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My Pizza Oven: John Della Vecchia - Pint-Size Oven, Big-Time Pizzas

While he is not well-known here on Slice, a relative newcomer to the wood-fired homemade pizza scene has been posting pictures of some mouthwateringly delicious-looking pizzas over at pizzamaking.com under the screen name dellavecchia. Dellavecchia has made rapid progression with his wood-fired oven and his curiosity, passion, and constant experimentation convinced me that he needed to be featured on My Pizza Oven. Let's put him in the hot seat! —PB

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John and his Primavera 70 Oven. [Photographs: Marcus Aaron Walker, courtesy of John Della Vecchia]

Name: John Della Vecchia
Location: Natick, Massachusetts (just outside of Boston)
Oven: Forno Bravo Primavera 70
Oven's Maiden Voyage: May 6, 2010

Why'd you go for a wood-fired oven?

My Southern Italian heritage has always been the defining factor in my passion for cooking. After watching a pizzaiolo in Naples make an effortless pie, top it with some of the best, simplest ingredients found locally, and cook it in an oven with a flame licking the top, I knew my life would be incomplete without being able to make pizza in this way.

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A recent, naturally leavened pizza with hyper-leoparding from October 2010.

How long had you been making pizzas before you bought the P70?

My family has been making pizza for as long as I can remember, but the dough was either store-bought or a quick-type. We would make them on Friday nights. And on New Year's Eve, we would make a stuffed pizza with spinach and black olives. It was drenched in olive oil before being baked, and was/is one of my favorite things to eat to this day. But I spent a good six months working with Caputo "00" flour in anticipation of cooking in a wood-fired oven.

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Sounds like a good New Year's Eve Tradition! I've read that the landing for your oven is a slab of marble that came out of a brownstone in the Beacon Hill area of Boston. How did you end up finding that?

I went to three different marble manufacturers and got frustrated with the prices being quoted. So I did a quick search on craigslist and found the EXACT size I needed. An added bonus: It was well worn from being a threshold. Instant charm.

Nice. Did you have a local metal worker build your stand specifically to accommodate the marble slab, or did you have a complete vision in your head from the start?

The entire setup was modeled after the mobile ovens being made by Stefano Ferrara in Naples. I really love the aesthetics of those ovens — I actually hope to have one some day.

Each oven presents its own unique challenges. Early on you had mentioned that you were having troubles controlling your temperatures but discovered that using smaller pieces of wood helped. What else have you learned along the way that made a big difference and do you feel you have attained some mastery over your oven yet?

I have not attained mastery, but I have learned a lot. You really need to pay close attention to how the oven is firing, what color the walls are, how high the flame is overlapping the dome, and how quickly the pizza is cooking. One of the rookie mistakes I was making was pushing the coals to the back of the oven instead of the side. This was causing a massive amount of heat loss due to the direct air flow straight out the vent.

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Back in the day. A pie cooking in May 2010 with the coals and fire positioned at the rear of the refractory chamber.

What is the most challenging aspect of working with a WFO?

In an oven with a smaller space, like the P70, you cannot take your attention off the pizza for more than a few seconds. You window for success is tight, but very rewarding.

How often do you use your oven?

I use my oven at least once per week for a family dinner.

How many pizzas do you usually cook per session?

I always make six balls of dough if it is just the family and I. Four are for pizza, and two for flatbreads to smear Nutella or preserves on for dessert. For large events, I have cooked up to 30 pizzas.

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How long is the spool up time from ignition to the refractory chamber reaching pizza-making temps in your P70?

I am settling in on one full hour to get the temperature up to where I want it, and for the oven to maintain it for a good amount of time.

Do you cook anything besides pizza in your oven?

I should be, but right now my pizza obsession is taking up all of the oven's time.

What's your favorite combination to put on top of a pizza?

Fresh piennolo tomatoes from my garden, bufala mozzarella, basil and sea salt.

What one thing, if any, should never go on top of a pizza?

Anything less than the best quality ingredients you can find.

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You've mentioned that your family is from Caserta, which is just outside of Naples and is one of the regions (along with Battipaglia) definitely known for its mozzarella di bufala. What does your family and friends think of your pizza obsession?

I have been cooking and entertaining for my friends and family for years. Most of what I cook is traditional Italian, and making pizza like they have in Naples for over a hundred years always felt like a natural fit. It's in my blood, possibly. And my family, I believe, gets great enjoyment out of both the product and the process.

Do you still have any family in Italy?

Yes, but unfortunately they are distant cousins and we have yet to meet.

Have you been to Napoli to eat pizza? If so, what were some of your favorite pizzerias?

Yes, in 2004 my wife and I went on our honeymoon to Sorrento, across the bay. We visited Naples and enjoyed pizza at Da Michele. At the time, I thought it was too watery - but the flavor of the dough was like nothing I had eaten before. I now know that Neapolitan pizza is all about the freshness of the ingredients, and I strive to get that same flavor and consistency I had at Da Michele in my own pizza.

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A pizza from August 2010 which utilized frozen dough. John is a certified Leopard trainer!

You've experimented with both cold and ambient fermentations, baker's yeast and sourdough, long fermented and same day doughs and even freezing your pizza dough as well. What is your preferred method for fermentation and why?

Currently, I am using a natural starter at around 5-7% of water weight fermented at room temperature. I do a bulk rise for around 18 hours and a balled stage for six. I really love the convenience of cake yeast, but it is hard to find these days and loses potency quickly. A natural starter, fed daily and kept at room temperature, allows me to always have active yeast on hand and makes for a complexity of flavor that is very difficult to achieve with commercial yeast.

John, I've noticed that a few people are starting to delve into Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread Book as inspiration for pizza making. What do you feel is the most impactful pizza-making nugget you've gleaned from the book?

Tartine Bread was a revelation for me, truly life-changing. Chad Robertson selflessly took decades of hard-earned knowledge as a professional baker and put it down on paper for anyone who wants to learn how to make real bread. Not many people would be willing to do that. Every facet of the rustic country sourdough bread in the book has informed my pizza dough - without exaggeration. From bulk fermentation, to starter management, to how the smell of leaven can determine it's readiness. I thought that making pizza dough was an accomplishment, but I am humbled to be able to make bread this good for my family each week.

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A longer fermented pizza to the left, a same day dough on the right.

I noticed you have previously purchased curd from Todaro Brothers in NYC and made mozzarella at home before. Are you currently making your own? If so, any improvements you'd like to make? If not, what cheese are you using currently?

After many weeks of trying to perfect making fresh mozzarella I determined that it is just too hard to source the right milk. I then tried curd, but found that it did not melt the way I wanted after shaping (due to my inexperience). I now buy Calabro fior di latte made in Connecticut, and I could not be happier with the product. I also buy bufala from Whole Foods if the shipment has just come in.

You've progressed very rapidly in a short amount of time. Have you started to settle on a recipe formulation and workflow yet, or are you still tinkering with it?

Pizza dough is always a work in progress when you live in New England. Since the temperature swings are legendary, I am constantly making adjustments. But after six months of working with my oven, I have really settled on salt ratio, yeast percentage (for room temp fermentation) and a general hydration.

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A 62% hydration pizza from June 2010

What is your current go-to recipe?

60% hydration, 2.8-3% salt, 5-7% starter (of water weight), and Caputo 00 pizzeria flour.

How are you opening up your dough balls and shaping your skins (Neapolitan Slap, Hand Stretching, etc)?

After opening many pies over the last year, the slap is definitely the way to go.

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?

I don't remember the first pizza I ever ate, but I remember my childhood favorite: Pavone's. It was at the mall near my house in Syracuse, NY. It had a super thin crust with really good sauce and mild cheese. The dough was salty and a light golden brown. About as close to a Neapolitan as you could get around there at the time. They are still in the Syracuse area. My tastes have not changed that much since then - I like simple ingredients prepared simply, just like Pavone's pizza.

Where do you go to get a pie when you are not making your own?

There is a little family-run Italian place just a few miles from me, Agostino's, which makes really good NY style pizza. I always get one topped with pepperoni and ricotta.

What's the farthest you've travelled specifically to eat pizza?

Naples is 4220.8 miles from Boston. My wife thought it was our honeymoon - but only I know the real truth.

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One last look at that oven, marble slab and some Massimo Giacon pizza plates

Lol.....do you have any plans on opening your own pizzeria?

Not at all. Why would I want to take the fun out of pizza making?

Well said! Who would you like to see interviewed next?

The master himself, Jackie Tran, and the sleeper, Matthew.

Agreed with both of those John. Actually, I have several of the peeps from pizzamaking.com in mind for either a My Pizza Oven or Pizza Obsessives mention. Thanks for your time John!

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