November 15, 2013

Tony Gemignani talks tips on buying wood-burning ovens

Q: Should I buy a wood-burning oven when I open my pizzeria?

A: I get this question almost every day. I just had a course at the end of summer with three students, and all of them were in a frenzy over which oven to buy. Our course was based on two specific styles: Neapolitan and Classic Italian. I expressed that understanding which style you want to sell is most important. None of them really knew exactly which style they wanted to sell.

Several of us fall into the romance of Neapolitan, but not all of us can cook at 900 F in 60 to 90 seconds. The charred, chewy, wet pizza is challenging — and customers don’t always get it. When we go into the 700 to 800 F category, change our dough formulas, blend flours and introduce new ingredients our Neapolitan just changed to Neo Neapolitan, classic Italian, or some other style. Is this a bad thing? No … it’s just different.

I have my favorites when it comes to wood-fired ovens for Neapolitan pizza. Over the years I have cooked in nearly every brand that exists. All of them can cook at less than 900 F if you want them to and hybrid pizzas can be produced in these ovens. In other words, if you wanted to have one of these ovens in your store and create a different style that’s crunchy, crispy, and cooks in three minutes, then you can.

A while back I certified a lady named Ann Kim from Pizzeria Lola. Ann wanted to have a specific style that was all her own. Basically she offers a cross between Pepe’s, true Neapolitan and a third (secret) style all in one. We spent several sessions working on her own particular style and she then went on to open Pizzeria Lola with the wood-burning oven of her choice. She now has one of the best pizzerias in all of Minnesota.

Several operators have since approached me and want to copy her. Her model is a true success and she did it her way. Ann chose the style of pizza she wanted, learned how dough is properly made and geared it to the temperature and model of her oven. She produces a pizza that is in a class of its own.

Regardless of which brand you’re after, the longevity and insulation of an oven is very important. Mouth size, circumference and symmetry, inside dimensions, etc. all should be taken into consideration. In some ovens I’ve seen floors cave in and inner tops crumble. Some oven floors can retain too much heat and I’ve also seen ovens that burn too much wood. Make sure you do your research and speak with references before you purchase one. Some cities allow your oven to have a chimney-type exhaust or regulator which, in my experience, is optimal for high heat. Other cities have much stricter guidelines and make you have a strong pull/hood exhaust with no dampers or regulators sucking out all of the hot air that is so vital for Neapolitan pizza.

Tony GemignaniRESPECTING THE CRAFT features World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Pizza Rock in Sacramento. Tony compiles the column with the help of his trusty assistants, Laura Meyer and Thiago Vasconcelos. If you have questions on any kitchen topic ranging from prep to finish, Tony’s your guy. Send questions via Twitter @PizzaToday, Facebook (search: Pizza Today) or e-mail and we’ll pass the best ones on to Tony.