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Wednesday, September 08, 2004
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

FIRE IT UP: A Piece of the Pie

Having a home pizza oven increasing in popularity
By HEIDI KNAPP RINELLA
REVIEW-JOURNAL

Some retired police officers move to Las Vegas and go to work in the security department of a casino. Others buy a golf cart and go to the course daily to perfect their swing, or spend hours at a time in their dens, crafting finely detailed model ships.

Noel Inzerille makes pizza.

There's no delivered-or-DiGiorno debate for Inzerille, a second-generation Sicilian-American. The man mills his own flour. Makes his own cheese. Grows his own herbs. And soon he will have a proper, imported-from-Italy pizza oven to bake it in.

Inzerille is one of a growing number of Las Vegans who are buying home pizza ovens. The pizza they can make in such an oven is simply without peer, they say. Plus, it's a great centerpiece for a party.

Statistics on how many ovens are finding their way into Las Vegas homes and outdoor kitchens aren't available; neither are national figures. No one keeps track, it seems, and the few companies that import the ovens from Italy aren't sharing their sales figures. And then there are those hardy souls who have built their own pizza ovens. But James Bairey of Forno Bravo, a brick-oven company (http://www.fornobravo.com), figures "in the U.S., it's got to be in the low thousands."

Bairey, a Northern Californian living in Italy, notices a different scene there.

"You come over here and these ovens are absolutely everywhere -- in people's homes, courtyards, public places, pizzerias and at home-and-garden centers," Bairey said from his home near Florence. He said he can drive to the Italian equivalent of Home Depot or Lowe's "and they have 20 in inventory, ready to be installed."

The ovens, which have been in use in Italy since the time of the Roman empire, have been a little slower to catch on in the United States. But John Arena, owner of the three Metro Pizzas in Las Vegas, said he has "absolutely" seen an increase in popularity.

"Now they're putting them right in their kitchen or as part of a focal point of an entertaining area," Arena said.

The appeal, he noted, is twofold.

"The wood-fired oven becomes not only an oven, but also like a hearth," Arena said. "People are congregating around the oven because of that primal attraction to fire. I've talked to a lot of people who say they fire these ovens up even when they're not cooking, just because they like the ambience. They like to be around it with their friends."

Arena is familiar with several of the ovens in Las Vegas because owners sometimes hire Metro's pizza chefs when they have a party.

"They're very labor-intensive," he said. "That's why a lot of people have been calling us when they do a party, because they want to engage their guests. You can't just put a pizza in and bake it in the oven and take it out and it's done. It's fun. It's challenging for us, and it gives the younger guys the opportunity to appreciate that everybody has their own tradition for pizza-making."

Jo Bishop and her husband hired Metro's pizza-makers for a charity-auction pizza party they hosted at their home, because they didn't know the winning bidders and wanted to be able to mingle. But usually, they're the ones stoking the fire.

Bishop said they purchased the oven about a year before moving into their house in February 2003, and the house was built around it.

"We've loved it," Bishop said. "It's been a great source of entertainment. On a rainy Christmas day we had it lit and it was the ambience, more than the cooking, that came out of it that day."

While gas ovens are available, Bishop and her husband, like many people, eschew those in favor of the traditional wood-burning versions. The ovens are built to comply with the valley's smog regulations, she said.

"My husband loves to cook," she said. "His big passion is wood burning. He's a big griller. He loves the taste of wood-grilled chicken." Bishop said the oven doesn't throw off a great deal of heat because it's well insulated, a good feature in the heat of a Las Vegas summer.

Bairey said the ovens turn out superlative food because of the way they're built and the prodigious heat they hold -- up to 800 or 900 degrees.

"They cook hot and they cook moist," he said. "It's faster than a traditional oven, and it doesn't dry food out, like a modern electric oven does." Anything that a conventional oven does, he said, a wood-burning one can do better.

"Roast potatoes, a mushroom appetizer, leg of lamb, roast chicken," he said. "The leg of lamb cooks faster than it would in an oven. It's really glazed and brown on the outside, cooked through on the inside, but a lot moister than it would be if you did it in a regular oven."

Arena noted pizza toppings such as mushrooms or vegetables can be roasted in the wood oven, for "beautiful caramel ization. You put those on the pizza and you put that in the oven for a few minutes. Now you've got the smokiness of the wood that's been imparted in the vegetables."

But the pizza itself is, of course, the main objective.

"At the bottom, you have this very hot brick masonry surface," Bairey said. "When you lay the pizza on it, the hot brick extracts the moisture out of the dough and makes steam. Dough really likes a hot, steamy environment. That's why you get the crispy bottom.

"The dome is also brick, is also 800, 900 degrees. It's not random that it's round and curved into this parabolic shape. What it's doing is bouncing heat from the fire and the retained heat in the dome evenly across the pizza -- incredibly fast, incredibly hot, evenly."

He said a pizza cooks in about three minutes.

The ovens heat up in 40 to 45 minutes, Bairey said, relatively quick considering a charcoal grill takes about 20 minutes.

"You build a fire, then add a little more wood," he said. "Then push the fire over to the side. Use a damp cloth and swab the deck. And you're literally ready to go."

Bairey said he recommends starting with focaccia "just to figure out where the heat is. It's the last imperfect thing you'll do all night, and from then on you'll know what's going on."

Arena said a lot of oven-owners will prepare a pizza in the evening, "then they'll let that oven cool down overnight and in the morning, they'll put bread in the oven. You'll be down to 375, 400 degrees by that point. Because of the nature of the stone, which is four, five inches thick, it'll retain that heat."

Bairey said Forno Bravo ovens run from "the low thousands to $10,000 and more," depending on options. The traditional brick arch and stucco covering, he notes, "hardly costs anything.

"If you're a hobbyist, you can buy our $1,400 modular kit and you can do it yourself."

Inzerille is taking a more elaborate route. Working with Mike Jensen of Mitey Fine Barbecues, he's designing his oven with a granite housing.

Inzerille said he got deep into pizza after taking a pizza-making class at Metro and then visiting Pizzeria Bianco, a Phoenix restaurant where Neapolitan pizza traditions are carefully honored.

"I dreamed about it that night," he said. "It was so good, I got interested in it."

He did make pizza in the old days, but not like this.

"I've cooked it at home, but it was always a ... pizza," he said.

As a third-generation pizza-maker, Arena says, "it's really gratifying to see that people appreciate it again.

"For a long time, people thought pizza was supposed to come out of the back seat of somebody's Toyota. It's really a renaissance of pizza-making. It's great."