The Wood-Fired Blog

Boston 2012

This has nothing to do with pizza oven design or technology, outdoor fireplaces, or wood-fired cooking (sorry about that), but I wanted to share a little bit on my running. Or more accurately running injuries and Boston 2012.

I suffered a bruise on my femur on Dec. 4th. At first, the doctors thought that I has a stress fracture on my patella, which would have been a small and relatively fast healing injury. I stayed away from running for six weeks, and then tried ramping back up slowly running only on soft grass. After trying to build up for six weeks, I could see that my knee had not healed—so I had an MRI, which showed the bruise. The good news is that my knee will completely heal, that the cartilage, meniscus and ligaments are in good shape, and that my knee alignment is very good (my patella glides “flawlessly”). The only downside is that the bruise on a larger bone takes longer to heal. So I kept cycling and took off another four weeks from running.

Which roughly gets me to today. I have been running again for about 10 days, and am pretty confident that my knee is better.

The downside is about four months of disrupted running. But there are a couple of upsides as well. I have taken up cycling, averaging nearly 50 miles per day for one stretch, plus I have given my legs what might have been a necessary break from hard training and I have decided to try triathlons this summer. All of which are positive, both, I think, for my long term health and for my long term running goals. If I were to allow for a month of downtime following the December double, you could even make the case that it was only a three month disruption—and I ran some during the recovery time. So it could have been a lot worse.

For some perspective, I have been running for about 3 1/2 years, and this is my second injury. About two years ago, I strained an achilles tendon. That injury took six months to heal, and by coincidence, the recovery culminated with the Boston Marathon 2010. I ran the Boston 2 Big Sur double that year, and emerged feeling healthy and ready to train at full load again. With some luck, the B2B double this year will again mark the start of a solid new period of training.

Interestingly, while I look back on Boston 2010 with a lot of fond memories, I think I would call it the most difficult race I have run (out of 13 marathons so far). My general fitness level was not as high then as it is today, so the multiple month recovery period took its toll. I had to work very hard at that race to finish at 3:21, five minutes slower than my PR at that time. I’m still glad I raced hard and basically held it together my first time on the Boston course.

All of which brings me to today. Boston 2012 is in one week. And I need to decide how to approach the race. On one hand, I have barely run for the past 4 1/2 months—not exactly a good idea before racing a marathon. On the other hand, I came into this period with a pretty high degree of fitness, and I have been biking and swimming.

So while I can’t run a PR (2:54), I think it might be possible to run a decent race; though it is equally (or more) possible for me to try to run an OK race and completely crash—either during the entire second half, or in the last 10K. Do I race, or do I approach this as a training run? Do I run Boston comfortably, and race Big Sur in three week, and try to win my age group? Or, do I run both comfortably, so that I can pick up training again right after Big Sur? I am on the verge of signing up for the Vineman Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 111 mile bike and 26.2 mile run) on July 28th, and I don’t want to lose valuable training time to race recovery.

That is what I need to work out in the next seven days. If this race follows the pattern of other races, I will probably decide either at dinner the night before, or in the last couple of minutes before they sing the national anthem, and the gun goes off. Either way, it will be fun to work out what to do and even more fun to run the race.

Made in the USA

Every Forno Bravo oven (other than the Artigiano) is made in our own factory in Marina, CA (Northern California). I am extremely proud of our manufacturing team and their commitment to high quality, American-based manufacturing. Over the past three years we have continually added new manufacturing personnel, capacity, capability, equipment, and experise. In terms of we pure real estate, we have tripled our footprint in a little more than two years. We have made thousands of really great pizza ovens.

Beyond the basic numbers, such as square feet and head count, we have also developed a large number of “softer” assets. We have improved our refractory technology by introducing the new, third generation of FB Castable (you can read more about that here), the material we use to cast our oven domes and vents (that is made using raw materials manufactured in the American midwest), and we have developed a great deal of technology and expertise that no one will ever see—in the equipment, molds and processes that we use to physically manufacture our products. We are constantly improving the way we cast our products, resulting in smoother surfaces, sharper edges, fewer air pockets, and oven pieces that fit together tightly and accurately (and don’t have unattractive grinder marks).

Plus, we do all of our wonderful finish stucco work, paint and glazes, and all of own metal work in house, and the craftsmanship of our stands and enclosures is excellent. Just beautiful.

Friday pizza party
Andiamo prototype

Many of our ovens are tested to UL and NSF standards, and our factory is inspected by the Intertek Testing Laboratories on a regular basis. Also, we work hard to be a good corporate citizen, and we provide our employees with medical insurance and accrued Personal Time Off (PTO). There has been a great deal of attention in the media over the decline of the U.S. manufacturing base, and of course small manufacturers like Forno Bravo are dwarfed by losses in the heavy industrial manufacturing sectors, but every bit helps.

One reason I want to share this is that, in general, I believe in business transparency. In the Internet age, I think a higher degree of transparency is the right strategy for businesses and it is better for our customers and community members. After all, Forno Bravo is the company that published the free Pompeii Oven eBook—to take the mystery out of pizza ovens and wood-fired cooking. How many companies would go out of their way to show you how to not buy their product? haha. In the days before Forno Bravo and the Pompeii eBook, pizza ovens were extremely expensive in the U.S. and it was very difficult to build a real brick oven in your backyard. I experienced it first hand. I am equally proud of the role that Forno Bravo have played in shedding light on the pizza oven market and helping drive costs down and sales volumes up.

I am also writing this post on a more practical level. We have a couple of small competitors in the market who seem to think that it is in their best interest to spread mis-information on Forno Bravo. If you have talked with other pizza oven companies recently, you will know who they are, and you know that they will tell you that the Forno Bravo ovens are made in China. Now I am a really competitive guy (heck, I am a nationally ranked marathon runner) and I really like winning—but I don’t think lying is the right way to win. It’s like cheating in sports, and at some point you get caught. It’s also pretty offensive to our production manager and our team. So, the next time someone tells you that Forno Bravo ovens are made in China, you should tell them that they should be ashamed of themselves.

I also think about it this way; if some of our competitors are willing to lie to you about my company and where we manufacture our products, what else are they willing to not tell you the truth about?

But I don’t want to end this post on a sour note. We have come a far way since Forno Bravo was founded eight years ago, and the real winner has been you—the consumer. We have significantly increased the quality and lowered the cost of modular pizza oven kits, we have introduced new assembled oven designs, ovens on wheels and ovens that you can set up without any tools, and we are on the verge of introducing an oven that two guys can bring to a party. It’s been a great ride and we are just getting started.

More choices, lower prices and better quality. That sounds like a good market dynamic to me.

Wood-Fired Pizzerias in the U.S.

I wrote this article in 2005 for consideration by one of the Restaurant trade magazines. They decided to not run my article, but looking back at it seven years later, I think the points that I made were true then, and are still true today. There are more wood-fired pizzerias in the U.S than there were in 2005, but still not nearly enough. We need to fix that.


Authentic Italian Wood-Fired Pizza: An Opportunity for American Restaurants to Find a Profitable and Growing Niche

The wood-fired oven is one of the common denominators of Italian cooking. From simple take out restaurants to high-end pizzerias; casual trattorias to sophisticated restaurants, the wood-fired oven is ubiquitous. Whether it is the centerpiece of the restaurant, such as the Antica Pizzeria Dell’ Arte in Florence, where their beautiful oven almost reaches out to personally greet each guest, or hidden away in the kitchen, as is the case at our tiny local restaurant in suburban Bagno a Ripoli, the pizza oven is an anchor, cooking pizza, flat bread appetizers, warm antipasti, baked pasta and vegetables. There are even restaurants with two wood-fired ovens – a very hot oven for Pizza Napoletana and a simply hot oven for vegetables and other dishes.

Talking with American entrepreneurs and restaurateurs, and seeing how first-hand how the Italian restaurant scene works, I believe that there is an outstanding opportunity to bring this style of cooking to the states. There are a growing number of wood-fired restaurants and pizzerias in America, and significantly growing awareness of brick ovens and brick oven cooking with both consumers and the media. My view is that the “Real Pizza” trend is just getting started, and represents an opportunity for restaurateurs to identify and capture a profitable niche in their local market.

An American View of the Italian Oven

One of the first things many visitors notice about Italy is that there are pizza ovens absolutely everywhere. I have been a brick oven enthusiast for years, and my desire to learn more about pizza ovens, pizzerias and brick oven cooking were high on my list of things to do during an extended two-year stay here. I already knew that the pizza oven was an essential piece of the country’s culinary and restaurant heritage, and I wanted to learn more. I have not been disappointed.

We live in Tuscany, where you cannot go out for the day without encountering a pizza oven. From the local mom-and-pop building supply store around the corner, to Leroy Merlin, the Italian version of Home Depot, pizza ovens are sold pretty much the way Home Depot sells Weber BBQs. They line them up on display, and the inventory is always turning over. Walk through virtually any village and your will find at least one Pizzeria with a Forno a Legna – often in otherwise very unassuming restaurants. And if you ask around, the locals always know where they are.

Our local firewood supply company has 30 pizzerias on their regular delivery schedule – just on south side of the Arno, and there are 1,500 wood-fired pizzerias just inside Naples. In fact, if you take a Sunday drive through the countryside, you are more likely to end up in front of a pizza oven producer than an open supermarket (most stores are closed on Sunday, and there are roughly 300 pizza oven producers in Italy, so the odds are pretty much in favor of the pizza oven). And while a majority are mom-and-pop business, there are a couple of nation-wide producers as well.

As everyone will tell you, pizza, like pasta, is an essential part of the Italian diet, and many Italians are passionate about both pizza and pizza ovens. I will never forget when I was installing an oven at our rental house outside Florence, and both our neighbor and the local gardener walked up and started giving me advice on the best way to install my oven, and their preference of what finish style I should use. My trips to the local hardware stores were equally full of advice and opinions, complete with waving arms and dramatic gestures, on both how to choose the right oven, and how to best install it.

Wood-Fired Pizza in Italy

Like many things in Italy, pizza and pizzerias change as you travel around the county. Italy has been defined by its independent, and very successful, city-states for hundreds of years, and the country has only been in its modern form since the 1860s and has only been a democracy since the 1950s. The cultural and culinary differences, and rivalries, between different cities and regions are still very pronounced. For example, most Tuscan restaurants feature very little seafood, despite the fact that the Province has a Mediterranean coastline, and Tuscan bread (Pane Toscana) is made without salt – both problems (for me at any rate) that are a direct result of a long war between Florence and Pisa in the 15th and 16th centuries which cut Florence off from the sea. I have been told that league basketball games between Florence and Siena often end in bloodshed to this day, and have seen that to this day wines local markets tend to treat wines from other regions of Italy as imports, where they enjoy a small place on the shelf next to the French Champagne.

In fact, there seem to be only two things that every Italian seems to agree on – the importance of the national soccer team (the Azzurri, or the Blue), and the wood-fired pizza oven.

While the style of pizza changes as you move around the country – both in the style of dough base and toppings, the wood-fired oven is ubiquitous. I have asked many restaurant owners why and when they installed their wood-fired oven (at least when the oven did not appear to be as old as they were), and they consistently answer, with an almost unbelieving look that wonders why I am stupid enough to ask, that it the ONLY way to cook pizza. Opinions vary on dough, throwing the pizza, base thickness, rolling pins, cooking length, oven heat, flour, on what various products are named (Focaccia, Schiacciatta or Pizza), etc., but they all just assume that their oven will be there – just like oxygen.

When I talk with restaurant owners who have electric refractory ovens, and tell them I am interested brick ovens, I see an almost wistful response – “we wish we had one here but our kitchen is too small, the oven was here before we bought the restaurant…”

The wood-fired oven market continues to flourish in Italy, with 15,000 new wood-fired refractory ovens (both commercial and residential) installed every year, and an uncounted number of handmade brick ovens built. I was recently told by two different restaurant owners that there are three well-respected brick oven builders dedicated to pizzerias in Sorrento alone, and that there were many more who were capable of building a residential oven. To this day, restaurants that install a wood-fired oven experience a 15% increase in sales on average.

Vera Pizza Napoletana

Perhaps nowhere more than with the Vera Pizza Napoletana movement can we see the Italian passion for pizza. Born in Naples, the movement is dedicated to preserving the product Pizza Napoletana, and in some ways to teaching the rest of the world how an authentic pizza should look, smell and taste. The Italian Ministry of Agriculture has submitted a version of the Pizza Napoletana specification to the European Union for consideration as a Demonimazione d;’Origine Controllato (DOC) – a protected food product, much like Chianti, Parmesan, Mozzarella and certain olive oils.

There is also a restaurant certification and branding effort for Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN), and a growing number of American restaurants have become VPN certified – including a number of high-visibility establishments. There have been a few jokes in the U.S. press about the pizza police, and it is still not clear how well the movement will do outside of Naples, but no one can deny that the movements has made a positive impact – both in bring attention to “Real Pizza” and in helping raise the world-wide standards for pizza. It is important to note that the Pizza Napoletana specification grew out of a meeting of Naples’ most venerated Pizzaiolos, who came together to define the perfect pizza. They even signed a public declaration supporting the specification. So regardless of global food politics and the EU, the VPN specification gives us a good idea of what an authentic pizza should be.

Whether you are considering opening a true VPN pizzeria, and will be working exclusively with imported product, such as Tipo 00 flour, Mozzarella di Bufala, Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and Italian San Marzano tomatoes and will be working with a certifying organization, or are planning on opening an Italian restaurant or pizzeria, and want to produce a truly world-class pizza using excellent American bread flour, tomatoes and domestic mozzarella, one of your first steps is the pleasurable task of locating and choosing a wood-fired oven.

Wood-Fired Pizza in America

While the modern pizza was perhaps born in Naples, and there is written documentation that tomatoes were first used on flat bread in Naples in the 18th century, pizza has grown to new heights in America. After a quiet introduction at the turn of the century, pizza exploded on the American culinary scene in the 1950′s in aftermath of the Second World War, and today represents a $32 billion dollar industry featuring over 60,000 restaurants. Americans eat 350 slices per second – or about 100 acres of pizza per day. We eat 25 pounds of pizza, that’s 23 slices, per person per year. Pizzerias represent 17% of all restaurants and pizza 10% of all food service sales.

Still, the larger chain restaurants make up a majority of that pizza, and that part of the market is mature and becoming saturated. As a consumer, pizza lover and brick oven enthusiast, I am painfully aware that there are too few wood-fired pizzerias in America. I heard just the other day that there are more frantoio (olive oils mills) in just about any twenty square mile patch of Tuscany than in all of California. As a hobby olive tree grower in California, I have had to scour the landscape for an olive oil mill, drive far distances, and pay a steep price for the privilege of using the service. I feel the same way about wood-fired pizza, and know many other pizza enthusiasts who see the same problem. There are far too few authentic pizzerias, they are much too far apart, and often have established themselves in their market and can fairly demand a premium price for their fabulous product.

My view is that this market dynamic presents the American restaurant owner with an excellent opportunity.  Under a range of names, including Gourmet Pizza, Nouveau Pizza, Authentic Pizza, Brick Oven Pizza, and Pizza Napoletana, it appears that the “Real Pizza” movement is gaining momentum, both in the minds of consumers and in the press. Unlike some food fads, which were based more on marketing hype than the underlying value of the product (such as Wine Coolers and Frozen Yoghurt), the Real Pizza movement has nearly 2,000 years of history as one of the world’s finest food products. Much like England’s Real Ale movement and the Micro bakery revolution in America, Real Pizza should be with us for a very long time.

A New Development to a 2,000 Year Old Technology

As many have noted, pizza is the most simple of products – a flatbread, potentially leavened using naturally occurring yeast, is covered with a local cheese and olive oil and cooked on a flat, heated rock. It is small wonder that pizza has been a part of our culinary heritage for over 2,000 years.

The wood-fired pizza oven found its “modern” form in ancient Rome, and the ovens uncovered in Pompeii are a testament to Roman engineering. Well designed, well built, well insulated and well vented, these ancient ovens were found in shops that remarkably resemble today’s modern pizzeria – complete with granite counter tops and insulated terracotta serving trays holding the warm and cold food and drinks that would accompany your pizza. They were, as I have heard others describe, the pizzeria’s salad bar. I often wonder if the Roman pizza of the time was better than some of our modern chain store pizza – “I’ll have mine with olive oil and camel cheese.”

With the fall of the Roman Empire, not much good happened to the brick pizza oven for nearly 2,000 years. In fact, there are some medieval, and even 21st century, brick oven designs that are less efficient than the original ancient ovens. Which in a way makes sense – the Romans has an incredible road system, while it sometime feels as though many modern European roads still follow the medieval cart tracks.

In recent years, after a 2,000-year pause, the brick oven has finally undergone a significant makeover. Using modern refractory technology and production processes, producers have created composite materials that increase oven efficiency and reduce the cost-of-ownership, while still offering an authentic wood-fired cooking experience. Today’s refractory materials use refined alumina and tempered, woven silica fibers to boost oven performance.

High tech manufacturing has also contributed lightweight, ultra-efficient insulators that reduce the cost, weight and hassle of oven installation. Originally designed for heat-intensive industrial applications, these products have helped propel the wood-fire oven marketplace forward. The days of using expanded clay and sand in oven installation are gone, making it easy to install a wood-fired oven.

In practical terms, today’s wood-fired ovens use about 1/3 less wood fuel than a traditional brick oven, and heat up much more quickly. Some ovens can be fired in as little as an hour, compared with the traditional 3 hour, or more, firing time. Equally important, modern ovens do a great job of holding heat, which is important for fuel economy, oven management overhead, and for pizza at lunch – if that is in your plans. Refractory ovens can now hold a temperature of 500F overnight. Unlike early terracotta and natural clay ovens, these high tech ovens have been rigorously designed for a single purpose.

Refractory ovens are capable of quickly reaching and holding 800F+ degrees temperature – enabling them to cook 2 minute pizzas all day long. Larger ovens can produce up to 250 pizzas per hour, handling the dinner rush, plus takeout. In fact, the modern oven is never a throughput bottleneck, as it is able to cook as fast as a two-person Pizzaiolo team can prepare.

Finally, today’s refractory pizza ovens are built as modular kits, which have become the oven design of choice throughout Italy. In addition to enabling producers to provide better price-performance when compared with traditional ovens, the modular oven also simplifies shipping and installation. This is particularly important for U.S. restaurant owners, where shipping a larger oven can cost as much, or more, than the price of the oven itself.

We have all heard story about pizzerias that had to take out walls in order to get their oven into the kitchen – a hassle and cost that simply does not have to happen. A modular oven can be moved and assembled by a team of two in a matter of hours, and can be easily transported to virtually any building site. The modular oven design has quickly become the de facto standard in Italy, and we believe that a similar dynamic will happen in the states.


In many markets, whether computers or foodservice, there comes a time when the stars line up for a major market shift. My experience with a number of successful networking and Internet start-up companies taught me that great things can happen when the right product and the market opportunity arrive at the same time. The iPod is an obvious example of this phenomenon, where the timing and product mix hit the right cord to propel digital music, and Apple, forward. The key to catching a trend is act like a champion surfer, waiting to catch a wave. If you paddle too far ahead of the wave, you will move slowly forward and miss the wave’s power. If you linger behind, the wave will crash over your head. Yet if you are able to time your ride with skill and luck, the wave will hurtle you forward further and faster than you ever would have imagined.

I believe that we are at that moment for Real Pizza, and that there is an excellent opportunity for those ready to capitalize.

Boston 2 Big Sur; Part 3

Tax day is coming, which means that it is time for Patriot Day (April 16th) in Massachusetts and the Boston Marathon. And the Boston 2 Big Sur double. The two marathons (the Big Sur Marathon is April 29th) are 13 days apart this year, which gives us a little breathing room.

There are couple of differences this year. First off, this is the first year that our daughter will be in Boston at school, and I am looking forward to seeing her, her friends and team mates. She is a freshman at MIT, and she runs track. As a fun side note, we drove down to So Cal this weekend to see her where they had been training all week (Pomona College in Claremont, CA) and then we drove from Claremont to Westmont College (Santa Barbara, CA) to watch the track meet. The MIT track program typically travels somewhere warm for spring break to start training for outdoor track season and to run one meet, and we were thrilled that they came to So Cal. (As an even further aside, she was All NE regional in the 400M during the indoor season. Proud parent.)

The other difference is that I have been struggling with a knee injury and will not be “racing” either of the two marathons this year. I found out after the (somewhat crazy) CIM 2 Las Vegas double (two marathons in one day) that I had bruised my femur, where it faces the patella in the knee, and it has taken some time for the bruise to heal. The good news is that I have started cycling and will be competing in a couple of triathlons this summer (more to come on that), but I am not in “race shape”. That means nothing fast, but I am still pretty hopefully that I can complete both marathons without too much pain and any a re-injury. I’m excited and looking forward to it.

The reason that any of this matters is that Forno Bravo has been fund-raising for the Christopher Reeve Foundation by taking advantage of my running for a number of years, and I am not slowing down.

You can sponsor me by buying on of the Forno Bravo eCookbooks for $10. Forno Bravo will match your donation and all proceeds go to the Reeve Foundation. I think there is a real connection between athletics and the Reeve Foundation, and many of us who are lucky enough and healthy enough to pursue our goals in athletic competition want to share our fortune with people who have to work much harder than we do just to get through their day. The Reeve Foundation does great work and I feel lucky to be associated with them.

Wish me luck.