There's a coal-fire revolution going on in South Jersey. First, Carluccio's opened in Northfield. Then, Bocca in Margate. Now, Sal's Cafe & Coal Fired Pizza recently opened its doors in Somers Point, proving that people love the flavor of pizza cooked in 1,000-degree ovens.
"When you take a coal-fired pizza and a traditional pizza and eat them side by side, I think most people will say they will never have a regular, conventional oven pizza again," says Blair Pira, who owns the restaurant with his nephew Sal. "It's just a better quality pizza. I prefer it as a method and for flavor. It's new to people in this area, but it's not new to me. When you go to North Jersey and Europe, everyone is using coal-fired ovens."
For those still not familiar with coal-fired pizza, it's a pretty simple process: stacks of coal are placed in a brick oven and set on fire, resulting in temperatures of 800 to 1,000 degrees. There is no dial to control the temperature. It's a process that must be learned and perfected. And pizza can bake as quickly as 50 seconds to as long as 90 seconds.
"It depends how hot that coal is, but you have to turn it every 8 to 10 seconds or it burns up and you end up throwing it right in the fire," Pira explains. "A normal pizza might take eight minutes or so to bake, but these are done almost instantly."
But Sal's is more than just a coal-fired pizzeria, Pira adds, noting the new restaurant in the former Fitzpatrick's Deli location is open daily at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast and runs straight through to 11 p.m. for lunch, dinner and late-night munchies.
"We want to be the neighborhood cafe," Pira says. "If you want pizza, great, but we also have wraps and salads and full entrees. We are your one stop for everything."
That also includes traditional pizza for those who may not have grown used to the coal-fired craze.
"Although I think coal-fired pizza is a superior product, you have to keep those pizzas small because the dough has to be thin," Pira explains. "So we have traditional ovens and pizza for those who want the larger pies or just prefer them."
The large lunch and dinner menu is five pages long and features more than 200 items. In other words, there's something for everyone, whether it's pizza, fresh-made stromboli and calzones, subs, sandwiches, burgers, wraps and salads, appetizers and more.
Pira says a lot of people are loving the entrees, including standouts such as the chicken parmesan ($14); veal Saltimbocca ($16.75) with prosciutto, mushrooms and fresh buffalo mozzarella in a sage marsala wine sauce; the seafood pescatore ($21.20) with shrimp, calamari, baby clams, mussels and crab in extra virgin olive oil, garlic and herbs over pasta; and pasta dishes ranging from penna alla vodka with crabmeat ($16.45) to gnocchi alfredo ($13).
The menu is not only affordably priced, but all meat and seafood entrees come with a side of pasta, bread and choice of homemade soup or salad. Even the pasta entrees come with bread, butter and salad.
"I think we are starting to get the word out because we are only open a month and we are seeing repeat customers coming in three or four times a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner," Pira says. "People see the coal-fired sign, but we are so much more. We are using as much fresh food as we can. Every sauce is made from scratch. We even buy seafood fresh."
If the Pira name sounds familiar, they also own Pierre's on Washington Avenue in Margate with a similar menu to Sal's but minus the coal-fired pizza. Both Blair and Sal Pira came to New Jersey from Albania in 1999 and bought Pierre's - an institution since 1968 - about eight years ago.
"We are a family business," Pira says. "Of course we have other employees, but we also have a lot of nieces and nephews working. We see a lot of each other."
To open Sal's, the Piras invested a good amount of money to totally transform the outdated Fitzpatrick's into a modern pizzeria that includes tiled floors, a granite pizza bar counter, new furniture and a fresh, clean overall look.
"We spent a lot of money," Pira says. "We totally gutted it. Only the bathrooms are similar. I actually had my cousin come in from Switzerland to do the walls in Venetian plaster because I couldn't get anyone to do it here."
Pira believes Sal's will become a Somers Point institution like his Margate restaurant.
"We want to be the place where the community gathers and loves the food and loves the place," he says. "We plan to be here for a long time."
Everyday specials at Sal's
If you're looking for some good deals, here are some you can find at Sal's every day: 10 wings, fries and 1-liter soda for $12; any wrap and 20-ounce soda for $8; two cheeseburgers, fries and 1-liter soda for $13; any coal-fired pizza and 20-ounce soda for $10; half of a cheesesteak, fries and 20-ounce soda for $11; and any cold sub with 20-ounce soda for $7.50. Daily specials include chicken Francaise ($11.99), stuffed shells ($8.99) and baked ziti ($8.99) on Mondays; veal parm ($12.50), shrimp Fra diavalo ($12.99) and lasagna ($9.25) on Tuesdays; chicken marsala ($11.99), eggplant parm ($10.25) and manicotti ($8.99) on Wednesdays; veal Piccante ($12.50), linguini with clam sauce ($10.25) and fettuccini Alfredo ($10.75) on Thursdays; linguini with broccoli and chicken ($10.95), cheese ravioli ($8.99) and linguini with shrimp and mushrooms in a rose sauce ($11.99) on Fridays; shrimp parm ($12.99), spinach ravioli ($9.25) and spaghetti with meatballs ($8.99) on Saturdays; and flounder parm ($12.50) or penne alla vodka ($10.25) on Sundays.