian eateries. "We have a high-energy, upbeat environment. That's really what we set out to do; we wanted a concept that could carry the next 20 years. There are no pictures of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin or the Rat Pack. Kids in their 20s don't even know who these guys are! [That photos of Frank Sinatra when he got arrested,] it's in every different Italian restaurant on the planet. It's played out!" At Tony Sacco's you can come in, enjoy a nice glass of wine or a cocktail along with your pizza and be in an environment that would suit a date as much as a dinner out with friends.

Right now the Novi location is the only location in Michigan (check out their $6.95 lunch buffet too), but 2012 will see the opening of the Lansing store as well as the Ann Arbor and Rochester Hills franchisees. In metro Detroit we have pizzerias using stone ovens, brick ovens, wood-fired ovens, and good ol' gas ... now taste the difference clean-burning coal can make. (As far as stocking stuffers go, it's not such a bad deal.)

Want to see more? Check out the Flickr set here.

Tony Sacco's Coal Oven Pizza on Urbanspoon