Pizza-maker who launched one of the places which kicked off the Neapolitan pizza revolution in Chicago half a dozen years ago, now flying solo in Lincoln Park. Yeah, yeah, I know all about Nella Grassano’s new place, you say. But the star pizzaiola of Pizzeria da Nella isn’t the only one who fits that description— it applies just as well to J. Spillane, the onetime Matchbox bartender who co-opened Coalfire in 2007 as its resident pizza-maker, and went out on his own at the beginning of June with Armitage Pizzeria. Spillane, who remembers how early enthusiasm on LTHForum and elsewhere slammed Coalfire from day one, has kept his profile pretty low for the opening of this one man operation, but he says all the publicity he’s needed so far has been the sign in his window announcing "East Coast Style"— that’s brought him a steady stream of Lincoln Park transplants from the east desperate for a taste of home. We hung out at his four-seat pizzeria and chatted while he made takeout pizzas by hand, just keeping up with the phone calls and passersby ordering off his short, simple menu of half a dozen pies.
So, you’re here now, making pizzas in your own place in Lincoln Park. How did that happen?
My friend Theresa works at Clutch— you know that bar?— and she told me about the space. So here I am. It was some kind of South American hot dog stand or something. I don’t think many people know what a South American hot dog is, so I’m not that surprised it didn’t last very long.
And you’re making East Coast Style pizza. Which is what, exactly?
Hell if I know. This is the pizza I had when I was growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, so I just started calling it that. It was shorter than any other way to describe it. I put the sign in the window and I immediately started getting people saying, is it really East Coast style? Can I see it? They’re so desperate to be able to get their kind of pizza here. I had one woman demand for me to open somebody’s box before they picked it up and show it to her. East Coasters are kind of mental about their pizza.
(He laughs at this, and as if on cue, he gets a phone call from someone who wants a precise description of the pizza and each item on the menu. At the end they do place an order, and he continues.)
So yeah, we get everything here, from Manhattanites to Jersey kids. There was this couple that called me from Naperville and wanted to know if it was real East Coast style. That’s a long way to drive in for a slice, but they did.
So what is the difference between the pizza here and what you were making at Coalfire?
Well, I’m not trying to make Neapolitan pizza here. It’s a simpler style, I don’t use bufalina, just regular mozzarella. I use a different tomato sauce here— at Coalfire I used California tomatoes, which are a little sweeter, but here I use Italian tomatoes, which have more acidity. But the flour’s the same, the yeast is the same— obviously the water’s the same.
The other big difference is, it’s not coal-fired. It’s a gas-fired oven, so it’s about 100, 150 degrees cooler and takes about three minutes longer to cook. Which is why I can get it truly brown and crisp— it’s not the Neapolitan style, where you want it a little wet in the center, like at Spacca Napoli.
When we started Coalfire I told Bill [Carroll] that we needed a hook, we needed something to make people pay attention to us. That’s what using coal was. And that’s why we opened on Grand— the only place with a coal oven was D’Amato’s Bakery, and I wanted, if the city came by and started to give us trouble about burning coal, to be able to point out the front door at a place that uses it too. As it turns out, we never really had any problem with it because I think the city never actually did anything about coal after the war [World War II]— they never passed any regulations, it just went out of fashion.
So anyway, that was Coalfire’s hook, and my hook is East Coast Pizza.
So how’s business?
It’s good! I make about 40 or 50 pizzas on a weekend night. It’s what I can do— I’m just one guy. I’m not trying to be famous for the best pizza in town, like Great Lake. It’s just a neighborhood place doing East Coast Style pizza for the neighborhood.