My Pizza Oven

Q&A about home pizza ovens.

My Pizza Oven: Caleb Schiff (aka Flagstaff Forno)

This week's My Pizza Oven profile focuses on someone you may know from the comments/Talk sections of Slice/Serious Eats. He's given lots of helpful advice on oven-building when such talk comes up and was a natural go-to for a Q&A. Without futher ado, let's get him in the hot seat. —The Mgmt.

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[Photograph: Caleb Schiff]

Name: Caleb Schiff (aka "Flagstaff Forno" on Slice/Serious Eats)
Location: Flagstaff, Arizona
Website: pizzicletta.com (think pizza+bicicleta—more explanation below)

When did you put it in? Did you build it yourself or have someone build it?

I started construction about a month after buying the house in the Spring of 2008. I'm not sure what got into me. I guess I'd been making pies in my conventional oven using cast-iron skillets. I longed for the pies I had when I was bike touring in Italy and once I was a homeowner, I just went for it.

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I stumbled upon some other WFO's online and the next day started excavating the backyard... and the journey began. [After the jump, Caleb invites Slice'rs over for pizza! For real!]


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Where did you get the plans? How long did construction take?

There are a lot of wood-fired oven styles out there. I knew I wanted a brick oven over a modular oven. A modular oven is constructed by piecing together 4 to 5 large pieces of refractory segments. A brick oven uses individual firebricks. I've used both styles and I think you can create great pizzas in both oven types, but brick ovens are much more aesthetically pleasing and give you more flexibility in the design. I chose to build a pompeii style oven, which is the traditional Italian style.

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Forno Bravo has some nice plans online. I took that design and modified it. It took about 3 months, and that was broken up do to travel with work (I usually spend a month in Alaska every summer). LOTS of blood, sweat, and yes, tears. I had my doubts at times. For example, my first front arch collapsed. It was kind of heartbreaking and I had to use a simpler design. When all was said and done, and now after baking in it for two years, it was completely worth it. Its solid, holds heat amazingly well, and is the perfect size for a home oven.

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Another thing is that I had the oven door and chimney cap made by a local welder. I'm a big trail runner and used a trophy for the door.

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For the chimney cap, I tried to replicate the San Francisco peaks, which serves as a backdrop in Flagstaff. Just a little more of me trying to add a personal touch to the oven.

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How often do you use it?

About once a week. I'd bake more often if I had the time, and I count down the hours to the next oven firing. My urge to make pies gets pretty bad at times and I'll often send out emails or call friends, looking for someone to make pies for. When I have guests (especially newbies), I really get into it. Most folks have never had true Neapolitan pizza and most don't get to see the behind the scenes of pizza making. I really try to educate and engage my guests and I discuss the whole process. I explain how I make the dough and why a wood-fired oven makes the best pies. I emphasize the simplicity of Neapolitan pizza and why I use the ingredients I do.

Having built the oven in my backyard probably elevates the mystique of the experience. It kind of sets me apart from any other place in town. Seeing the pizzas bake in 90 seconds is entertaining too. I think people dig that I built the oven for the sole purpose of pizza. They see my passion played out and I think my energy for the process adds to the experience. Of course, eating the best pizza in town doesn't hurt either.

Do you cook anything besides pizza in it?

Hearth breads, roasted vegetables, and my arm hair and bangs. Cooking your hair is not recommended. The smell is horrible, and your significant other might kick you out of bed later in the evening.

What style of pizza do you normally do?

20100420-flagstaff-forno-brussels.jpgNeapolitan. Did you need to ask? I've turned into quite the traditionalist and use only Caputo flour, San Marzano's, etc. I know that such ingredients do not beget a great pizza. But I don't cut corners, and the pies reflect my commitment. I hand-knead all the dough and allow for a slow, 48-hour fermentation.

What's your favorite topping or topping combination to make?

This one is tough. I am constantly trying to reinvent. However, I always keep it simple (2-3 toppings). Lately, I've been digging wood-roasted brussel sprouts (wrap the sprouts in foil with sea salt and olive oil, and throw the foil ball in the oven while it's coming up to temp). Add some pistachios and creamy ricotta. Mmmm, that's a good time.

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I've also been experimenting with brining greens. Basically, it's a great way to infuse the rich olive oil flavor (and sea salt) into greens (arugula, kale, spinach, broccoli rabe, mâche). I'll let the greens soak in olive oil and sea salt for about 12 hours. The advantage of brining is that you can add the greens to the pies before going into the oven. The greens won't burn and they pick up a smoky flavor. Its really nice. If you add regular unbrined greens before going into a 900°F oven and you'll just fry em.

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I also make a Margherita every night. Its actually one of the most popular and, by making one every night provides some kind of reference to see how consistent I can be and where I can improve.

Do you cook for friends/neighbors?

All the time (and since I've finished the oven, my number of friends has steadily increased). My neighbors are kind-of crotchety, however. Too bad for them!

BTW, if any fellow Slice readers are in the area, they should contact me and I'd love to fire the oven for them. My contact info is on my website. It's always most fun to cook for pizza enthusiasts.


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Uh oh. Be careful what you wish for! ;) ... Um, what does your family think of your pizza madness?

Well, my dog LOVES it... he's always on the ready for the occasional slippery pie. Actually, Kaiser got the first pie out of the oven. Most of my family lives in the Midwest and they wished I was closer so I can make them pies.

Heidi, a friend and former housemate/pizza sidekick wrote this

"Many times in life you think of these 'great' ideas of things you want to do. Well, in reality, many of them are just passing ideas...glimmers of hope that you could break of out of some monotonous routine, maybe earn some bragging rights, or just do something "cool". When Caleb first discussed transforming the backyard into a pizza mecca, or Little Italy, I nodded, smiled and encouraged it (surely this would never happen...). Little did I know he was actually serious...very serious. Soon cement was poured, flour from Italy was in the mail, canned tomatoes lined the pantry and bam! pizza was everywhere! However, there are no complaints... this truly great idea has transformed Caleb and all those in Caleb's life. It is a focal point for social gatherings and has earned him some serious bragging rights...and well, his level of cool has certainly increased! For the record, if you need more friends, build a pizza oven...they will come!"

The Pizza Cognition Theory states that "the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza." Do you remember your first slice? Where was it from, is the place still around, and if so, does it hold up? On that note, has your taste in pizza evolved over time?

Unfortunately, I don't remember my FIRST slice. But the more I think about this question, the more I think that visits to Noble Roman's, which is a chain in the Midwest and elsewhere (I think), may well have been one of the most formative pizza experiences I had as a kid. You see, Noble Roman's hosted the best birthday parties. All the kids attending became a pizzaiolo and got their hands at making pies (you also got a cool paper hat). In addition, they have a huge viewing window where you can watch the pizzaioli at work. It was probably my first pizza making experience and I remember standing in front of the glass windows for hours. The taste of Noble Roman's is pretty memorable as well. The flavor of their sauce and breadsticks are engrained in my taste buds. I'd guess that some Slice readers have attended a pizza party there too. So, while I'm sure I'd be let down by the quality of pies at Noble Romans (its probably been 15 years since I had one), I should probably give them a lot of credit for introducing me to pizza making.

Pizzeria Bianco, full exterior

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Where do you go for pizza in your area (when you're not making your own)?

Pizzeria Bianco. It's a 2.5-hour drive (and a 2.5-hour wait) but well worth it.

What's most important to you: crust, sauce, or cheese?

Gotta be the crust... a perfect cornicione gives me a rise (that's probably inappropriate, but you get my point—and joke—I hope).

LOL. Yes. Groan. ;) ... Anything you'd like to get off your chest?

I've got this mole I'm kind of worried about.

Bada-bing! ... What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?

Regrets... life's too short and there's always another pie to be made.

Weirdest pizza you've ever eaten?

Emu pizza (an emu is a big bird, like an ostrich, that is native to Australia). Turoni's, in my hometown of Evansville, Indiana, uses emu meat as their "healthy" option. Supposedly, it tastes like beef, but I recall it tasting kind of fishy, and it was really tough to chew.

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What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?

Well, I went to Italy and did a three week bike tour (here's a trip summary: http://oak.ucc.nau.edu/cjs235/Base_Touring.html). It was amazing. However, pizza wasn't the objective (but, after biking 60 to 100 miles a day, I managed to consume quite a bit of pizza, wine, and gelato). Coincidentally, the trip was the inspiration for my home oven and the name of the website (my garage is filled with bikes, dough trays, and firewood).

I guess the farthest I've traveled for the sole purpose of pizza is about two and a half hours. That's the travel time from Flagstaff to Bianco's (in Phoenix). You know, I've been wanting to go to New York for a pizza tour. Think I could crash at your place, Adam?

Hmm. I don't want to set any precedents here, plus I would have to clear it with Girl Slice, who I live with ... Let me sleep on this ... Um, let's see.... Now is the time I get lazy and ask you to self-interrogate. So, if you have anything else you'd like to include, feel free to make up a question or questions to ask yourself.

I don't have any other questions, but I would like to reiterate that Slice readers should contact me if they'd like to come by. As I've said, I love sharing the oven and pizzas with pizza enthusiasts.

Now: Who would you like to see interviewed next?

Stefano Ferrara (or his father or grandfather, if he's still alive). The Ferrara family has been making exceptional ovens for generations. I'd love to hear their take and thoughts on ovens, pizza, and the Neapolitan revolution.

Ah. nice idea. I'll put out a call to Italian-speaking Slice readers on this one, since I might need help if there's any kind of language barrier. Also, if anyone out there knows/has contact with the family, hit me! adam@sliceny.com. Thanks for talking with us, Caleb!

More from the 'My Pizza Oven' Series

Pizza Hacker: Renegade Pieman of SF »
A Pizza Oven Glows in Brooklyn »
Alberto of "Forno Pizza" »
Nick and Robin Gladdis, Paso Robles, Calif. »
Paulie Gee, Pizza Madman of New Jersey »
Mark Graban, Fort Worth, Texas »
Steve O. in Wisconsin »
Dan Curry, Kansas City »

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