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From Italy, with love

Nostalgia puts Naples native in the mood for a brick pizza oven

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

By KATIE BYERS

For The Times, ksbyers@knology.net

Al Apice loves his pizza.

More specifically, he loves what he considers true pizza - the wood-fire-cooked variety with simple, fresh ingredients - that's a staple of his hometown of Naples, Italy.

Even using traditional recipes in his conventional oven, he never could replicate the slightly smoky taste and characteristic texture of a crust quickly seared in a wood-fire oven - crisp on the bottom, soft on the top, slightly burned in spots.

The pizza he and his wife, Karen, made at home was "pretty good," he says, especially with soft, fresh mozzarella, basil grown in their back yard and extra-virgin olive oil. "But it's not the same thing."

So after living in Huntsville for more than 25 years, Apice's nostalgic longing turned to craving, often stoked by trips to Italy to visit his mother.

One day, the craving begat an idea.

"I just decided I had done without my pizza long enough," says Apice, 56.

Apice can tell you he loves pizza, but that doesn't fully explain the depth of his passion. You start to get the idea when you inhale the sharp smell of wood smoke wafting outside his home on a southeast Huntsville cul-de-sac.

Out back, on one end of his concrete patio, stands the curious monument to his determination, his labor of love: a 6-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide, 6,000-pound wood-fire oven - all 450 bricks of it. (Yes, he kept count.)

When he decided to build the oven, he began to take pictures and measurements of pizzeria ovens during visits to Italy. He spent nearly $1,000 for the supplies - including fire bricks, regular bricks and 40 bags of concrete. Nearly eight summers ago, Apice, who had never laid a brick in his life, began building.

The oven took most of that summer to complete, factoring in the time for all that concrete to dry and the time he had to add a steel plate to lessen the arc of the dome. And also considering he did it all himself, except once when one of his daughters stepped in "when I was about to the point of passing out" from mixing and pouring concrete.

The result, Apice concedes, "is not very pretty" - a massive edifice with a semi-circular opening and bricks blackened from the smoke. But it can hold three pizzas at a time and cook them to perfection. He also uses the oven to make calzones (he pronounces it the Italian way: "cal-TSOH-nays") and to slow-cook a pork shoulder overnight. ? "It's the best barbecue you can imagine," says Apice, who owns New Century Sales, a manufacturer's rep for electronic components.

Karen, who can vouch for the taste difference of authentic Italian pizzas, never tried to sway him from building the oven.

"I was all for it," she says.

Likewise, their three grown daughters were excited by the prospect.

"Deep inside I think there was a bit of pride," Apice says, "because no one has this and they can say, 'This is the kind of pizza I was talking about.' "

When the Apices invite their Italian friends over, the pizza oven becomes the focal point of the gathering. Italians, he says, are most likely to understand the reason behind his undertaking.

"For them, it's like back home," he says. "When you are accustomed to eating something, it's something that stays with you forever."

Others, though, are taken aback by the sheer size of the oven.

"You must really like your pizza to build this," they say.

Slow cooking
By "pizza," Apice does not mean the why-don't-we-order-out-tonight? kind. If he could, he'd use the wood-fire oven every week. But because of the extra effort it requires, he uses it about every other week.

He must start the fire the day before and heat the oven slowly so its joints don't crack. He prefers to use oak because it generates a lot of heat and imparts a certain flavor. The next day he increases the heat, and when he's ready to cook, pushes the fire to the back of the oven.

Meanwhile, for an evening meal, Karen starts her dough around noon. By evening, the dough's ready and divided into balls. Because the oven gets so hot - about 700 to 850 degrees - the pizzas take only about three minutes to cook. So if the Apices expect a crowd - they've cooked as many as 20 pizzas at once - it requires an assembly line, with Karen in the kitchen and Al and his son-in-law ferrying them to the oven with a pizza peel, a flat, long-handled wooden paddle. He also has a metal one for turning and lifting the pizzas as they rest on the fire bricks.

To call Apice's set-up an outdoor kitchen would be a stretch. For now, it consists of his pizza oven, with nearby granite countertops propped up on sawhorses, and a moderately sized grill.

Someday soon, though, he plans to build permanent cabinetry to hold his countertops so some of the prep work can be done outside. Karen hopes he'll throw in a sink.

An Italian natural
Turns out, wood-fire ovens as part of an outdoor kitchen aren't that unusual. Especially in large, urban areas, the idea is catching on, says James Bairey, a former Silicon Valley executive who recently started Forno Bravo, which imports brick ovens from Italy. His kits start at $1,350 for a 31 1/2-inch round oven, which can hold two pizzas. ?

Bairey, who describes the beginnings of his company as a "hobby that took over," found wood-fire ovens to be "so alluring and so addictive." The idea took root when he and his family took a "sabbatical" to Tuscany.

"Over here they are like the barbecue," Bairey says in a phone interview from Florence, Italy. "Everybody has them. They are a part of the culture. (In the United States) I think there's a tendency to think of them as a luxury item."

His company, based in Healdsburg, Calif., is only a month old, but Bairey says once he launched the Web site, www.fornobravo.com, "we took a bunch of orders immediately."

Though he also sells commercial ovens, "my heart goes out to the hobbyist who wants one in their back yard."