Coal v. Wood: Millie's Old World Meatballs & Pizza, Morristown, NJ

By Liz Hartman

The aroma engulfs you as you open the door, reminiscent of Nonna’s kitchen, which is apropos as Millie’s Old World Meatballs & Pizza in Morristown is an homage to the owners', brothers Vince and Brandon Carrabba's, grandmother Millie who’s meatballs share the spotlight along with both wood and coal fired pizzas.

A welcoming brick façade with plenty of windows showcasing the vibrant scene inside and complementary valet parking warmed our spirits on a very chilly evening before we even entered the establishment. Although it’s a BYO there’s definitely a party vibe in Millie’s on a Friday evening.  Families, groups of teens, couples on dates; the place was full, the music was pumping and the dueling ovens were roaring!

Also offered is a full menu of appetizers, salads and sandwiches, a full page of pizza specials and Sunday Brunch and Pasta Night.  All of the menus were promptly offered to us by a service staff that was efficient and jovial.

Our party of six started with two salads which we passed around back-and–forth and thus began the family style sharing of food, drink, and conversation.  The warmth that lasted throughout our evening, and was much enhanced by visits from Chef Pete and the proprietors.   Antipasto, a very traditional presentation of greens, black olives, grape tomatoes and red onion adorned with assorted Italian cheeses and cured meats. And Arcadian Mix Salad with candied walnuts, crumbled gorgonzola, red onion, apple wood smoked bacon and apricot vinaigrette.  The bacon used is top notch thick cut, but I found the gorgonzola to be a bit heavy handed and lost the apricot vinaigrette.

Then, and pay attention here, the house made Fresh mozzarella appeared.  A perfectly toothsome, properly salted ball of Northern New Jersey’s finest.  Oh, this cheese, we needed details.  Cue Chef Pete who was more than happy to share in his endearing, charming and funny manner all sorts of Millie’s secrets.  But for now the mozzarella which is produced at a rate of 140 – 240 lbs a day, rests one day so as “not to be soupy,” and adorns many pizzas and dishes on the menu.  Be sure not to miss it in its pure form, it will not disappoint!

We were still "oohing" and "aaahhing" over the cheese - and secretly hoping for more - as the 1/4 pound meatballs are delivered.  Two preparations: warm ricotta w/ fresh herbs that delivered a lovely play of textures and flavors, and the second with vodka sauce that evoked a good old fashioned comfort food feel.

Millie’s uses the old school meat trifecta of beef, veal and pork are fried to crispy sear, juicy without being greasy and with just enough fluff so as not to fall apart when broken into, but will grab onto the sauce for that well rounded bite. 

There are over thirty pizza varieties to select from.  A word to the wise: mix it up; order both coal and wood fired.  This will not only start a lively debate but will also offer an "oven-ucation."  There are differences, some subtle and not so, in the dough preparation, the cooking time and which toppings fare better in each oven producing the best results for each and every pie.

We embarked on our pizza journey with the two mainstays: Margherita (wood) with fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil, Parmigiano reggiano, and evoo, and Millie’s signature (coal) with tomatoes sautéed in garlic and house specialty seasonings, mozzarella, basil, and grated pecorino romano.  The Margherita is of the cheese-on-top-family, while the Signature is a sauce on top variety.  Chef Pete appeared once again to break it down for us.  These are well thought out pizzas, and he is passionate about each and every aspect even sourcing the tomatoes from California instead of the usual San Marzano because he finds them more consistent. 

The wood pizzas are finished in 90 seconds at 800 plus degrees and come out of the oven bubbly and charred, he has decidedly settled on ash wood for his fire after experimenting with others he found that it lends a nice flavor profile without overwhelming the finished product.  The dough is a fairly basic no knead recipe; all of their doughs are aged, offering a hint of sour bite that is lacking in most pizza crusts.

Their coal pies have more of a traditional crust with a 6 – 7 minute bake in a 650 degree oven.  Sugar & oil are added to this dough dough mixture.

I was immediately on the wood train, until I tasted the white clam pie which is of the coal variety.  This is a do not miss clam pie, reminiscent of linguine with calm sauce it’s well rounded, neither the clam nor the garlic taking the lead, and it’s just so much fun!

As a finale to our pizza marathon, off the specials menu was the Ricotta & Truffle wood fired pizza (truffle cream, sausage, loads of fresh basil, grape tomatoes mushrooms, mozzarella, and parmigiano reggiano) of which Chef Pete declared, “a circus in your mouth.”  Although a bit wet in the middle, the flavor combination was stellar and I’m only sorry that it hadn’t arrived sooner in the evening so that I could indulge in more of it.

So, the conundrum remains.  Coal v. Wood?  Crisp crust, sautéed toppings for enhanced flavor vs. light and airy soft crust, signature char marks.  Our table was split about 50/50 on the coal v. wood debate.  Come with your group, get an "oven-ucation"  and become united over the coal v. wood debate, as there is no right or wrong, there is only delicious!  I wonder which Millie prefers?