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Coal Fired-Pizza The Magic of Grimaldi’s

By: Maria Orlando Pietromonaco

There aren’t too many pizzas cooked in tried-and-true coal-fired ovens these days. Calling it a dying art, and one that should be experienced by generations to come, Grimaldi’s is holding on to its roots and still making their pizza this time-honored way.

The story of Grimaldi’s begins with Patsy Grimaldi, its founder, who learned to make pizza at his uncle Patsy Lancieri's coal-oven pizzeria in 1941 at the age of ten. He eventually opened his own restaurant, Patsy's Pizzeria, in Brooklyn. Fifteen years ago Frank Ciolli bought it from Patsy Grimaldi along with the name, and has opened several other locations since, including Garden City, Douglaston, and Hoboken. Patsy Grimaldi insisted, however, that all recipes and ingredients remain the same. The rest is pizza history.

Russell Ciolli, Frank’s son, is a key player in the running of the Grimaldi’s small army of restaurants. Once in the construction business, he put his vocation on hold to help run the establishments. There are 23 Grimaldi’s Restaurants in all — owned by family — not
franchises (except Hoboken, which is owned by a past manager). Grimaldi’s has migrated across the country with Joe Ciolli, Frank’s other son, opening 17 locations this year. They now have a presence in Arizona, Las Vegas, and Texas.

Russell built his brother’s Scottsdale restaurant, then came back and built the one in Garden City. The concept is the same as the Brooklyn store, but they expanded on it by introducing specials — homemade soups, 6 different salads, pastas and additional pizza toppings — 28 in all. Brooklyn only offers 12.

It’s pretty obvious that the coal-fired pizza is the shining star at Grimaldi’s. Its unique texture and flavor set it apart from most pizza
Long Islanders — and most people for that matter — are used to. The coal ovens are started early in the morning, heating up for 1 1/2 to 2 hours to reach just the right temperature (1200 degrees keeps dough crispy not dry.) “All the magic happens in the oven,” explains Russell.
“The real art is in the cooking.” Cooking the pizza takes meticulous control and skill, as it is important not to over - or under-cook a pie.

The coal oven gives the pizza a “robust, nice charred flavor,” according to Russell. And the “freshly cut produce and ingredients add zest.” Russell truly believes pizza is an art form, each one possessing its own aesthetic quality and taste. “You never see two pizzas alike. They’re like snowflakes.” It is probably a huge asset to Grimaldi’s that Russell finds pizza almost irresistible. He says that “At least once a night I say to a customer ‘if you’re not going to eat that pizza, I will, because it looks just too darned good.”

Without any formal restaurant training, Russell took in Dean LaLima as managing partner.

Together they welcome the huge crowds that enter the dining room every afternoon and evening. “People enjoy the family atmosphere and friendly staff,” says Russell. His motto is “3 hellos & 3 goodbyes.” Lunch is an important part of their business. Some of their most popular dishes include the pepperoni pie and sausage pie calzone with ham. Everything they make comes out of the coal-fired oven, and every menu item is made to order.

Grimaldi’s of Garden City is very involved in the surrounding community, sponsoring six baseball teams — two little league teams, two 25-35 year-old, and two over-40 leagues. For the volleyball and football teams they supply the uniforms and throw the players an end-of-season party. They also sponsor a golf outing for cystic fibrosis. Very active in the chamber of commerce, Russell was named businessman of the year in 2009.

If you can’t get there any time soon to sample their real coal-fired pizza, you have some time. They plan on sticking around for years to come. Russell says of his father Frank “When my father loves something, he never wants to let it go. He plans on staying around for a very long time.”