Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza: A craving that grew to 50 restaurants

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In his late teens during the early 1980s, Anthony Bruno walked into South Florida restaurants hungry and hopeful, and then walked back out disappointed.

The New Yorker just wanted good pizza.

“I moved down here and went through pizza culture shock,” says Bruno, now 53 and much happier with South Florida’s pizza scene.

After too many bad pies and after helping his father operate Italian restaurant Anthony’s Runway 84 in Fort Lauderdale, Bruno decided to in 2002 to open his own restaurant, making coal fired pizzas with that charred, crispy taste he so missed.

He now has 50 restaurants.

His latest Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza opened about a week ago in North Miami, 20 miles south of the company’s founding location in Fort Lauderdale. Anthony’s coal fired pizza and wings have spread across South Florida and as far as the Northeast, with posts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Massachusetts.

“We have a very simple menu,” Bruno said recently amid a busy lunch crowd at the Fort Lauderdale restaurant on South Federal Highway. “We don’t do a lot of different things, but what we do, we do very well. We don’t skimp on quality.”

Customer Jeff Abers, 60, says it’s true.

“You can taste the difference,” said Abers, who usually gets the regular pizza with extra sauce and also loves Anthony’s salad dressing. “They have great pizza. They’re fast and very friendly.”

Anthony’s has recaptured that old New York way of making pizzas using coal fired ovens, and that has resonated among customers craving that smoky flavor, said Richard Lackey, an international restaurant real estate broker, consultant and chairman of Lackey Cos. in Palm Beach Gardens.

Coal-burning ovens can reach more than 800 degrees and make pizzas faster — another thing hungry customers appreciate, Lackey said. Anthony’s says its pizzas are ready in about four minutes.

“[Bruno] took a unique style of pizza making, coal fired pizza, and then publicized the name of it,” Lackey said. “It’s not just Anthony’s Pizza, it’s Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza. I’m going somewhere special, different, which is what the American palate is looking for.”

On top of it all, people can say they’re going to a Dan Marino-approved chain, Lackey said.

The NFL Hall of Famer became a company partner after frequent visits to the Fort Lauderdale restaurant, Bruno said. The legendary Miami Dolphins quarterback liked the pizza so much he wanted a restaurant closer to his home in Weston, so he invested money to open a restaurant in the western Broward County community in 2005, Bruno said. That was the company’s first expansion.

Marino jerseys, Beatles posters and newspaper clippings inking the company’s history adorn walls at Anthony’s restaurants. The company makes about $2.2 million in annual sales and employs around 35 people at each restaurant, Bruno said.

He still owns and operates Anthony’s Runway 84, which boasts a more extensive Italian menu. Whenever customers there ask for pizza, he tells them about the nearest Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza.

If Bruno’s father was still alive, he would be mesmerized by the chain’s growth, Bruno said.

“My father would never believe people would be coming to Florida for pizza,” Bruno said. “The fact that people circle to come into this restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, that we put pizza on the map … to me that’s the coolest thing.”

mvalverde@tribune.com, Twitter @MiriamValverde

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