Building a Pizzeria: The Oven

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Wood-fired ovens are a work of art. This one at Pompeii has lasted over 2000 years. [Photographs: Caleb Schiff]

Every aspect of building this pizzeria excites me: talking to my lenders, finishing my floor plan, choosing the lighting, developing the menu, purchasing the mixer. However, perhaps no singular aspect excites me more than purchasing my oven and yesterday, I sent my first wire to a bank in Naples, Italy.

Just as the heart of Neapolitan pizza is the crust, the heart of a pizzeria's physical space is the oven. At Pizzicletta, the small and uniquely shaped space will allow me to make the oven the focal point. I hope this oven will be unique, embody the community feel of the pizzeria, have a story, circulate air correctly, and, ultimately, help make a connection with my customers. But an oven is just brick and mortar, right?

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I made a point to visit as many ancient ovens when I was in Italy last Fall. This one is at a 13th century abbey just south of Siena.

Outside of the passion and commitment to the craft, the oven is arguably the most important tool of a Neapolitan pizzaiolo. So when word got around that I was opening a wood-fired pizzeria, I was constantly asked, "Are you going to build your oven?"

Well, I still remember the pain of the fiberglass embedded in my hands from my home oven construction, the frustration of a falling arch, and the long weekends spent trying to build it. Don't get me wrong, I love my home oven and as I mentioned in last week's post, without it, this dream would never have come so far. But I do not pretend to be a mason and I don't believe I could craft the quality oven that operating a pizzeria will require. So, I'm leaving it to the pro: Stefano Ferrara.

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Stefano Ferrara, constructing Donatella Arpaia's oven at Donatella in New York City. [Photograph: Adam Kuban]

While I likely still have fiberglass pulsing through my veins, building wood-fired ovens is in Stefano's blood; the Ferrara family has been at it for over 100 years. Ferrara ovens are truly a work of art. You've probably spotted them here on Slice. The list of Ferrara ovens in the US is growing: Paulie Gee's in Brooklyn, Il Cane Rosso in Dallas, Via Tribunali in Seattle, Pizzeria Locale in Boulder, amongst many others.

After doing more research about Ferrara ovens, I knew a Ferrara would fit well with the concept of my pizzeria. Crafted in Naples by a 3rd generation oven builder under the shadows of Vesuvius with Campanian bricks and mortar, Ferrara ovens have the roots of pizza cemented into every square inch. I quickly realized that nothing else would do. I wanted a Ferrara.

In fact, I had plans to meet with Stefano this last October when I was in Naples. However, one must have a death wish to go cycling through the streets of Naples and the Ferraras live a long ways away from the hostel I was staying at. So unfortunately, our meeting never occurred. Don't get me wrong—I'd encourage anyone to travel around Italy by bike, but be sure to have a good insurance policy if you are planning to bike the streets of Naples.

Having determined that a Ferrara was a must, I next had to decide the tile design of the oven. As I've mentioned in my last post, Pizzicletta is locally supported. My community fed the dream, supporting me both emotionally and financially, and now I want to bring the traditions of making Neapolitan pizza to Flagstaff. So, while I am importing my flour and oven from Naples, I wanted to blend something of the local landscape into the space. But how to meld Naples, Italy and Flagstaff, Arizona?

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Cycling in the shadows of Vesuvius

To find inspiration for many things in life, I often hop on my bike. When I was in cycling Italy this last Fall, I often decided on topics for my blog, reflected on what was ahead of me pursuing this dream, and brainstormed about how to make it successful. Straddling the saddle clears my head, so doing so seemed like a good way to think more about my oven.

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The volcanic San Francisco Peaks as seen from my backyard oven.

Here in Flagstaff, I bike up Snowbowl Road. It's a fairly short 20-mile ride that goes from my house at 7,200 ft up to about 9,000 ft. During my trip up Snowbowl a few weeks ago, I had the realization that both Naples and Flagstaff sit in the shadow of volcanoes. Mt. Vesuvius is just east of Naples. The San Francisco Peaks are just north of Flagstaff. Voila...the design for my oven hit me.

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The Pizzicletta oven.

On the left, the tile will be patterned with the silhouette of Vesuvius behind Naples. On the right, the pattern will be the silhouette of the San Francisco Peaks behind Flagstaff. A simple design that merges the two locations. And I won't be applying for VPN status, so my Molino Caputo flour pizzas will be topped with local ingredients and baked in a oven from Naples, thus melding the two locations.

Maybe an oven isn't just mortar and brick after all. In the right hands, it's got soul and a story. It'd be an understatement to say that I'm looking forward to firing up my Ferrara. Stay tuned!

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