"It's impossible to make restaurant-quality Neapolitan pizza at home." That was the opening line of Kenji's 2010 article "Bringing Neapolitan Pizza Home."
Never one to mince words, Kenji didn't try to sugarcoat the issue. He made it clear from the jump that even the most skilled pizzaioli working in home kitchens couldn't turn out Neapolitan pies that could hold a burning log to ones made in a real-deal wood oven. Skill and technique had almost nothing to do with this problem; it was an oven issue.
The defining characteristics of Neapolitan pizza—a puffy, leopard-spotted cornicione (rim) that still has a tender and pillowy interior, along with a charred undercarriage—can only be achieved with a ripping-hot oven that has a deck temperature of at least 700°F (370°C). Most conventional home ovens can reach a maximum temperature of only 550°F (290°C).
Baking pizzas at lower temperatures translates to a longer cooking time, with less charring. It also messes with the texture of the dough. A longer baking time means that more moisture is pulled out of the dough, turning the crust from pillowy to crunchy. Stella's maxim for cookies also applies to 'za—"All [pizzas] are crunchy if you bake them long enough." That's not something you want with Neapolitan pizza.
Kenji's workaround techniques for home-kitchen Neapolitan pizza produce pretty damn good results, but if you placed them next to wood-oven pies, you wouldn't have a hard time picking them out of the lineup. It's like the difference between food photography shot with a cell phone camera versus a DSLR.
But don't despair! Just like smartphone cameras, at-home pizza-oven technology has improved dramatically over the past decade.
First came the Baking Steel, which gave traditional home-oven pizza stones a run for their money. Then came a wave of backyard pizza ovens that can reach the infernal temperature needed to make Neapolitan pizza, without the space-eating footprint of a real wood oven.
The only problem: These ovens require outdoor space, something that a lot of us city folk don't have.
Last year, Breville introduced the Smart Oven Pizzaiolo, a countertop electric pizza oven that can reach 750°F (400°C) and is about the size of a large microwave oven. Kenji got his hands on one of these ovens, and, after playing around with it himself, he shipped it over to Serious Eats HQ for us to give it a try. So a few weeks ago, I decided to throw a Friday-afternoon office pizza party to take this machine for a test drive. Here's how it went down.
For this initial test run, I wanted to see how good the Breville is at turning out Neapolitan pizzas, and compare those results with pizzas made using Kenji's oven-broiled method. I made six different batches of Neapolitan-style dough, experimenting with different varieties of flour and hydration levels.
To get a side-by-side comparison for each dough, I baked one pie using the Breville and one using the conventional oven. I kept the toppings pretty classic—traditional margherita; marinara (which, in Italy, is not a term for tomato sauce but rather refers to a cheeseless tomato pie with garlic and oregano); and some margherita pies jazzed up with little gobs of spicy 'nduja.
For the pizzas baked in the Breville Pizzaiolo, I used the machine's programmed "wood fired" setting, which bakes pies in the range of 700°F (370°C) to 725°F (385°C) for two minutes.
Bringing the Heat
The first thing that impressed me about the Breville was how easy it is to operate, and how quickly it heats up. As I mentioned above, for this trial run, I used one of the machine's preset programs, which takes care of both regulating the oven temperature and timing the bake of the pizza once it's in the oven.
Along with the "wood fired" setting, there are programs for frozen, pan, New York, and thin-and-crispy pizza, which you can toggle on a dial similar to that found on a traditional toaster oven. If you prefer to control the temperature and time yourself, there's a "manual" mode that lets you do just that, allowing you to crank the temperature from the minimum (350°F) all the way up to 750°F.
The Breville Pizzaiolo plugs into a regular outlet and draws 1,800 watts of power to heat up the oven's three coil heating elements—one underneath the ceramic deck, and two concentric coils above the deck. These heating elements, paired with the oven's well-designed insulation, can bring the oven up to baking temperature in just 15 minutes. That's crazy fast. In comparison, our oven-broiler method calls for preheating a Baking Steel or pizza stone for at least 45 minutes prior to baking.
And then there's the issue of temperature recovery time between pizzas. The Breville recovers its target temperature in the time it takes to stretch and top the next pizza, while a regular home oven takes some toggling (switching from broil back to bake) and at least a few minutes to come back up to temp.
The Breville actually allows you to have a fun, fast-paced production line for your pizza party. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten frustrated with all the waiting around between rounds of pies when hosting a pizza night, with guests unsure over whether to dig in while the pizza was hot or wait for more pizzas to come out of the oven. While you can still bake only one pizza at a time using the Breville, even a novice pizzaiolo can churn them out at a much faster clip.
As for the results, the Breville oven produced, hands down, the best Neapolitan pizza I've ever made in a home kitchen. I grew up in Italy, I've worked a wood-burning-pizza-oven station in a restaurant kitchen, and I eat Neapolitan pies here in New York on a weekly basis. The Breville Pizzaiolo is damn impressive.
Just check out the leopard-spotting that it's able to produce. I've never come close to that with a regular home oven.
And the same goes for the undercarriage. Even using MacGyver-esque tricks, it's almost impossible to consistently get proper charring on the underside of a pie using a home oven. Above is a side-by-side comparison of the underside of a pizza made using the Breville and one baked on a Baking Steel in a regular oven. No contest.
Here's how their top sides compare. You can see how it's possible to get char on the cornicione of a pie in a regular oven, but to do that, the pizza has to be in the oven much longer, which adversely affects other components. The crust of the pizza on the right is much more dehydrated and crunchy, lacking the airy puffiness of the pizza on the left, which was baked in the Breville oven. The toppings are also overcooked: The mozzarella is starting to brown, the basil is on the edge of burnt, and the sauce is dried out.
Don't get me wrong—both pizzas were still delicious. But if you're a stickler for pizza details, the Breville produces a much better Neapolitan pie.
So are there any drawbacks to this wonder gadget? Of course! Nothing is perfect, and the Breville Pizzaiolo is no exception.
First off: the price. This machine will run you a cool $800. That ain't cheap. If you spend $15 on a margherita from your local pizzeria, you could have one pizza a week for a year for that kind of money. I've personally never dropped anywhere close to that kind of cash on a single piece of kitchen equipment, and I have some pretty decent knives in my knife kit.
Following that line of thought, I use my knives every day. I do not make pizza every day. While the folks at Breville point out that you can use the Pizzaiolo to cook things besides pizza, you're essentially buying a very, very expensive unitasker.
Second, it takes up a lot of space. On the one hand, this machine is only a little bigger than a large microwave oven; on the other, you must position it on a counter to operate it. That eats up a lot of kitchen real estate, something that's at a premium for most of us. I barely have room for a coffee maker in my kitchen, so a pizza oven is definitely out of the question. That said, if I had Ina Garten's kitchen and bank account, I'd absolutely buy one of these immediately.
Third, it doesn't bake pizzas perfectly. Despite its advanced heating-element technology, the Breville oven doesn't heat completely evenly. As you can see in the photo below, there are definite hot spots that can lead to portions of over-charred crust. Rotating your pizza halfway through the cooking process can alleviate this issue, but considering the high cost of this "smart oven," it'd be nice for beginner cooks not to have to fiddle around in 750°F temperatures.
Apart from the oven's hot-spot problems, the low clearance between the oven deck and upper heating elements can be an issue for the puffy cornicione of a Neapolitan pizza. Big air bubbles can easily come too close to the heating elements and char to a crisp before the pizza has finished baking. You definitely have to keep this in mind when stretching your pies, which also can't be larger than 12 inches in diameter.
Neapolitan-pizza perfectionists may also nitpick that baking in an electric oven means sacrificing flavor that you get from a real wood-burning oven. I agree that there's something lost in that respect, but most of us don't have a wood oven at home anyway. And those fortunate enough to have one can attest to the fact that tending to it is a lot of work: You have to purchase and store the wood, build the fire, get the oven up to temperature, and maintain that heat. It's a lot of fun, but it's a project. There's something to be said for a machine that you can plug in, dial on, and use to bake a very legit Neapolitan pizza (or three) in less than 30 minutes.
The Early Verdict
Overall, I was pretty blown away by the Breville Pizzaiolo. It's a very intuitive-to-use piece of equipment, and it produces pretty spectacular Neapolitan pizza in a home-kitchen environment. I'm really looking forward to playing around with it some more, making different pie styles as well as testing it out for other cooking applications (steakhouse-style broiler beef, anyone?). If only I had extra money burning a hole in my pocket, and a lot of spare counter space...