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My Pizza Oven: Nick and Robin Gladdis, Paso Robles, California

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Last week I blogged up Steve O.'s backyard pizza oven in Wisconsin, asking at the end of that post for photos and stories from any other home-based pizza-makers. Not more than nine hours later, Nick Gladdis's email came in:

Adam,
I'll bite. Here are some shots of an oven my wife, Robin, and I built, completely, over the course of eight months in 2008. And for the weenies who say they can't, I'm 65 years old. Best thing we ever did, and it complements our olive farm (10 acres with six planted in just less than 1,900 trees). All this in the middle of wine country, Paso Robles, California. The pie pictured is for the "heavy on the sausage/mushroom" crowd. Usually it's Neapolitan-style Margheritas for me. Take that, Paulie Gee!

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Nick and Robin operate Casa Pau Hana Olive Farm. And, after reading this account of their pizza lifestyle, I want to raise the Slice Army, mount an invasion, and steal their land and set-up.* After the jump Nick answers some questions and shares some more photos.

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How often do you use it?

I've been averaging twice monthly firings on the oven, obviously more in summer than winter, but not much considering our weather. I start with soft wood, pine or cedar or whatever scraps I have around, and move up to oak barrel staves, which are easy to come by here. Then it's white oak for heat. Lots of Santa Maria style barbecue here that uses red oak for flavor, but the oven doesn't transfer any flavor from wood so, white oak works. It's heat I'm looking for. I run it up to 1,000 to 1,100°F to clean it out and let it cool to 800°F and start slidin' in the pies. I use a digital laser thermometer to assess heat of the deck. The deck was constructed with 3 inches of vermiculite mixed with concrete, over which we poured a hearth of 4 inches of concrete, over which we placed fire brick, on edge, for another 4 inches. So 11 inches of heat-retaining hearth all enclosed with sides and roof of brick covered in 6 inches of vermiculite/concrete. We built it this way to do a variety of cooking and heat retention.

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That answers my next question, which would have been "Do you cook anything besides pizza in it?" Specifically, though, what other things do you throw in there?

After we fire pies I let the oven cool to 550°F, and can put in chickens on a grill I made or marinated pork shoulder. Nothing says love like swine. We also do short ribs in a cast iron pot with veggies overnight. After the meats, the oven is about 400°F, and I can load in bread in loaves or sticks for the week. The key to having an oven is utilizying the thermal efficiencies across a broad spectrum of heat/cooking opportunities. Truth be told, once you start cooking in them you can't stop at pizza.

Wow. It's nice to see you're putting the heat to use for more than pizza. But getting back to pies, you say, "Usually it's Neapolitan style Margheritas for me." When you do top them, what do you go for?

Toppings cover a variety of what's available and what we like. I've been through several (three) types of mozzarella and find that a Costco fresh mozz works best for the moisture content. I tried a fresh type made by a local retired doctor, too wet, a store brand that was too dry.

We have a garden, so I grow a San Marzano variety of tomato, arugula, red and white onions, shallots, garlic--lots of garlic--bell pepers, basil, and fresh oregano and sometimes the chard. My wife is a big mushroom/sausage person, so we always do that. A local butcher shop provides a good start to Italian sausage, some duck sausage, and spicy sausages. I'll do a white sauce with chicken, artichokes, and roasted red pepper.

You operate an olive farm. Do you use your own olives and olive oil on your pies?

We do use it on all the pies and everything else since it is always available. We grow two types of olives: Arbequina, a Spanish varietal, and Lucca, a clone developed by UC-Davis for California. It's similar to a Frantoio but drought- and frost-resistant

Wine country, huh? What do you pair with your pizzas?

Paso Robles wine is all over the map but the area is similar to the Rhone valley in France, but just about everthing is grown including Syrah, Viognier, Mouverde, Grenache, Aglianico, Sangiovese, Cabernet S, and my favorite Zinfandel, similar to the Primativo. If I drank one it would be Zin since I like a little spice in my pizza and wine.

Do you cook for friends/neighbors? Sounds like you could have some great parties if you roped in the folks in your vicinity--"you bring the wine, I'll make the pizza"?

The economy being what it is finds a lot of winemakers unloading some product. My neighbor (14 acre vineyard) and I are tasting some Syrah and Grenache this week to purchase 50 gallons to split. Get this, $5/gallon. Who wouldn't stock up!

We cook for all our family, guests, and friends/neighbors. They expect the pizza and we try to deliver, literally. We do a harvest weekend when we pick olives and usually have a house full of 8-10 staying with us as well as other friends who live nearby. We harvest, eat and drink the weekend away. The late night cigar also fits in here.

What does your family think of your pizza madness?**

As far as "madness" goes (I'm hard to offend) I grew up in the 60's in Cali so being crazy has been evident for many years. My friends know me as Raoul Duke, so that should explain a lot. They know my wife and I take on large projects of this sort and it motivates them. We lived on Maui for 13 years (my mid-life crisis & a great job opportunity) so all our family and friends expect the unusual.

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I see you've got some nice lights above the work areas. Do your pizza sessions often go late?

Pizza at night is the best here. The daytime temps are in the 90-100 range during the day but always drop 40 degrees at night so it makes for great late night sessions. Lifes pretty damn short so why waste time. The lights really provide nice indirect lighting so we don't lose the night sky.

Are the wood doors below the oven for wood storage?

The space with doors under the grill is for the propane, the heat on that puppy is a different story to be told later. The center door is for a hibachi and supplies, and the two large doors on the right are for a cart loaded with wood. I've built all my own tools for the oven and I'll shoot some pics of those for your readers. Our oven has been the key element in providing an atmosphere for great social interaction among family and friends.

Do you have a backyard pizza oven? Would you like to be featured on Slice? Hit us up: adam@sliceny.com.

*Just kidding. Nick and Robin, you're safe--for now ...
**I use "madness" lightly. Of course we all know there's nothing mad about building a backyard oven and obsessing about pizza.

Related

My Pizza Oven: Steve O. in Wisconsin
My Pizza Oven: Dan Curry, Kansas City
An Evening with Paulie Gee, Pizza Madman of New Jersey
Going Mobile: Pizza Ovens on Wheels

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