About That Pizza Oven…

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If we are friends in real life, then you most likely know that I’m a rather easy-going guy (on most days, I mean). I prefer to roll with those punches, to let bygones be bygones, and accept what the universe presents to me most of the time. I’m fine with just about anything, really.

EXCEPT PIZZA.

No, really, except when it comes to pizza.

Far from being a snob, I feel as if I’ve put in my time when it comes to doughy, salty, greasy disks of fast food or chain pizza pies. After all, the typical oil-laden pepperoni pizza of my youth were certainly all I ever knew. That changed in early adulthood as I moved around the country, then years later upon traveling to Italy and making pizza there. I learned that it doesn’t take much to make me happy, and that a real Neapolitan-style pizza is my personal benchmark for how these things should be enjoyed.

Quality ingredients, simple methods, and a great oven. Done.

(And Sorry Deep Dishers, but I just can’t get down with that. I lived in Chicago for several years, I get it).

For the past decade or so,  I have welcomed the pizza renaissance in the US with open arms. There’s amazing pizza to be had from the East Coast to the West Coast, and even if LA was just a little bit behind the curve, the horizon sure looks good from here. And yet, no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t replicate my favorite pizzas at home. Sure they were good, and sure I’ve experimented with 20+ dough recipes, but nothing ever came close.

As we began to discuss remodeling our backyard, there was no way I wasn’t going to set aside the space and funds for a dream I’ve had for twenty years: to have my own pizza oven. As I  cooked and traveled, I realized that the only way to make the kind of pizza I wanted would involve a wood burning oven. Case closed, no discussion. But a lifetime of apartment renting doesn’t really allow for that, so when I saw my opportunity I jumped at it.

You might even say I bought a house just to have my own pizza oven. You wouldn’t be far off.

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After lots of research, I realized it was meant to be when I found Los Angeles Ovenworks, a company that specializes in outdoor wood-fired ovens. We discussed sizes, footprint, where it’d live, and a style we wanted before deciding on the oven of our dreams. The oven, handcrafted in Italy, arrived in pieces and sat for what seemed like an eternity, just waiting to be set up and installed.

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I can’t tell you how anxious and antsy I was as I waited for construction issues to pass.

But once they did and permits were pulled, it went up within a day. Consisting of a few pieces, the housing took a bit longer as it had to match the rest of the backyard design. Oh, and once it’s completed, I’ll be sure to share the entire backyard project with you, too. Promise!

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Once it was done, it took about a week of daily small fires to cure it and remove all residual moisture inside. It was fun to start fires, but frustrating knowing I wouldn’t be able to cook just yet. Patience, I told myself.

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AND THEN THAT FIRST TIME?

That absolute first time?

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I can’t even tell you the satisfaction and happiness I experienced that day. From arranging the wood to letting it burn out and moving embers, I realized a dream come true in that moment. The smell of smoke, the sensation of extreme heat, the pizzas that would be made in a matter of minutes, it is all that and more. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, hands down. And when I find myself with an evening or afternoon free, it’s pizza time. It’s restorative, meditative, relaxing and centering. Heck, it might as well be yoga for me. Except I finish with pizza. You can’t beat that.

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While I’m far from a pizzaiolo, I’ve learned that the secret to a great pizza is heat. Lots of it. And done the correct way. In fact, even my least favorite doughs seem to come out just fine when cooked in a wood-fired oven. It’s that heat, I’m tellin’ ya. It’s amazing.

 

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It takes about 90 minutes to get the oven where it needs to be for pizza, but waiting is a pure pleasure. It’s the only time I slow down and focus. One must always pay attention with fire.

 

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Brcocolini and mozzarella and sauce

 

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Caramelized onions, sage leaves, blue cheese and walnuts

 

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Shaved Brussels sprouts, bacon, egg, about to go back into the oven

 

Of course, it’s a real oven and I’ve had a wonderful time learning to cook other things in it. Not everything has been successful, but I’m making delicious mistakes.

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Shrimp, chorizo, lots of garlic, olive oil, and pimenton in small skillets then fired. OH MY GOD.

 

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Wood fires and smoke were made for roasting whole fish. It’s simple and perfect.

 

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These things were meant to go together.

 

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The new pizza oven even played a staring role in a photoshoot I did at home.

 

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Next to pizza, roasting a chicken is possibly the most amazing thing to do in a wood fired oven. This chicken will become part of the Zuni Chicken & Bread Salad recipe, something we make all the time now that we can. Heaven.

 

Once the rest of the outdoor kitchen is completed I’ll make sure to post more, including recipes for my favorite sauce and dough. In the meantime, if you’re ever in the mood for a pizza party, come over. You don’t have to ask me twice.

Comments

  1. Jill Westbrook Callahan says

    Sure wished I lived closer! I would definitely come over for some delicious pizza. So happy for you! Enjoy.

  2. says

    I suck.

    I am the suckiest, of the sucky sucksters ever to suck.

    Ever.

    Lately I’ve taken to shooting photos of myself prancing on the beach, enraptured by 80 degree weather, like a wayward model from a Coppertone ad. Then I gleefully post them on Facebook, tagging all of my friends living in the frozen tundra that is Manhattan. I get it now. I don’t blame them for rescinding their offers for a couch to crash on when visiting The Big Apple.

  3. says

    my neighbors built a monster wood-burning oven right on the property line next to my house and when they light it up- thank god rarely- i have to close my windows as the smoke fills my house. any problems with that at your place?

    Nothing tastes better than food from the oven- i noticed you just put the sage on the pizza after– runcooked? i have had a sage leave served to me on a slice of mortadella in bologna once– but prefer crispy! Don’t forget to leave a pot of beans to cook!!!

  4. Kevin M. says

    I totally get it! The building process was therapeutic, and the fire starting/babysitting is like a Zen moment, because you’re preparing yourself, and your taste buds, mentally for what’s about to happen. And for that brief moment, you’re the popular kid on the block. :)

  5. says

    Congratulations! I can feel your excitement as this also was my year to get a pizza oven. So often the anticipation of something we covet for so long is greater than the catch but not in this case. It’s greater than I expected and I can see that it is for you as well.

  6. says

    So jealous! I love making pizzas from scratch, and I think they turn out decently in my 500 degree oven (as hot as it goes), but I know the difference between decent and amazing is another 500 degrees. If only they could make a regular oven that went that hot, because I can’t imagine talking my better half into installing a pizza oven half the size of our residential lot.

    Maybe I should just move to LA and mooch of someone else’s oven? ;)

  7. Matt says

    Hi Willow! Actually with a pizza stone and 500˚ I was getting really great pizzas too! So yes, come mooch, please! :)

  8. Matt says

    Hi Judy! Oh yes, it can get smoky, I notice it only lasts during the initial lighting. Once the smoke went right into my window, another time it blew away so I guess it depends on wind direction that day. But I do know I end up smelling like smoke, which I totally don’t mind :) Pot of beans, YES! Will do that for sure.

  9. says

    You have a dream backyard! We have a fireplace in our courtyard – kicking myself for not putting in a pizza oven! Brilliant.

  10. says

    My jealousy knows no bounds. A wood fired pizza oven is a long time dream of mine. Our northern climate would not be kind to it in the winter, I fear.
    I couldn’t agree more that the difference between good and great is that 900+ degrees.

  11. says

    Amazing oven! I’m in her trying to imagine that taste of the fish – I love fish. Congratulations for following your dream and thank you for sharing it here.

  12. says

    My life dream is to eventually have one of those ovens in my back yard? Hoe many bajillions of dollars did it cost to get a legit one from Italy (if you don’t mind my asking)? It looks glorious – and your pizzas look amazing! That back yard is looking gorgeous – I’m pretty sure it’s the back yard of EVERYONES dreams. I can’t wait to see it completed!

  13. Joe S says

    Matt,
    This is my dream too! Last night we were at a friends for dinner and this topic arose in discussion, of me building an outdoor pizza oven, and the next morning this post arrived in my wife’s email. I take this a sign from the gods of cooking to proceed!

    I am looking to do pizza, then bread, then meats. How long does the oven retain enough heat. What material did you finish the outside with, and is there a large air insulating layer between the insulating blanket and the outside walls, or is it filled with an additional material?

    In your research, what tipped the balance to go with this company?

    Cheer,
    Joe

  14. says

    “It’s restorative, meditative, relaxing and centering. Heck, it might as well be yoga for me. Except I finish with pizza. You can’t beat that.”

    Where can I sign up for your next class? :-)

  15. Matt says

    Hello Joe! After I make pizzas and the fire burns out is when I usually roast chicken and meats using the residual heat. For an oven this size, it stays at 300-500 for a few hours afterwards, even as low as 200˚ until the next morning, provided the door is set in front of the opening. It retains heat very very well. The oven is wrapped in an insulating blanket, then I believe it was cement board used to cover it before having a layer of cement/plaster on top to finish it. It’s extremely well insulated and only feels marginally warm to the touch on the outside (away from the entry door, that is). We went with this company because they were local and the price was right, and I liked the appearance of the front of the ovens. Let me know if you end up installing one, would love to know which process you went with and the results :)

  16. Matt says

    Thank you Natalie! Well the company here in So Cal imports them, it wasn’t outrageously expensive all things considered. I’ve seen outdoor gas pizza ovens that were double the price of what we paid. I think it was a very excellent deal considering the amount of happiness it brings me :)

  17. says

    I’m totally with you on the pizza requirements, and hopefully will have my own in the future! Wondering what kind of wood you use?I smoke a lot of meat and switch up the types of wood like hickory and maple. Is that something that could be done with pizza I wonder…

  18. says

    Welcome to the fabulous wonderful world of pizza oven ownership! It took us about 15 years to finally build ours in Umbria. We use it constantly and if I could, I would also build one on our terrace in Rome. (if it didn’t involve carrying wood up three flights of stairs). What dough recipe do you use?

  19. says

    Awwwww! Your post absolutely made my day!!! You said it all. Exactly why we started selling these most wonderful Italian made ovens in the States… I knew you would enjoy your oven and I couldn’t wait to see what you would cook and photograph… Yay! from us all here at Los Angeles Ovenworks.

  20. says

    Your approach to life, food and pizza is right on target.
    I’ve had a pizza oven (from L.A. Ovenworks) for over 6 years and love it.
    I suggest we consider a pizza “throwdown”. You bring on your best 3 pizzas along with 5 of your closest friends and i will do the same. It is bound to be the ultimate pizza fest. We should invite Anna and Peter to this event.
    Let me know what you think.

  21. Dina Avila says

    Hi Matt!

    First of all, your pizza looks amazing! Salivating here. Next time you’re in Portland, if you haven’t been already, visit Ned Ludd. Jason French cooks everything on the menu in a wood-fired oven. It is fantastic :)

  22. says

    Ya know…..we’ve got some mutual IRL friends and I think it’s time I upped the pressure for an introduction.

    I’ve got a source for a wood fired oven in Bayview where I did my last pop up and as much as I wanted to do a whole menu from it, I figured little to no experience was a good deterrent. Would you say there’s a big learning curve here?

  23. says

    Wow… That looks incredible, the oven and the pizza.. I think I could pitch a tent on your patio and would be happy living there!

  24. says

    I have a friend here in Jersey that built his own pizza oven in his backyard too. What comes out of it is totally amazing! I’m very fortunate that he’s a friend and neighbor. Looks like an awesome backyard!

  25. says

    You have no idea how jealous I am right now!! :) I’ve wanted one of these for ages. I couldn’t agree more, nothing cooks a pizza like a wood burning pizza oven. I’m so excited for you!

  26. says

    After seeing your brussell spouts and bacon pizza I had to check out your pizza oven. It truly is a work of art! Do you get any complaints from the neighbours about the smoke or do they just come knocking looking for some pizza?

  27. says

    Greetings from South Africa, Matt! I came across ‘the world’s most unsexiest’ recipe last year. Tried it. Loved it! Forgot to bookmark it. Googled again today for a round 2 and voila… found you! How sexy is that?! Ha!

    Having some time on my hands – actually avoiding report-making – I peruse your sidebar and find myself here drooling over a real pizza and pizza oven. Wondering if you’d be willing to offer some technical help to a very worthy non-profit project I’ve initiated in a rural part of SA. If so, please send me an email.

    Thanks. Ciao, ciao. Laura.

    P.S. You adapted your ‘unsexiest’ recipe from a specific source. FYI: The generation now leading that iconic All-American are friends of mine. Verifiable. :)

  28. says

    I love my Blackstone pizza oven. We love making homemade healthy pizza . It’s cooks fast and consistent . No problems at all. I love the durability of the oven. I sell restaurant equipment for a living all over the Very affordable product.
    Just purchased the flat top griddle yesterday. Can’t wait to use it.

  29. says

    Wow–you have me chafing at the bit for our own dream home down the road. My wife and I plan to retire to the Philippines and are planning out our home design, though with me having emphasis on the kitchen and the ‘dirty kitchen’ (outdoor patio grill, etc.) just beyond the kitchen.

    Very exciting to see what you did (thanks D Lebowitz for pointing me to you). And while I am not such a pizza aficionado as you are, the notion of a wood-fired oven does appeal for all the possibilities it entails. Omigod.

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