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Artisanal pizzerias warm up to wood-burning ovens

Artisanal pizzerias warm up to wood-burning ovens

For a special breed of pizza operators, the fragrance of wood smoke beckons more than the throughput of a conveyor oven.

Wood-fired-oven pizza makers pursue a demanding craft that has changed little over the years. They tend traditional bell-shaped, stone hearth ovens stoked with blazing hardwood to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and above. They master the nuances of wood selection, fire management and split-second timing. It’s essential for turning a thin disk of hand-stretched dough lightly topped with fresh mozzarella, chopped tomatoes and herbs into a bubbly, blistered artisan pie.

Establishments that offer wood-fired pizzas are surfacing in major cities with increasing frequency. Restaurant critic Frank Bruni, writing in The New York Times last month about the popular Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, noted “the spread of a certain kind of haute pizza culture across the country” was inspired at least partly by the pizza of Naples, Italy. Along with Mozza, a collaboration of celebrity chefs Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali, he cited examples like Una Pizza Napoletana in New York, Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix and Spacca Napoli in Chicago. In fact, Chicago in the past year has seen a spate of wood-fired pizzeria openings, including Gruppo di Amici, Frasca and Crust.

“They’re starting to pop up here, too,” said Seattle-based operator Joe Fugere, owner of Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria in Seattle, the first pizzeria in the Northwest and one of 16 in the United States certified by Verace Pizza Napoletana, or VPN, a Naples-based organization that recognizes pizzerias that follow authentic Neapolitan standards of ingredients, method and oven. VPN believes that true Naples-style pizza must come from an oven exclusively fired with wood, without gas or electrical heating.

Signature pies like the Tutta Bella, topped with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, roasted onions, Italian sausage, herb mushrooms and Grana Padano cheese, cook in just 90 seconds in a Wood Stone oven heated to 800 to 950 degrees Fahrenheit with apple wood. After 45 seconds, the pie must be rotated halfway so that it cooks evenly, because the fire sits on one side of the oven, Fugere explained. Then the pie is momentarily hoisted with the peel to the ceiling of the oven where it’s about 200 degrees hotter.

“It gets one or two blisters and a patina of crunch that you cannot create with a deck or conveyor oven,” Fugere said.

The Tutta Bella sells for $11.

Jonathan Goldsmith, owner-operator of Spacca Napoli, a popular VPN-accredited pizzeria in Chicago, has a particular yen for authenticity. He shipped his wood-burning oven—including sand, brick and volcanic stone—from Naples in pieces. He also imported Italian craftsmen to assemble it.

“I absolutely would do it over again,” Goldsmith said.

Goldsmith declined to reveal his oven investment, but clearly this is not a business to start on a shoestring. A ballpark price for a medium-sized wood-burning oven is $8,000 to $10,000, according to Peppe Miele, owner of Antica Pizzeria in Marina del Rey, Calif., and president of VPN’s North American division. Estimates from manufacturers ranged from $5,000 to $13,000 for an oven alone. Freight, installation, exterior decoration, venting and electrostatic precipitators—antipollution devices that are required in some localities—can run thousands more. Operators also should figure in a tab for wood as high as $1,000 per month, Miele said.

Not that every successful artisan pizzeria follows VPN doctrine. At Naples 45, a Patina Restaurant Group concept in New York City, a trio of gas-assisted wood-fired ovens does high-volume business. In each, the gas flame ignites the wood, bringing the oven to 600 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point, the gas shuts off and the wood burns alone, ultimately reaching 720 degrees.

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