This is my second time this month posting a foodie story, I am getting fat and hungry just writing about it!
Almost 20 years ago I left my native home country for the USA. On my first night in the temporary home the company had reserved for me and family, I ordered a pizza over the phone from the worst place of all: Papa John's.
My Italian is native, my German was excellent, my Russian was passable for family members; even my sign language was effective enough, my English was nonexistent. Nonetheless, I figured how it shouldn't have been that hard, even with such a limited knowledge of the local language to order a pizza... I will wait for the word "credit card" I got the numbers down... easy peasy!
You know they say that you make the worst decisions when you are very young and that some bigger decisions you make later on are going to define who you become in life. This was a defining moment for me, no doubts.
📱 Hello, may I order <pizza name off a newspaper I found by the door in the mailbox>
📞 <blah blah to me, I could not understand one word>
Since I could not understand anything I kept saying YES to everything that seemed like a question and patiently waited for hearing "credit card". When finally it happened, I passed on the numbers and waited for my pizza. The employee on the other end of the phone was giggling throughout our exchange but I couldn't place why.
When the pizza finally arrived, it was so puffy that the cardboard barely closed and again the delivery boy was giggling. At the first bite of this $45 monstrosity, I recall saying to my wife "I can get used to the shitty weather but to this 'pizza', never. As soon we buy a home, we're going to have our own pizza oven".
A few years later, debugging what happened that night, I can tell that as per training the employee was asking "do you want additional toppings" and with me replying YES to every freaking question resulted in an additional abomination that normally Papa John's or similar chains produce and label as pizza. To put salt on the wound, the place from where I ordered was cross the street of the apartment we were in.
That's how my Pizza Whisperer reputation began. I baked over 1000 pizza over the years and hosted more parties, in size and diversity range than anyone in a very large radius of our hosting town.
As a matter of fact, at the beginning of the K1 class for my youngest daughter, parents were introducing themselves to each other. When it was my turn, after saying my name someone would smile and shout "oh you are the pizza guy! We heard about you!"
That expression was usually followed by:
- Can you share your recipe?
- Where did you buy the oven?
- Did you make it by yourself?
For a very long time, I answered those questions either while I was baking or eating a pizza and never took any deliberate steps like this one that I am taking today. Documenting all I know for future pizza disciples.
You may wonder, what changed that lead you to do this then after so many years? Two things. Within the same day and close in timeframe two close friends have requested my expertise/opinion. They live in different states and they don't know one other. And out of all days, when they asked we were planning a pizza party in COVID style.
Tim and I ride together every week. He is from California but moved up here in the WA rainy state.
Cristiana and Massimo are close Italian friends that lived nearby a few years back and now live in San Diego.
After video chatting with Massimo and Cristiana it clicked in me that I was never motivated enough to write down the holy bible of what I know and if there was one time that was worth doing, this was the one. You can't ignore the signs!
There's a lot to unpack so we will start with an index of what to tackle and I will write separate posts as needed after laying down the foundational pieces through this post.
- Pizza oven: Options and offerings
- The tools for the job
- The ingredients and recipe
- Take the entertainment to the next level
WARNING:This is going to be a knowledge dump, so don't expect a quick and dirty post because I will literally share everything I have learned, mistakes I made, lessons I have learned, and intertwine those experiences with tangential fun/subjects that will make the whole storytelling worth the time of sipping that tea near your laptop. At the end of every post, I will tell you to step by step what I would do in your shoes. And always discretion applies.
Pizza is like religion, it doesn't matter if it is real or not, what it matters that the person that worship believes in it, and no matter what is your opinion, you are never going to find an agreement with that person unless you are part of the same club 100%. And even that, on occasion you might find alternative facts on either side.
For example: If you put pineapple on a pizza, according to the vast majority of Italians, you should be roasted in hell, where two deaf demons slap you in the face, in unison, until the number of slaps hits an uneven number or they hear you repenting. First come first served.
The reality is that experimenting is good and if you happen to like a typical Hawaiian pizza you are in a higher hell circle than the parking spot reserved for Trump... but you still in Hell. For some others, you are still alive and it's not a big deal. So mileage varies based on who you are engaging with and what traveling background they have on their backs.
I am a human lab so I try everything at least once and based on my own judgment I re/define my boundaries. According to my mother, if she catches me dropping pineapple on a pizza she is going disown me. So there's that...
Truly, I don't care to make it what it should be, according to someone's rule, I care that it delivers what it supposed to feel. Applying ultra-orthodox logic kills the joy of the feeling part of something even if it tastes good. I have stories about the Carbonara that are worth telling but in another post.
So my first advice is: work toward it with the intent of feeling happy and food will taste amazing no matter what oven or recipe you employed. And yes, two years down the road with your new improved skills, you look back and realize: Shit! NOW tastes so much better than our first pizza!! Working as intended.
Let's start with the first piece of knowledge: the ovens. I don't have the Asperger's syndrome but I definitely have some traits of that when it comes to drilling down on a subject obsessively. I won't rest until I have figured the first principle knowledge of it. After that, I rather have someone else doing the work for me.
When I bought my first home in the U.S. I picked the place that had the largest backyard because of where I was going to place the pizza oven. Not knowing anyone around, that was going to be my playground to establish friendships, partnerships, and a lot more. And there's nothing more catalyzing that good free food with Italian entertainment!
I knew absolutely nothing of baking a pizza. My highest knowledge of making your own pizza back then was when my mom was yelling from the outdoor kitchen "Mario, stop playing with that thing [computer] if the pizza gets cold I am going to break your legs". Parenting skills that they don't teach anymore those days!
I tried multiple things before building my own pizza oven. I tested different stone layers meant for the home ranges, I tried on the BBQ, a tandoori oven, and many other extravagant options.
At every attempt, the crowd got bigger in size and I wasn't making them just standing and waiting for my next failure, I made them part of it. Watching them taught me what I needed to dig deeper. You may have an accent but you can't hear yours until you spot someone else's... so I scienced the shit out of it watching others.
During this period of time I learned the following things:
- The countertop where you prepare your pizza is as important as the oven. So make it part of your building plans because you are going to find it very frustrating dealing with unevenness, shacky tables, lack of light, or of a spot where to place what you need on hand.
- The tools (dough holder, condiments holders...) need to have a place that is predictable and that can reduce the movements so that your focus is the pizza and not the gimmicks of dealing with "where I left that...and this"
- Figure out the temperature that produces a good outcome and keep the temperature at that stage regularly otherwise you are going to have overcooked or overburnt 45' vinyl LPs to throw at annoying neighbors for lunch
- Access to water (to clean your own hands and tools) is going to be more useful than dragging the hose nearby every single time. That flour you have been handling with that mix of mozzarella juice? Yep, that chemical combo bonds really well with plastic shitty gardening nozzles. I have interesting stories on the mess.
- Doing it with friends and family creates lasting memories
This picture where I am teaching my friend Yumiko how to collect from the oven and drop on the table with the best sliding angle to a smooth landing, tells more than what meets the eye.
When I need to build something that I have to clue from where to start I build a mini-model of what I have in mind using craft materials. As I go through that process I realize what major mistakes I would have made if I had rushed in building the real thing.
When I built my Zen garden I did this and you can tell the fidelity of the real thing to the prototype.
It saved me hundreds of dollars and a ton of hours when I switched to building the real thing. So attempt to the same if you are craft inclined. Or just hire the kids and bribe them with chocolate. Sugar boost creativity :-)
I built two ovens from scratch and a few "mobile" options over the years. My first was an "I know nothing attempt" and I made all the mistakes in the book of Rockies. I kept fixing things over the years. It lasted forever and took three people and several hours to destroy it (to place a shed in its place) but it could have cost a lot less and had a little sense of decor if I had been following the above advice but I knew nobody, everyone back home kept saying "just do it"...
My first pizza was late at night, my daughter was just a few weeks old. Both mothers were visiting and I took the opportunity to suck knowledge from my mom like Romolo and Remo's from the wolf. It was beyond my belief. "IT CAN BE DONE!!! Dr. FrankPizzasteinnnnn"
I was glowing by the joy!! I carried so much concrete bags from Home Depot to the car, from there to the garage from there all the way up to the top of the property. The mixing with an undersized mixer... I had fucking earned that first pizza! Oh, and I made a baby in the process. In your face Neil!
What I learned from that first oven and pizza was:
- The size of the oven will determine how fast you get it to temperature and that is for 1 pizza or 20 so don't go too big if you don't need to. If you hold two pizza one next to the other, you most likely hit what will work best. Less than that you are going to become a master in managing fire and that is not too fun.
- Don't place the pizza oven against the wind. Wood burns faster and lose heat.
- Isolate the dome of the oven because heat leaking is going to be the reason why sometimes you burn the dough and some other times the pizza stays chewy inside.
- Place the thermometer, not on the door that you can't keep closed when cooking to retrieve accurate readings. Place it on the sidewall and if you can drive an additional sensor in the back to get a full picture of what's happening inside. Because you start backing pizza and then you realize that rabbit, lasagna, bread, and bad people are also a fantastic use of your creation. Bad people taste like chicken, trust
- Having the right peel will make control of your creation a lot more predictable and less stressful. Use a square one to drop in the oven and a smaller rounded one to turn it as you go
- Making rounded pizza is A LOT harder than it appears. Practice and develop your own way because it will improve the result even when your dough has not hit the nirvana recipe just yet.
- To learn how to do a good pizza, you don't need to fire up the oven. Just mix the dough and play on the countertop, you can always cook it last most human (range) if it ends up pleasing you :-)
The first oven lasted for over a decade and worked well once the main tuning (across two years) had done its job. Every now and then I kept wondering if it would have been possible to build a pizza oven that would have required less time, maintenance and produce a similar result of the traditional ones you see in a pizzeria. My wif-i and I are definitely part of the Makers category so we built a 3D model of our own design and printed it to evaluate options and practicality. The same logic of the crafting above, just more geeky.
and we didn't stop at the 3D printing, to figure out the material composition we cannibalized trash bins and mixed various concrete compounds to find the holy grail of all ovens. Building the molds was a real pain in the butt. Mixing concrete during winter time... yep, not going to happen again unless we have a mega heater!
We also did temperature stress testing - freezing and heating the concrete plates to evaluate excursus and cracks analysis.
When our theories were confirmed, together with Cristiano and Giuseppe (friends on the hunt for a product to be made) found a local artist (and several crazy people in Asia) to actually have the thing built.
And when I say artist I really mean that :-)
Yes, that is a penis, and he had dozen and dozen of those shaped in all possible ways. But I digress... that's a story for another time.
What we learned from that experience was that the type of material that you are going to employ will make a HUGE difference in environments where temperature shifting is frequent and sadden like in Seattle. If you live in places where temperatures are usually in the upper end of the 70s then you want to focus on the circulation of the smoke (e.g. chimney length) rather than on obsessively on the materials because chances are that two rocks together will produce a similar result to a "good" oven because the temperature is steady and your habits of cooking will balance the equation.
And now let's build YOUR oven.In the next post, I will focus exclusively on the actual making of the oven, sizing, placement, materials, building plans, and so on. If you want to receive notifications for when that happens just use the subscribe button on the header of the blog and you will get an email when new posts are issued.Now, I am heading to bake myself a pizza. I just earned collecting all this picture and stories of the past :-);mE out.