In any other city, or even at any other time in Atlanta, Max’s Coal Oven Pizza would have a fighting chance. Fair or not, two or three names have dominated our pizzascape during the last 12 months and change. Fighting for the table scraps that is our attention, Max’s has setup shop in Downtown Atlanta as one of the newest eateries from the Concentrics Restaurants Group.
To separate themselves from the crowd, Max’s has employed the only coal burning pizza oven in the state; and, it seems that the restaurant has hinged its reputation on this oven. In addition to claims of a better flavor (more on that in a bit), Max’s purports that “the coal oven promotes environmental sustainability by burning anthracite coal.” Unless Max’s knows something that is unknown to every country on earth, then that seems like a bit of poetic license if I ever saw it. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t crazy, so I went on a little internet search. Here are a few things I found that seem to imply that Max’s claim is a bit specious. Leaving that where it should be left, we showed up at Max’s with every hope that delicious pizza awaited.
Inside of the polished brick building, you’ll find a warehouse meets Mellow Mushroom vibe. High ceilings with scaffolding-like bars, concrete exposed floors, and thick wood support beams seem à propos for a restaurant located just beyond the loft crazy Castleberry Hills. The wood tables, chalkboard walls, and emo meets alt rock staff seem to borrow heavily from the personality of most every Mellow Mushroom.
While waiting on my compadres, I ponied up to the bar, ordered their finest glass of Chateau Chattahoochee, and listened in on the casual banter being tossed back and forth by the pizza dudes. There is a fine line between approachably friendly and laid back indifference. Maybe it was the fact that even after Barry and Hobbs (not their real names btw) showed up, the staff on duty outnumbered the patronage (eight to six). Whatever the reason, I felt things were a tad too loose and the team seemed more focused on hanging out than on perfecting their craft. That said, I’d much rather have them err on the side of friendliness than err on the side of pretentiousness. I’m not going to nitpick, so let’s just leave it at that. After all, great food can overcome a lot of oversights.
With that hope in mind, Chef Nick Oltarsh is the man responsible for these pies; although, he seems to serve in an oversight role as much as anything. While his culinary background may not put him at the forefront of the pizziola movement, he seems quite capable of assembling a competent disc of goodness. This brings us to the aforementioned coal oven. Pizza aficionados will spend hours arguing over the intricacies of the oven and how they affect the resulting food. Honestly, it’s all about the heat. Pizzas that are cooked at extreme temperatures don’t really have the opportunity to take on the flavor of the brick, wood, coal, or whatever. Still, some will swear by a particular vessel, and that’s just how that goes.
Coal ovens will get hotter than many of their counterparts, so most everyone of them will produce a char heavy crust. Those are crave inspiring words to many foodies. And as we move forward in the thought process, classifying pizzas can be a daunting task. In forgoing foodie terminology, I’ll say that these pizzas remind me of gourmet versions of “every man pizza.” They’re consistent in thinking with the types found at places like Domino’s, Mellow Mushroom, or any none of a number of one off pizza joints. Still, the ingredients and thought process are elevated over the aforementioned, and this is something that you are constantly reminded of as you peruse the pricey menu.
In looking over the one page list of choices, the clear focus is on the pies. Still, there are a handful of alternatives that will keep you distracted if your heart isn’t set on pizza. From what I’ve read and heard, the wings are pretty solid and the salads will get the job done. However, I have no first hand knowledge of either … we were there for pizza after all.
While we waited, the kindly server suggested an order of garlic bread. It turned out to be a plate of some rather wet garlic knots. They weren’t bad per se, instead, they just didn’t work. The bread itself was a little tougher than I would prefer in my knot and the liquidity of the greasy garlic made it a somewhat unpleasant pick up. The marinara sauce was actually just thinned out pizza sauce. I would have preferred a traditional marinara and some sticks that were less slippery. What we were left with was a pretty basic bread dish that did little to excite my eyes or my stomach.
The pizza process is straightforward, but not without its frustrations. The 14” pies run $15 and the 18” pies run $19. When you start adding toppings, things get real expensive real quick. Premium toppings are significantly more expensive, and somewhat confusing. The regular toppings include nothing but onions, garlic, peppers, basil, and feta. Everything else is considered premium. If you plan on adding more than one topping, you are essentially forced to order a “Specialty” pizza. It’s an illogical system. Between the three of us – two 14” pizzas was unmanageable. And before Spark Plug jumps down my throat for our wimptastic showing, mind you that we are mere mortals and these pizzas are dense.
The order at hand was a bianca (w. Ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, garlic confit, and basil) and a sausage & goat cheese (joined by mozzarella, roasted red onion, and basil). As with any pizza that borrows from neapolitan ancestry, there will be a soft, somewhat soupy element to some of the pies. This was most certainly the case with the bianca. It was left in the oven a bit too long leaving the edges of the crust charred on the top, spots of the pizza overcooked, and the underside notably dark. Let’s not get our panties in a wad, seconds of cook time can make or break the cooking process, and they aren’t trying to be Antico or V’s. Still, I found the oils in place to be far too pronounced making bites of this pie more difficult than it should be. It was also a heavy pizza, so a slice a slice was particularly filling.
I had a better interaction with the sausage and gorgonzola. This pie was more appropriately charred, and though the pizza still flopped heavily because of the toppings, the heartiness of meats and cheeses was appreciated. Without the slop going on, I was able to spend some time focusing on the crust. It was more dense than some of the other gourmet shops in town, and that’s where the comparisons to D’s and Mellow come in.
While I’m not sure that the price point seems justified, these pizzas seem ideal for those looking for something more Americanized than what is served up at the other gourmet pizza joints in town. Their pies are distinct and identifiable, and that’s a big part of it. Did I love them? No. Did I hate them? No. Instead, I found myself wondering why my pocket was so thin afterwards. In the sea of options now available, Max’s doesn’t seem destination worthy. I wouldn’t think of going there over a handful of other options … but that doesn’t mean they are horrible and that you won’t like them. Next time you’re downtown, give them a look-see. You could do a lot worse!