My first run-in with the Kalamazoo Gourmet pizza oven—a $7,000 freestanding stainless steel machine that promises pizzeria-level results with minimal fuss in your own backyard—was at an outdoor event in New York. Roberto Caporuscio, the great pieman behind New York's Kesté and Don Antonio, was firing his pies in it. I was moderately impressed that a relatively compact, gas-fired device could cook pizzas this well, though it didn't hurt that they were being cooked by one of the world's best pizza-makers. I desperately wanted to try it out for myself, but couldn't.
A couple of months back, my street was blocked as a 16-wheeler dropped off the five-foot-tall plywood box containing a testing unit of the pizza oven.* I immediately set it up in my backyard to try it out. The box, however, stayed in my garage, a 125-cubic-foot thorn in my wife's side for the four weeks during which I had the unit.
Here are my thoughts.
*The folks at Kalamazoo Gourmet also shipped their Hybrid Fire Freestanding Grill to my place for a test run. It's an insanely blinged-out stainless steel grill that can use gas, coal, or live wood as its heat source (or all three at the same time), has customizable laser-cut grill plates (for the Patrick Batemans out there who have the urge to serve monogrammed steaks at their next dinner party), and a heat flux of a whopping 150 BTU per square inch of grilling surface, a good 50 to 150% higher than your typical high-end home grill. It also costs as much as a small car. Unfortunately, it proved too large to fit through the gate to my backyard, so I never got to put it through its paces.
So what exactly goes into a $7,000 pizza machine? First off, this thing is heavy. It threatened to break the heavy-duty folding picnic table I had it set on when I first received it. But that weight is a good thing, because it's in all the right places. Thick-gauge stainless steel construction means that this beast should last a while. The unit I tested looked like it had been shipped around the country a few times—the plywood box it was delivered in was beaten up and cracked from use—but the oven itself was completely scratch- and dent-free.
As you assemble the unit (it arrives in a half dozen different parts, which come together via stacking—no tools required), you first notice the gas bar that runs under the floor of the oven. This is a different setup from that of most at-home pizza ovens, which heat from behind or above or via convection. On top of the gas bar, you stack the two thick stones that form the cooking surface. Behind that surface is the other gas bar, which is responsible for a small wall of flames in the back of the oven. Together, the gas bars put out a reported 42,000 BTU of heat energy. That's a lot.
The cooking surface is a respectable 24- by 18-inches out of the oven's total 30- by 30-inch footprint. Big enough to be spacious for a large pizza, and tight-but-doable for two smaller neapolitan pizzas if you are particularly adept with the peel.
Next, you stack on the metal frame that forms the main body of the oven. It has a slot in the top for inserting a couple more stones, designed to hold and radiate heat from above. On top of all this sits the roof—also made of heavy-gauge steel, it has a chimney in the back that vents fumes and hot vapors.
The whole thing gets hooked up to either a natural gas line via an adapter, or a standard propane tank of the sort you'd typically use for a gas grill.
The Convenience Factor
After assembling, I kicked on both the bottom and the top burners for the first time and let the grill start to preheat. There's a metal door that covers the 6 1/2-inch tall opening on the front of the oven when you're preheating; a grate in the door allows some ventilation, while limiting the escape of heat. Within 20 minutes at maximum power, I had the thing burying the needle on my infrared thermometer, peaking at well over 800°F in the roof and on the floor.
At those temperatures, a pizza cooks in about two and a half minutes. On that first day, I baked a half dozen Neapolitan pies in quick succession using my standard Neapolitan dough recipe. The oven really delivers on power and consistency.
The real pleasure of the Kalamazoo turned out to be not just its cooking specs but its convenience. Hosting a pizza party with a wood-fired oven, or even a coal grill insert like the KettlePizza, requires a good deal of experience and forethought. Live fuel sources take time to heat up, and the pizza ovens themselves need to preheat. Plus, you need to manage the fuel as the pizza is cooking. Guests decide to show up an hour late? Your whole game gets thrown off. Feel like making just one or two pizzas for yourself and your partner? You've got to burn just as much fuel as if you were making a dozen pizzas.
The Kalamazoo's convenience solves all those issues. Flip on the gas, and in about 20 minutes the beast is chugging along at over 800°F, ready to bake. Not only that, but you can bake as many or as few pizzas as you want with no hiccups in temperature, no fire to maintain, and no inconsistencies from pie to pie. I found myself cooking pizza nearly every night for two weeks after I received that testing unit. It performed admirably with my New York-style pizza dough, as well as with store-bought dough. I even tried using those par-baked pizza shells and pita bread as bases for quick pizzas, and all were improved by a brief, char-inducing stay in the oven.
Precise on-the-fly heating and cooling means that your pizza parties will go way more smoothly. No more fiddling with the fuel to reheat or cool it. You can make pie after pie after pie in this thing with no drop in quality...until the fuel runs out, that is. This thing flies through fuel. One standard propane tank lasted me just three nights of continual pizza-making.
The Kalamazoo Gourmet pizza oven has some major advantages over add-it-to-your-existing-grill contraptions like the Mighty Pizza Oven or our own Serious Eats Edition Baking Steel and KettlePizza Backyard Pizza Oven kit, namely its ability to very precisely control the heat coming from the top and the bottom without forcing you to jigger around with dials on your gas oven or the coal setup on your grill. This is a big deal for anyone who's had trouble getting their KettlePizza inserts to cook consistently time after time (it takes some practice).
What about compared to stand-alone ovens, like the Uuni or the Blackstone? I haven't personally had a chance to test out those two devices yet, but I've spent an awful lot of time looking at videos and descriptions of how they work. The main advantage of the Kalamazoo seems to be twofold.
First is its size. The oven's dimensions are large enough to emulate the functionality of a full-fledged wood-fired pizza oven, including the ability to dome a pizza (that's the act of lifting up a pie near the roof of an oven to cook its top side) and the versatility to cook non-pizza foods. Over the course of the four weeks I had the oven, I cooked a couple of trays of grilled oysters, a few whole fish, some miso-glazed black cod and salmon, some pita bread, mussels, loaves of no-knead bread, and a whole chicken. I could cook for a year in this thing without ever making any actual pizza.
The Kalamazoo also gives you much more control over the finished product. Both the Uuni and the Blackstone are limited in how they cook, the Uuni by its small size (all you can do is pop the pizza in and let it sit—there's no room to go in and rotate or manipulate it), and the Blackstone by its rotating base. With the Kalamazoo, I can identify what parts of my pizza need more or less heat as it's cooking, then shift, rotate, and lift the pies to get the exact results I'm looking for.
Of course, this level of manual control could be construed as a downside, but as with any real pizza oven, just popping a pie in and setting a timer is not going to yield good results. Pizza-making is not a spectator sport and requires active participation through the entire brief cooking process. Other than a homemade wood-fired oven or a KettlePizza insert for a kettle grill, I've never seen a home oven that allows for this level of control and manipulation.
So Is It Worth It?
Clearly, this is a high-end luxury good that is neither aimed at nor affordable for the average home cook. That said, given its performance, it's not such a bad deal. We shouldn't be comparing it to simple backyard solutions like the KettlePizza or the Blackstone. We should be comparing it to full-fledged wood-fired stone pizza ovens, because that's what it really performs like. I took an informal survey via Twitter of folks who had built their own pizza ovens, either from scratch or using kits like those from Forno Bravo. What I found was that for most people, building a pizza oven of similar quality to the Kalamazoo oven could cost anywhere between $2,000 and $8,000, along with several days or weeks of heavy labor to get it up and running. And then, of course, there's the actual use of the oven, which requires planning hours ahead of time in order to build up a large flame before cooking can begin.
Is it really worth the price? That's an impossible call for me to make. While the Kalamazoo oven is by far the best ready-to-use home pizza oven I've ever worked with, it's also by far the most expensive. Personally, I don't have the cash kicking around to drop $7,000 on a backyard tool, even one that I'd end up using several times a week. But if you've been deciding between better pizza parties and a slightly used Toyota, this may be just the device your backyard is looking for.
You can order it at Kalamazoo Gourmet's website.
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