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Old 08-06-2007, 07:43 PM
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MLive.com: Everything Michigan

Backyard bragging rights Wood-burning ovens set new cookout standard
Monday, August 06, 2007
By William R. Wood
bwood@kalamazoogazette.com 388-8549

The 850-degree heat in the oven hit the pizzas so hard and fast that for a moment it looked as if the pizzas were melting.

Fresh mozzarella cheese bubbled furiously. Slices of Italian sausage sizzled and browned before one's eyes as if the image had been filmed and then sped up.

This wasn't happening at a pizza place. Instead, it was in Lou Conti's backyard in Alamo Township, where he was cooking in a brick oven fueled by apple wood.

Conti, a general contractor known for restoring historic homes, is among a small minority of home cooks who have built or installed wood-burning ovens in their backyards or homes.

``They tell you when you first build one of these things that you'll make pizza until you're sick of 'em, and that's true,'' said Conti as he jiggled a peel -- or giant spatula -- in his hand and used the peel to loosen one of three thin-crust pizzas from the oven floor.

The ovens are the ultimate toy for the weekend barbecue warrior. They can reach 900 degrees -- a temperature that shuts up any guy on the patio who brags about his new high-tech grilling equipment.

The ovens also appeal to those people who like to build or make plans for construction. The igloo-shaped ovens need to be housed in a cement or brick structure that the owner has to come up with.

The wood-burning ovens impart a superior flavor and crust to pizzas and other foods. The high cooking temperatures lock in the flavor of foods. And while the hot air that cooks food in the standard home oven is locked inside it, the air in wood-burning ovens is continually flowing in from outside and out again, making food more moist and tender.

Interest in the ovens has increased over the past several years in part because more and more companies are selling them, said Jean-Paul Yotnegparian, vice president of sales for Earthstone, which sold a commercial oven to Kalamazoo's Epic Bistro locally and has been making wood-burning ovens for 20 years.

Wood-burning ovens for the home by Earthstone are found at about 100 homes in Michigan, Yotnegparian said. But California is the biggest market for the ovens. That state has more Earthstone ovens in homes, for instance, than all the other states combined, Yotnegparian said.

``One thing for sure,'' he said, ``(is) when people go to a restaurant and see the wood-burning ovens there, they say, `I want one for my house.' And when they go to Italy or France, they see them all over the place.''

Conti, who owns an oven made by Forno Bravo, decided to buy it for his yard after eating food prepared in one by a cousin in Italy two years ago. The cousin went out in a boat on the day of the dinner, caught sardines and octopus, and cooked the seafood as well as vegetables and pizzas.

``He had a big dinner for us -- there were 13 of us -- and that time I realized I had to do something about this,'' Conti said. ``It was the greatest food I had ever eaten in my life.''

Conti plans to leave for Italy Sept. 28 to spend time with his cousin, who will teach him the finer points of managing a fire in his oven and planning dishes to be cooked in it.

Not for everyone

Of course, the ovens are not for everyone. They can't be turned on and off. Those who cook with them have to understand how to manage fires that burn for hours at temperatures few ever use. Owners also must learn how to judge various temperatures in the oven, learn where to find hot spots in the oven and learn how to plan meals cooked in the oven.

Oh, and then there's the expense. The ovens start at about $3,000 but can cost as much as $10,000. Prices depend on masonry costs and decorative facades, Yotnegparian said.

But Conti and another local man who own a wood-burning oven say the food that comes out makes the ovens worth the price.

``You can really tell the difference in the pizzas,'' said commercial real-estate broker and consultant Wayne Deering, who has had a Mugnaini wood-burning oven for about three years outside his Kalamazoo home. ``You get a really different taste and texture on your crust. There's also a definite wood-fired flavor that goes into the food, even though you're not smoking anything.''

The ultimate challenge

Both Conti and Deering also want to make good bread in their ovens -- the brass ring for anyone who owns a wood-burning oven. That's because bread is the most challenging of all foods to make in the ovens.

``I've done some of that with mixed results,'' Deering said. ``We laughed about one loaf of bread that was so heavy it could be a weapon. You could knock somebody out with it.''

Both Conti and Deering -- who know each other but have yet to get together to see each other's ovens and sample each other's cooking -- also said they've started entertaining guests a lot more because family and friends are crazy about the food cooked in their ovens. The men usually have two or three couples over at a time, although sometimes they have large parties at which they crank out pizza after pizza.

``It's just a real fun thing to do and makes your party into a happening thing,'' Conti said.`



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Old 08-07-2007, 07:29 AM
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Cool! Xabia Jim, is one of these guys your alter ego, or do you know them?

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