As soon as we walked through the door at Max’s Coal Oven Pizzeria (300 Marietta St., 404-974-2941), several staff members shouted “Hi, guys! Welcome!”
I’m not sure if it was my response — looking around to see who they were yelling at — or their own discomfort with apparently being trained to impersonate Moe’s employees, but the bubbly enthusiasm quickly diminished. I was relieved. Contrived effervescence makes me hostile.
Max’s is yet another project of the gigantic Concentrics Restaurants group. In fact, it’s located next to Stats, the company’s sports bar. Wayne, being a statistical analyst, prefers to call it “the flagship of Atlanta’s burgeoning statistics community.” It's located in a turn-of-the-last-century building with lots of brick and warehouse ambiance. It was doing quite a brisk business when we visited on a Sunday night, especially with large family groups.
Our server, John H., let us know that the restaurant features Georgia’s first coal-burning pizza oven. This actually is kind of a big deal. Coal ovens are popular in New York City where many regard them as essential since they reach a temperature of 1,000 degrees. John explained that the super-hot oven produces the blistery, charred crust that pizza aficionados crave. Or perhaps not everyone craves that. “I like to warn people that the crust is going to be kind of black,” John said.
“It’s cool,” I said. “We are professional pizza eaters.”
Heading the kitchen here is native New Yorker and longtime Concentrics chef Nick Oltarsh. He is a talented chef who made his name in town at Murphy’s and has most recently been chef at the Lobby at Twelve. I assume he is directing the kitchen but not cooking here full time.
Our meal started with Caprese and Caesar salads. These were both large portions and either would be more than adequate for two.
I was pleased that the menu’s promise of “vine-ripe tomatoes” came true. I’ve eaten some quite mealy heirloom tomatoes lately and these — beefsteak type, I think — were perfect. One complaint: As I’ve written frequently, a true Caprese salad is not supposed to have balsamic vinegar on the plate. Here, it seemed to have been drizzled all over the tomatoes and the house-made mozzarella. The tomatoes stood up to the vinegar but the mozzarella’s flavor was completely lost. Fresh mozzarella is mediocre at best anywhere in our city, but I don’t want to eat it spiked with vinegar.
The Caesar salad was very nice, garnished with actual anchovies — increasingly rare in Atlanta — and featured chewy garlic knots instead of the usual croutons. The dressing tasted authentic.
You can design your own pizza here with the usual toppings — and end up spending a lot. In fact, the specialty pizzas — $17.69 for a 14-inch pie or $23.95 for an 18-inch one — run a bit higher than the competition’s at Varasano’s and Fritti.
We ordered the margherita, the usual test of a pizzeria, and another featuring ricotta, parmesan and gorgonzola cheeses topped with arugula and EVOO. Yes, the crust was just about perfect by the usual char-obsessed standards. The outer rim of the crust was chewy without requiring impersonation of a cow and its cud. And the crust stood up quite well to the ingredients. It did not dissolve at the center into gooeyness.
I found the pies overloaded for my taste, however. I think this is probably entirely subjective. The margherita did not, in my view, come close either to Varasano’s or Fritti’s pies. I thought the morzzarella was piled on too thick and the tomatoes were too chunky. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t bad. It was just too heavy for my taste. (I do wonder if eating the cold version of this pizza — the Caprese salad — beforehand predisposed me to a lighter pie.)
I had fundamentally the same reaction to the other pie. The blend of three cheeses was delicious. Oltarsh uses just the right amount of gorgonzola so that the ricotta and parmesan retain their character. Despite my feeling the pies are generally overloaded, I would like more arugula on this one. Within a few minutes almost all of it had wilted into the cheese.
We could not finish more than half of either of these 14-inch pies, so I’m thinking they are designed for two, whereas the pies at Varasano’s and Fritti are for one. Thus you may in actuality end up spending less.
Dessert was out of the question. I did order a “mini-cone” with a small scoop of house-made lemon gelato. Unfortunately, when our server John handed me the cone, the gelato fell onto the table. I picked it back up and put it on the cone while John apologized and repeatedly offered to get me another. Frankly, I didn’t want more. I’m sorry to say it was probably the worst gelato I have ever tasted.
In writing this, I’m keenly aware that Varasano’s and Fritti have set a much higher standard for pizza in the city, but I also think many people will enjoy the more substantial pies here, as well as the more informal vibe and the entertaining staff. Our server John, his mop of curly hair spilling over a blue handkerchief tied around his forehead, looked like Jim Morrison. The bartender had more dreadlocks than Bob Marley.
But the fashion highpoint of the evening occurred when the guy manning the coal oven stopped by our table. He had one of those retro beards where a twisted strand of hair hangs from the chin to the chest.
“How long do you plan to let that grow?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I’m not shaving it until October, after I see Metallica.”
Honestly, I felt like I was on stage in a parody of my own music-obsessed youth. Y’all go and let me hear how you like it.