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Last year, I reached what I thought was the ultimate home-cooked pizza nirvana when I combined the Kettle Pizza and the Pizza Steel on my coal grill. It let me cook pies in true Neapolitan-style at upwards of 1,000°F in just under three minutes per pie, producing crisp, crackling, deeply charred crusts and supremely airy and moist interiors.
The problem? Not everyone has a coal grill. For some folks, the convenience of gas simply trumps the flavor and heat advantages you get from live coals.
There are a few products out there that purport to produce Neapolitan-level pies using propane tanks as the only fuel. Two of them caught my eye. The first is the Mighty Pizza Oven, produced by one of our very own community members. It launched out of prototype phase this past June and sells for $269.
The second is the Kalamazoo Pizza Oven, a gorgeous stainless steel beast of an oven that promises pies cooked in under 3 minutes after only 20 minute of preheating. It's being endorsed by former Kesté and Don Antonio master pizzaiolo Roberto CaporuscioI. It also has a sticker price of nearly $6.5K. Oof.
Two products clearly aimed at two different markets. How do they compare, and does either have a worthy spot in your back yard? We put them through their paces to find out.
The Mighty Pizza Oven
The concept of the Mighty Pizza Oven is simple and elegant, drawing inspiration from the similar 2Stone Pizza Grill, with the added innovations of an adjustable top stone and a chimney.
It requires quite a bit of construction to use, though it's all pretty straightforward stuff that requires nothing more than a screwdriver.
How it Works
The Mighty Pizza Oven consists of a bottomless metal box with a couple of handles on it and a thin chimney in the front, used to control airflow within the device. To fire it up, you place a round corderite stone (included) directly on your grill surface, then slide a larger rectangular stone into a slotted track inside the box, which keeps it elevated above the lower stone by a few inches. When you fire up your grill, heat gets trapped inside the box, heating up both the upper and lower stone.
I fired it up on a mid-range grill, and the lower stone achieved a temperature of around 550°F, while the upper stone stabilized at around 600°F (those convection currents created by the chimney really work, apparently!
Lifting the device to slide a pizza onto the round stone requires a bit of finesse, particularly if your grill isn't super large. The Mighty Pizza Oven kept banging into the grill lid when I tried to raise it, giving me a couple of knuckle burns. But once you get the hang of it, it's becomes pretty simple.
I tested the oven using some store-bought pizza dough (I was working out of a strange kitchen and didn't have the time or resources to make my Neapolitan Pizza Dough), which nevertheless fared admirably. The first pie cooked in about five minutes, which is significantly faster than you can cook in a standard home oven, though not as fast as on a coal grill with a modified Kettle Pizza insert.
Why is fast cooking essential? High heat improves oven spring, the puffing of raw dough that occurs right after you place it in a hot oven. With better oven spring, you get a moister, airier interior with bigger bubbles and a thinner, crisper crust. Cook your pizza too slowly and it ends up dense and crunchy rather than light and crisp.
Take a look at that undercarriage. A decently even char. It doesn't have the leopard spotting that you'd get out of a hotter wood-fired true pizza oven, but it's very respectable nonetheless.
I managed to cook eight pizzas in succession without having to wait for the Mighty Pizza Oven to reheat in between pies, making this a superior pizza cooking method to an indoor oven on more than one front. It's faster, it's hotter, it requires no time in between pies, and (perhaps most importantly) it doesn't heat up your house or apartment.
Is it as good as the Kettle Pizza coal grill insert? No. But gas will probably never beat coal for applications where the pure brute force of intense heat is required.
It's an excellent, well-crafted product that certainly offers a good pizza oven option to folks who prefer the convenience of gas over the higher heat of coal. I heartily recommend it.
The Kalamazoo Pizza Oven
There's no question about it, the Kalamazoo Artisan Fire Pizza Oven is the cadillac of pizza ovens, built to be cushy and easy to use, with no expenses spared. It'll look great on your deck and produce heat where it's needed.
Design and styling-wise, it looks an awful lot like a smaller version of the Wood Stone Oven, the gas-fired pizza oven produced in Washington that is the darling of Tom Douglas (among other chefs and restaurants). It's even made its way into the Modernist Cuisine kitchens recently.
Saveur recently touted the Kalamazoo Pizza Oven as "worthy of Napoli," quoting extensively from Don Antonio's Roberto Caporuscio. I was a bit more skeptical, especially considering the hefty price tag.
How it Works
I wasn't able to get an actual tester model to try out on my own, so all of my observations and measurements came from playing with the oven at a trade show and at the Saveur Summer Barbecue, where Roberto was making pies and let me toy around and snap a few photos.
Using it couldn't be simpler. Plug it into a gas source and turn it on. That's it. It's just like firing up your indoor oven. Flames burst up in the back of the oven, letting their heat convect over the upper surface and out the front, while burners underneath heat the stones at the bottom.
This is the only oven I've seen that has these dual temperature dials, allowing you to control both the rate of browning on top and the rate that the underside of the crust crisps and chars. According to the manufacturers, the air temperature maxes out at around 800°F. I measured closer to around 700°F floor temp when Roberto was using it.
The oven does fare pretty admirably. It's got a wide mouth that's alway open, making it very easy to slide pizzas in and maneuver them around. While the pizzas Roberto was cooking didn't cook in the advertised three minutes or less, they did come out in around four.
Because of the high ceilings in the oven, you will be required to "dome" your pizzas in order to brown their tops properly. With this technique, you lift the pie to the top of the oven in order to expose it to stronger radiative heat from the ceiling as well as placing it in the path of the convection currents created by the flames licking up the back wall. Most other home oven solutions (like the Mighty Pizza oven or the Kettle Pizza) don't require this extra step.
To be perfectly frank, I think the pies Roberto was cooking were also coming out of the oven a little bit too soon at four minutes. The tops were pale and under baked and the bottoms showed only the slightest bit of leopard-spotted char:
To be fair, the pizza oven was being operated under less-than-ideal conditions, with hordes of hungry guests waiting for their pizza. This YouTube video (posted by the manufacturer) seems to show it producing superior results in under three minutes:
It looks legit, but I wasn't there when they were shooting it, so can't vouch for it 100%.
The Bottom Line
From the interactions I've had with the Kalamazoo, I'm most impressed by its looks and its quick pre-heating time, though less so with the actual pizza it produced. The results I've seen and tasted under the hands of one of the best pizzaiolo in the city were good, not great. Given the high price tag, I'd expect perfection.
If you've got money to burn (in an 800°F fire) and value convenience and good looks, the Kalamazoo may be the oven for you.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.