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Not just the ordinary tops off the fare at Pi-Coal Fired Pizza

| Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011

Contrary to popular opinion, fast food doesn't have to come from a box or a drive-thru window.

Pi Coal-Fired Pizza proves this with its menu of food that arrives quickly but is made from fresh, thoughtfully chosen ingredients.

The sleek, contemporary South Side restaurant and bar features a menu that focuses on five items -- pizzas, panini, salads, calzones and wings -- in multiple variations.

Everything is made to order.

Panini ($9) are hand-pressed on the panini grill. Pizzas ($7 to $13.50) and calzones ($11 to $11.50) are baked in a jiffy in the restaurant's coal-fired oven that's heated to 900 degrees. Deep-fried wings ($7.95 for 6, $30.95 for 40) also get a finishing blast in the oven before being served.

Owner John DeMauro prides himself on having a carefully selected pantry stocked with items such as San Marzano tomatoes, Tipo 00 flour and Fior de Latte mozzarella.

The 41-foot bar fills one wall and stays open until 2 a.m. It draws young professionals who also frequent the place as a work-day lunch spot.

Paninis are popular at lunch, especially the Pesto Pollo with chicken, mozzarella, tomato and house-made pesto, DeMauro says.

Pizzas are a big draw. They're not the fat doughy, cheese-, sauce- and pepperoni-laden extravaganzas available from your neighborhood take-out. Instead they're the kind you expect to find in a restaurant on a Naples side street -- thin but chewy 12-inch rounds decorated with coal-fired blisters and a slightly soft center and dotted, rather than slathered with fresh mozzarella and bits of arugula and prosciutto.

The menu offers 17 variations from basic Marinara ($7), with extra San Marzano tomato sauce, basil, fresh garlic, oregano and mozzarella, to Tonno ($13.50), which is decorated with imported Italian tuna, capers, fresh mozzarella and kalamata olives.

If none of those suit, you can opt to create your own ($10). The build-it-yourself version includes the house tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil, olive oil and Romano cheese that can be customized with all or any of the 17 toppings for $2 each.

We chose the Quattro Stagioni ($11.50), which divides the pizza into four quadrants, each topped with different seasonal ingredients that include roasted red peppers, prosciutto, fresh mushrooms and artichoke.

Although offered as a single serving, many should find a 12-inch round provides enough for meal sharing or take-home leftovers.

That's especially true if you add on one of the four salads ($7.50 to $16). We enjoyed the Insalata Della Cast ($8.50) -- a mountain of arugula lightly dressed with the house-made vinaigrette dressing and topped with bits of tomato, oven-crisped curls of prosciutto, slices of crisp apple and a sprinkling of almonds.

A large group might prefer to invest in Insalata Misto ($16), a selection of meats, cheeses, olives, tomato salad and bread meant for picking and sharing.

Some might recognize Pi Coal-Fired as the former location for the Old Birmingham Inn that later became Jimmy D's.

The latter establishment was operated by John DeMauro's father, James, who began running the family business there in 1979.

"It was just a bar," says John DeMauro, who adds Jimmy D's was followed by several other restaurants.

In 2010, John DeMauro remodeled the bar and opened Pi Coal-Fired Pizza on the street level. Jimmy D's nightclub continues to operate 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays on the second floor.

"We get a young demographic because of the way we're set up," he says. "But we're for anyone who enjoys quality food."

Additional Information:

Pi Coal-Fired Pizza

Location: 1707 E. Carson St., South Side

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 2 10 p.m. Saturdays.

Details: 412-431-5095

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