The Wood-Fired Blog

Innovating the Pizza Oven; Part II

In yesterday’s posting about the Ovens from Napoli, I found myself writing and thinking about the companies that make pizza ovens, and their underlying organizational and design philosophies. And whether they are innovative or traditional; pushing the state-of-the-art or still making their grandfather’s pizza oven.

One of the first things that struck me was how virtually every other pizza oven company is deeply rooted in the past, and how much Forno Bravo stands out as an innovator. Looking at US marketplace, with one exception, you really only see two types of company: importers and very small companies who do not do their own manufacturing. Which is pretty cool. This gives Forno Bravo the ability to create new products and open new markets where no one else can. This is fun. :-)

Today, the majority of Forno Bravo’s competitors in both the US residential and commercial pizza oven markets are importers of ovens made by small, family-owned companies located in Italy (and one in France). Even most of the ones who say their ovens are “made-in-the-USA” still buy the actual oven, dome, floor and vent from an European manufacturer. This most important characteristic of this dynamic is that the importer can only ever be as good and as innovative as the company they buy from. Typically, the Italian manufacturers are small, multi-generational companies where the current management took over operations from their parents, and their products are virtually unchanged over the past 20 years.

From a business perspective, this is a reflection of the Italian economy’s reliance on mom-and-pop businesses as source of it’s weakness in today’s connected global economy. Greece suffers from a similar problem — I wrote about the Greek pizza oven market in the past, where I found three different brick oven manufacturers within one mile of each of other in a small town on Crete.

A traditionalist might argue that it’s a good thing that the pizza oven has been virtually unchanged for the past 20 years (or perhaps 2,000 years, all the way back to Roman times), and that we should not mess with a good thing. While this logic has some nice appeal, it ignores the technical advances of the past 20 years. And while the technology of pizza ovens may not have not evolved as fast as, say, smart phones or computers, it has definitely progressed. Today we have access to cost-effective refractories and insulators that are more efficient and cheaper than the alternatives of 20, or even 5 or 10 years go. Technology is an irresistible force, where today’s $15,000 economy car is faster and safer than the $70,000 luxury car from the 1970′s.

At the same time, technology advances also enable design innovation. We aren’t just making the same products using new materials. New materials can also enable new ovens that can be used to make traditional Pizza Napoletana in new places and new circumstances.

Innovation in equally difficult for our very small US-based competitors. These companies do not have their own manufacturing facilities and they only have a few products. I will be blogging next about ventilation and the advantages of different venting methods that underscores the limitation of the designs of these smaller, less sophisticated companies.

But for now, we are happy to have the capacity and skill to develop fun and interesting new products that make pizza ovens better — and available to a growing audience. We really like the new Strada60 oven that is light enough to be moved around for parties and tailgating; and we hope that you like it as well.

And stay tuned for our newest small backyard pizza oven. In time for Christmas.

 

Contemplating the Ovens of Napoli

The folks responsible for building the Vera Pizza Napoletana brand have done a really good job, and over the past few years, awareness of Pizza Napoletana, wood-fired ovens from Naples and Caputo flour has skyrocketed. Which is a really good thing — both for the companies that make Pizza Napoletana related products (including Forno Bravo) and for consumers. There is a growing number of pizzerias in the U.S. and around the world that are making really good pizza. And while the number of VPN certified pizzeria’s isn’t very large, the number of top-notch wood-fired pizzeria has been growing steadily, as has the number of restaurants who are genuinely trying to make a really good pizza in a gas-fired oven, or even a hot deck oven.

All of which is a really good thing.

Recently, though, a number of events have conspired to make me think a little more about the pizza ovens of Naples, how Vera Pizza Napoletana and the Forni Napoletani inter-relate, and what, exactly, is a Naples style pizza oven. After all, while all Vera Pizza Napoletana is wood-fired, but not all wood-fired pizza is Vera Pizza Napoletana, and all Vera Pizza Napoletan is good, but not all good pizza is Vera Pizza Napoletana. And lots of VPN certified pizza (a large majority in the US) is baked in ovens that were not made in Naples and are not designed not in the Naples design — low dome, built-in hood, center vent.

The events that got me thinking are the work that Forno Bravo is doing on our upcoming Pizza Map, a couple of postings on a hobby pizza web site, and an upcoming new product from Forno Bravo — which I will explain in more detail in a minute.

We’ve been working hard on the Forno Bravo Pizza Map, and I have been spending a lot of time research pizzerias. It’s been interesting getting to know the restaurant scene in different cities across the US (and soon around the world), and in a way I feel as though I have been transported across the country through web sites, menus, photos, restaurant reviews, “best-of” articles, mission statements from restaurant owners, and user comments.  And I have seen photos of lots of commercial pizza ovens. It’s been a wonderful experience and I feel as though I have learned a great deal.

At roughly the same time, we launched the Forno Bravo Strada60, a wonderful small, portable oven that does a great job of baking 90 second, wood-fired pizza — so in our marketing materials we say that it does a nice job of baking Pizza Napoletana. Which I think it fair. But our new product led to Forno Bravo being the topic of conversation on a hobby pizza web site, and whether a small oven can bake Pizza Napoletana, or Vera Pizza Napoletana, or even whether an oven made in the US, or a pre-cast oven, can bake Pizza Napoletana.

Does Vera Pizza Napoletana need to be baked in an oven made in Naples by an Italian builder using raw volcanic materials from Mt. Vesuvius? It’s a great marketing story and the local press really likes it, but I don’t think it’s true.

What is it about the oven that really matters? I would argue that the design and performance characteristics of the oven and the cooking environment are what is truly important — proper oven dome height and shape, the proper oven opening size and dimension, the thickness, density and mineral composition of the oven dome and floor, the efficiency and thickness of the oven insulation, and the oven ventilation design are the real issues. Not the providence of the insulation, the mortar or the builder. And we work very hard on oven design and performance.

We are also proud to be part of the Pizza Napoletana movement. We were the first company to sell Caputo pizzeria flour to the US homeowner market, we did the first translation of the original VPN proposal to the US into English, we provide many resources to help people learn proper Pizza Napoletana technique, and we are proud that our ovens are designed to provide a great Pizza Napoletana cooking experience. And we are just getting started.

All of which leads me to a fun new, and as of now unreleased, product. Check out the photo below, and you will see an in-progress, prototype for a Napoli-style oven for backyard cooking. Check out the great dome shape and the traditional center vent. Stay tuned for more details.

 

 

Getting Organized

In baking there is strong application of the mise-en-place (everything in place in French) concept. In broad terms, it means knowing where everything is and having easy access to it in an organized manner. If you want to bake every day, or at least 5-6 times a week, and you also want to do other things (like be a parent, work and have a few other hobbies), then it is important to bake efficiently. Or to put it more simply, get organized.

For me, that meant putting all of my flour and grains, salt, olive oil, molasses, honey, etc. in one place — near my mixer and scale; it also meant getting rid of all of those half-used flour bags that tear, spill and get lost (I am thinking fondly back on some of my leftover bread that used four or five different odds and ends of flour from bags stored all over the kitchen). But it was time to move on, and get better.

This is still a work in progress, but here is a photo of the shelves across from where my mixer and scale are always on the counter. I still need to get more storage containers so that I can get rid of all my half-used plastic bags — I get the Oxo storage containers from Amazon.

Looking back, the biggest inefficiency in my baking has been the time it takes to walk back and forth between the kitchen — where I kept the olive oil, salt, honey, etc. and the pantry where the mixer and scale live. The flour could have been stored in one of three different places (which was not good). But because we use the olive oil, salt and honey for everyday food prep, I decided to buy second versions of each of these, just for baking. So far, so good.

Just a Really Nice Pizza Oven Photo

We have been working hard putting the FB Pizza Map application and database together, and I have been doing a lot of research and looking at lots and lots (and lots) of restaurants, pizza ovens and pizzerias around the world. And today, I saw a pizza oven photo that just made me smile.

So I thought I would share it. :-) Be sure to click on the image to see the full-size photo.

West First Wood Fired Pizza
update this restaurant      upload a photo of this restaurant
101 1st. Ave West
Henderson NC 28731
828 693 1080
flatrockwoodfired.com/restaurant/

Sneak Peek — The Forno Bravo Pizza Map

We’ve been working hard on a new feature for Fornobravo.com that I want to share with FB Blog readers — the Forno Bravo Pizza Map. We will be launching the map soon, but I wanted to give you the inside scoop. Think of this sneak-peak as a pre-Beta; this is fun stuff!

The FB Pizza Map is a services that will allow you to easily find the best pizzerias when you are home and traveling, and to share your thoughts, reviews, and photos with other members of the wood-fired oven community. There are a couple of important differences between the FB Pizza Map and those big restaurant and travel review sites.

First, the database for the FB Pizza Map is curated. We are building the world’s best database of the world’s best pizzas. We decide which pizzerias are allowed in, and only the best qualify. Which means no chains, no Pizza Hut and no Domino’s. California Pizza Kitchen makes an edible, food-like substance, but it isn’t pizza, and they aren’t in the FB Pizza Map. We want ensure that every pizzeria and restaurant in the FB Pizza Map database offers something special, including care, dedication and a great pizza. Still, even with these limitations, the FB Pizza Map is large and includes thousands of great pizza places and a very large number of wood-fired restaurants.

Second, our application allows you to search not only by location and “pizza”, but also by the good stuff, including wood-fired, VPN Certified, Caputo flour and mobile. And we are going to be adding more search options soon, including coal-fired and Chicago deep dish. We want to help you find what you are looking for.

And finally, there is you. The FB Pizza Map is not a mass market service. We want the comments and restaurant ratings to reflect the taste and judgement of you — the pizza intelligentsia. That means that the ratings and comments in the FB Pizza Map will be useful, and trustworthy, because they are from other people like you. If the community concludes that a restaurant or pizzeria does not deserve to be listed in the FB Pizza Map, we will remove them. We will vote them off the island.

We hope that today is the start of something big.

I think there is a genuine opening in the market for this type of service. There a a number of somewhat similar services — the big review sites, pizza enthusiast sites and top pizzeria lists — but I don’t think there is a single site that provides the data, the search features and the community that the FB Pizza Map will provide. On a personal level, I’ve been hoping to find something like this for years, and never did. So we decided to build it for ourselves.

There is a lot of work to be done — we are still improving the database and tuning the application (and of course we need to start working in the iPhone app), but I think it is time to share the fun. Let me know what you think; recommend features and report bugs.

One last thing. The FB Pizza Map is (and will always be) a free service. We will never accept advertising and we will always keep private information on our members and web site traffic, and we will never share or sell that information to another company.

That’s it. Let’s have fun and eat some great pizza.

Healthy Loaf Bread

My healthy loaf bread experiment is continuing to relative success. It’s interesting that the shape of the loaf and the relative softness of the crust can matter so much to a bread’s appeal to the masses — well, my family. My loaf-shaped bread seems to be working (though I still prefer boules).

This loaf has 10% white flour, along with 45% white whole wheat and 45% whole wheat, oat bran and sunflower seeds, and olive oil, honey and molasses. I’m trying to push the boundaries of bread that I like, and my desire to eat healthy, without going over the line.

The white flour question is an interesting one. I read a posting on a sports-training blog where they recommended that you treat all foods with white flour as dessert. The logic is that all white flour products are basically “cake”, and that highly refined white flour is a relatively modern invention. Food for thought.

On a related topic, I am still wrestling with my KitchenAid mixer. With wet doughs, it seems to push all the ingredients to the side and it never really makes a dough ball. I have to stop the machine and push the the flour to the middle. Blah. Im sure I will work it out; but I would not get the KitchenAid if I could do it again.