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Former Outback president's topper: authentic Italian pizza

Former Outback Steakhouse president Ben Novello is a development partner for Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, a Fort Lauderdale chain that prides itself on making pizzas using a time-tested Italian method. Local stores are in Tampa, Brandon and Clearwater.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Former Outback Steakhouse president Ben Novello is a development partner for Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, a Fort Lauderdale chain that prides itself on making pizzas using a time-tested Italian method. Local stores are in Tampa, Brandon and Clearwater.

Since resigning as president of the Outback Steakhouse brand in 2006, Ben Novello has been guiding a young, little chain that's reviving an old pizzamaking art.

Novello, wooed to be CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, instead settled on advising the chain's founder, Anthony Bruno. He's also became the chain's development partner for Orlando, the West Coast of Florida and Maryland markets with Jim Pollard, another local Outback veteran.

With stores in Tampa, Brandon, Orlando and Clearwater, Novello and Pollard plan another one in Orlando — which would become the chain's 14th in Florida and 22nd in five states. After samples of the chain's "well done" pizza, barbecue-sauce-free spare ribs and baked chicken wings smothered in caramelized onions, Novello recently spoke with the Times about the tricks of cooking with coal and where he sees the chain in five years.

Cooking with coal?

The Neapolitan Italians who immigrated to New York in the early 1900s brought ovens with them, but the firewood available was too expensive. So they used coal. It's better because our thick stone oven heats up close to 900 degrees vs. 600 for wood. The heat sears meat so quickly it seals in the juices. We cook a pizza in four to six minutes.

I remember Nicolas Cage as an Italian baker in Moonstruck, shoveling coal into an oven in Brooklyn. What happened to the tradition?

In the old days, they cooked with bituminous coal. It's soft and dusty. It was banned for environmental reasons in the 1970s. People got black lung inhaling dust, not burning it. New York grandfathered in mom-and-pop places that already had ovens, but there are only a few left like Ray's or Grimaldi's. Anthony Bruno, who grew up eating this distinctive pizza in Brooklyn, is among the first to bring it back.

So you only use anthracite coal, which is shiny, hard, smokeless and has no dust.

It burns cleaner than natural gas, but it's like lighting a rock. It took two weeks to figure out how to light our first oven and get the temps right. You need a wood fire for ignition and control it with air flow. It doesn't burn. It smoulders. Anthracite is expensive, but we only use 100 pounds a day.

What looks like black coal dust on the stone is actually flour we sprinkle to keep the pie from sticking together when its stretched and tossed.

So the not-quite-charred taste of the thin crust comes from the coal?

No. The distinct taste is caused by the heat. It takes about two months to teach the skills. We coach "keep your eye on the pie," because if you don't constantly spin and shuffle it among hot spots, the pizza burns to a crisp. Flip it and you've ruined that part of the cooking deck for the night. You have to scrub out burned cheese.

Domino's claim to fame was 30-minute delivery. Little Caesar's contribution was two pizzas for the price of one. What does Anthony's bring to the table?

Authentic pizza — not Americanized — cooked the way first-generation Italian Americans did. There is no sauce, just fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. We flavor just like my parents and grandparents ate at home: olive oil, garlic, Italian seasonings. True Italian food is about letting seasonings bring out the flavors of the ingredients, not covering them up. Even our tuna salad has no mayo and is made fresh. Our stores have no freezer. No microwave. No fryer, so there is no greasy restaurant smell. And we cook so much with coal, the kitchen only needs a broiler for broccoli rabe.

What's Eggplant Marino?

It was a pizza topping that (former football star) Dan Marino, who is a partner in Anthony's, used to order sauteed and served on thin-sliced bread. So many people saw him order it, we had to put it on the menu.

The average store does a robust $2 million in sales; what else drew you to this?

It's a simple menu to execute, only 12 items. It's not some giant room; only 88 seats, a patio and takeout. I think this is the new world of restaurants. Small, local feel, a less intimidating menu. When I started at Outback, we had 37 item combinations. When I left it was over 80. They execute it very well, but it's a challenge.

What is Outback's way out of this sales slump?

Everybody has turned to value menus to keep traffic up. At most chains today, old-school operations guys like me who started managing kitchens at Bennigan's became dinosaurs. Chains are run by the financial and marketing folks now. But you have to be careful about making your brand so accessible you have too many units when the economy downshifts. Even Starbucks had to pull back. Outback has lots of smart people. They'll figure it out and be fine. Steak is still the No. 1 item people want when they go out to eat.

When will we see more Anthony's?

After opening five stores in 11 months we'll sit back, see what we learned and enjoy a beer. In five years, I could see 50 of them.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Former Outback president's topper: authentic Italian pizza 02/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2010 10:22pm]

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