In Dining

The secret is in the coal.

First to Wisconsin: Grimaldi's Pizzeria

Welcome to the series "First to Wisconsin" featuring stories about businesses that we finally have in our state. Although there may be more locations to come, these premiere places are celebrated by OnMilwaukee and the Corners of Brookfield, a luxury shopping mall inviting guests to "Shop. Dine. Live. Be Entertained."

When Grimaldi's Pizzeria opens at The Corners of Brookfield, 20119 Lord St., on Friday, Nov. 10, it will be something of a rarity: one of just two coal-fired pizzerias in the area, along with Elkhorn's Holi Cannoli.

The pizzeria will be the first Grimaldi's restaurant in Wisconsin.

But coal-fired pizza is anything but new. In fact, it is the oldest style of pizza in the United States, dating back to 1905 when New York grocer Gennaro Lombardi – an emigrant from Naples – introduced pizza to Americans in his Spring Street store in Little Italy.

Unlike wood-burning ovens, the allure of a coal-burning hearth is not so much the smoke but rather the heat. Coal burns twice as hot as wood. And gas or electric? Forget about it.

While Grimaldi's technically makes New York pizza, it's a breed apart, being more like the disappearing coal pizzas of the past than the pizzas you get at most Big Apple pizza places.

For a start, unlike most NYC pizzerie, Grimaldi's doesn't sell slices. Secondly, the intense heat creates a crispy thin crust with a complex, smoky flavor.

"We cook our pizza in a stone oven with coal that we get shipped in from Pennsylvania," says General Manager Michael Heider. "It's thin crust and it gives you a very unique smoky, crispy taste on the crust. It's something that I don't think that any other pizza place can offer. It's just very unique to Grimaldi's.

"Wood-fired is pretty popular right now and definitely gas ovens, but the coal gives it a much better taste, I think."

That 25-ton brick oven runs at up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit and is fueled with more than 100 pounds of coal a day.

Though there are some other items on the menu, Grimaldi's focus is on pizza, Heider says.

"Our menu is small. We do one thing and we do it right and that's pizza. We also offer great salads. We also have calzones and we do homemade in-house cheesecakes. We have seasonal cheesecakes that we offer, like right now we have a pumpkin cheesecake. Our classic New York and our Oreo are always on the menu. We have tiramisu, and we have cannolis.

A national chain, Grimaldi's was born in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood in 1990 by Patsy Grimaldi. When he retired, he sold to Frank Ciolli, whose family runs the chain. Some New Jersey locations are unaffiliated with the chain, which has 50 locations in 16 states.

The Brookfield location covers nearly 5,000 square feet, including seating for 102 inside and another 45 outside.


Photos, above and below, of another Grimaldi's location with a decor similar to the new Brookfield location,
the interior of which is not yet completed.

There is an open-concept kitchen, which allows diners to get a glimpse of the oven that is Grimaldi's bread and butter, as well as the pizzaioli tossing the dough to stretch it without poking holes through it.

"The cooks are on display," says Heider. "You can see them stretching and tossing the dough as you walk in. You get the smell from the pizza because the oven is right there as you walk in the front door.

"The ambience is one of the things that draws people in. It's just a very classic New York-style place. The first thing that people notice are the wine bottle ceiling lights. We have actual wine bottles that enclose a light bulb and they're dangling from the ceilings and that's a main focal point. People look up and go, 'wow, that's really neat.'"

The lighting is low, the tablecloths are covered in classic red and white checkered linens, says Heider. The only thing it doesn't have that the Brooklyn location has is the Brooklyn Bridge running almost right overhead.

"We don't have the (Brooklyn) bridge right above us like in Brooklyn, but The Corners here is a very nice area, as well. It's a brand new mall, it's a beautiful place. There's a lot of other great stores and boutiques around here. The whole mall has a great vibe and it's very clean and nice and people love coming here. So I think this Christmas season is going to be crazy busy for us."

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