Inside the Oven

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Photo by Michael Piazza

Those who regularly practice the art of pizza making can tell you it is the oven that ultimately decides a pizza’s fate. Dough and ingredients only go so far. The best pie in the world can devolve into soggy ruination or be reduced to carbon if it spends its final moments in an oven that doesn’t provide the right heat.

That’s why pizza chefs in the greater Boston area often speak of the ovens they use with the same nuanced language that others use to describe long-term relationships. Whether the oven is gas-powered, wood-fired, or coal-fired, they are described with a mixture of pride and mystery.

“Every oven is different, every oven is alive,” says Cody Webber, general manager of Posto Mobile, a pizza-oven food truck connected with the area pizzeria of the same name.

For example, the oven at the pizzeria Antico Forno was built from the cellar up on the premises of the North End restaurant, says owner Carla Agrippino-Gomes. The brick-front of the oven came from razed buildings in South Boston. “It’s not like any other oven that’s been built probably,” says Agrippino-Gomes.

Each oven has a unique origin story, and some stories stretch back decades or centuries. The gas-fired oven at Regina Pizzeria’s flagship North End restaurant isn’t even Italian; it’s German. It was delivered in pieces in 1883 and originally built to run on wood, coal, and peat; its heat source was switched to gas in the 20s. When the oven arrived it was assembled on the premises for a bakery, not a pizzeria, says John Polcari, the pizzeria’s general manager. “They dropped the oven in the middle of the street and guys from the neighborhood probably brought it in,” he says.

While the wood-fired pizza oven used by Vesta, a mobile pizzeria, came from France, many of the other high-end ovens in the area come from Italy. That’s where Greg Califano Jr. and his family sought their wood-fired pizza oven for their Worcester Neapolitan pizzeria restaurant, Volturno. They purchased an oven from a family of Italian oven-makers. “I can’t even remember how many generations they have been making pizza ovens,” he says.

That makes sense, as pizza ovens have been used for centuries, depending on your definition of “pizza”. Ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all developed a culinary tradition of flavoring flatbread with toppings. It’s generally believed that the modern pizza, and the wood-fired pizza oven, took root in open-air pizzerias in Neapolitan Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries. The earliest pizza ovens in the United States were not electric, but electric ovens became fairly standard by the late 20th century.

It is only with renewed interest in artisanal food in recent decades that we have been reintroduced to wood-fired and coal-fired forms of pizza-making. Of course, for some of the established pizzerias in the North End, non-electric pizza-making has never stopped.

One cannot simply unpack a pizza oven, fire it up, and begin making pies. Califano Jr. says he trained with two Italian masters, and it takes his chefs four months to really master the dough and the oven. "You really have to find someone who’s committed to learning the process,” he says.

For a wood-fired or coal-fired pizza oven, it can take days to initially cure the oven, and to generate the bed of coals needed to bring the oven up to cooking temperature. Many wood-fired and coal-fired pizza makers like to keep a fire burning day and night. Even then, it takes time each day to prepare the oven. “It takes about an hour and a half to get it up to temperature every single day. When you’re heating the oven up in the morning, you get it so the roof of the oven turns completely white.” says Califano Jr. “The first couple of pizzas of the day, they’re basically waste pizzas for us. They’re the sacrificial lambs.”

Sometimes, the oven will dictate a change to one’s approach to pizza making. That was the case at Angelo’s in Quincy, says general manager Ian Bouchie. The relatively new pizzeria elected to use a coal-fired oven to cook its pies, but the recipe they had intended to use didn’t fit the oven’s cooking style.

“We had to play a little bit with it,” Bouchie says. “We went down in dough size and came up with a better pie.” Once the oven is up and running, it takes constant vigilance to make a good pie. Timing is everything, and seconds count. Volturno pizzas cook for a minute and a half to two minutes. Polcari says Regina’s pizzas cook for about seven to eight minutes.

Some ovens have hotspots that pizza chefs know, and require pizzas to be rotated through the hotspots to be cooked just right; others are more uniform. Wood-fired and coal-fired pizzas require a constant balancing of new fuel and existing coals to make the temperature just right.

The reward of this constant tending is that each day of successful pizza-making creates the likelihood that even better pizzas might be in the oven’s future. There is something unquantifiable about the cumulative effects of cooking delicious pizza in an oven year-in, year-out, says Polcari.

“Flavors build up, it’s just amazing,” he says.

Pizza makers develop allegiances to their ovens. Bouchie, for example, says he has grown addicted to the charred flavor of pizza cooked in a coal-fired oven. “I didn’t use to like to eat anything charred, but now I like everything charred,” Bouchie says.

Califano Jr. believes in the importance of dry wood, so much so that he sources kiln-dried oak for his ovens, and refuses to use gas to start the fire. “If you’re bringing gas into your oven, you’re introducing moisture into your oven,” he says.

Meanwhile, Polcari says people seek out the North End Regina’s Pizzeria, even over other Regina’s satellites, because of the taste of the gas-powered oven. “It’s the same dough, but the oven makes the difference,” Polcari says.

While each pizza maker has their favorite way of making pizzas, a good oven and good dough in the right hands will always make a good pie, says Califano Jr. In the end, it comes down to personal preference. “The pizza oven is kind of like Italian cars. Some people like Lamborghinis, some like Ferraris,” he says.