Over the weekend Timothy Paul Perry (aka timotheos) started a thread in Serious Eats Talk about his DIY pizza oven. It was so intriguing—he uses an inverted wok as a dome in a hacked home oven—that people were pinging him for pictures and more info. I knew I had to put him in the hot seat for a My Pizza Oven interview. Whoomp, here it is. —The Mgmt.
First, an excerpt from Mr. Perry's Talk thread, to set the stage:
After a lot of research about wood-fired artisan pizza ovens I started thinking it might be fun to come up with an idea to build an affordable unit that anyone could do and have in their backyard. So i did it. I built a 900°F-plus oven for less than $300.... I started out searching Craigslist and found a Magic Chef wall oven for free....
I gutted it and disassembled it, then put it back together but repacking the insulation with kiln insulation.
I put a inverted wok in the top to work as a dome and laid in a layer of firebrick on the bottom, where I placed a 10-psi propane burner that is removable—as are the firebricks. I used a cordierite pizza insert for my cooking platform. I then placed two kiln shelfs on top and put the whole unit on a four-wheel dolley. Anyway it works great and did not take more then a few hours to do... it is portable and will bake a pie in 90 seconds....
What inspired you to build your portable oven? Were you cooking pizzas in your home oven and just couldn't get the heat you wanted?
First and foremost I love great pizza and having lived in Naples, Italy, for the first two years of my Navy hitch I practically lived on that and spaghetti Bolognese. This was from 1973 through 1975, and I've never forgotten the simple foldable pies that were made there. I kept an apartment and most nights I would bring home a bottle of red and pizza with pepperoni. I could not believe how fast they made the pies and how delicious they were. But i guess you could say that in my old age I wanted to duplicate something from my youth that was memorable, and with the advent of artisan pizzas in the USA it brought back those memories.
How often do you use it?
I was using it every day until I found a method I could duplicate in my home oven that, according to my neighbors and their families and friends, is the best pie they have ever had, which has taken me in a different direction.
I designed a domed two-piece oven insert of cordierite and clay that mimics the Pompeii concept for traditional brick ovens that the average homeowner can insert into their own oven and get the real taste of a brick oven.
The idea was to sell the inserts and possibly 10 pizza kits at a time using my recipe for about $35 so that would be $3.50 for each pizza and something that a family of five or more could stand to spend and 1) have a great pizza experience and 2) learn something together. Most important, it would be affordable for people on a tight budget. I am still looking for partners on this idea. I designed the dome opening to be exactly 63 percent of the interior of the dome. I can have them built in Haiti. I am thinking these would sell in the $100 to $150 range; meanwhile terra-cotta and firebrick and corderite seem to do well and at very little costs.
You mention that it's great to take RVing or tailgating. Were those just suggestions or have you done both?
As I am a bit of a recluse, I made just one trip to a nearby overnight park and cooked pizzas for all the campers nearby. They loved it, and I filmed it. As far as tailgating goes, I have not, as I rarely will be in a crowd. Perhaps this comes from my years at sea traveling the world.
How did you transport the oven? I'd imagine that even though it's on wheels it's pretty heavy.
It's not at all—all of the elements are removable. I remove the bricks from the bottom and the burner and I tie it on to the back of the RV. It looks cool with a pizza peel strapped on. I made one two-day road trip and ended up on the first night in the southwestern part of Maryland and West Virginia at an all-night truck stop. I thought about breaking it out and seeing if the truckers there would enjoy some pizza, but I had exhausted myself due to an undiagnosed case of severe obstructive sleep apnea, so I decided to come back, as I was having a hard time staying awake enough to drive safely. That's how I ended up at Lums Pond Delaware State Park. Still, I thought, What a great idea, as there were no pizza joints near the truck stop. Someone could really make some money with the portability of the oven and a great recipe — and, of course, and the necessary licenses.
What style of pizza do you normally do?
I like a thin-crust New York–style pizza, which really works well when it comes to the high heat. I was using King Arthur unbleached flour, yeast, and salt but located an 82-year-old Italian baker about a mile from me who still has his business who sells me his perfect dough balls for a buck each. He has the equipment to do volume, and they are perfect, so for a buck and consistent quality and weight, well, for me it was a no-brainer decision.
What's your favorite topping or topping combination to make?
I take San Marzano tomatoes and blend them for a few seconds for the sauce. I use only whole-milk mozzarella and sea salt, pepperoni, crushed garlic, fresh oregano, and a few sprigs of fresh basil. I baste the outer crust with virgin olive oil and a dash of the sea salt. That is my adult pie. The kids, they want very little sauce, cheese and pepperoni, and no fresh herbs — and they're happy with that. The kids had a birthday party, and that's what I made them. They ate it all.
Do you cook for friends/neighbors?
Yes. That's who I used through months of experimenting. Every now and then I see them gaze over at my pizza oven with what appears to be hope. For a while I was bringing them all a pizza every other day. I even bought pizza boxes for it.
What does your family think of your pizza madness?
I guess the safest thing to say about that is no comment.
The Pizza Cognition Theory states that "the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza." Do you remember your first slice? Where was it from, is the place still around, and if so, does it hold up? On that note, has your taste in pizza evolved over time?
While I know I must have had pizza in the town I grew up in, the only pizza I remember is from the pizzacotta in Naples.
Where do you go for pizza in your area (when you're not making your own)?
Decisive answer. I like it! ... What's most important to you: crust, sauce, or cheese?
All three are the bones of any good pie.
Anything you'd like to get off your chest?
Yeah. All you people trying to sell $2,000 and $3,000 pizza ovens to the individual homeowners for artisan pizzas, well, good luck because my oven worked from the get-go and I am telling them how to make it for free. Timotheo's Pizza Nation, a nation where even the finest of dreams can come true. Where the average person can afford the luxury of a high-end gourmet pizza.
What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?
What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?
Recently made a road trip around the Dominican Republic, where there are a lot of Italian communities in small coastal towns. There's always great pizza in these communities. I'd be happy to do another road trip with anyone who wants to. I filmed part of my last one, and if I could figure out how to upload it without including parts that, let's just say need to remain private, I could give you a taste of how much fun it is to eat pizza in the Dominican Republic. A lot of brick ovens, both propane and wood.
Now: Who would *you* like to see interviewed next?
I really think the interview of a lifetime would be with Nick, who at 82 has some amazing pizza stories and has been in the biz for over 50 years. He still wears his whites and goes to work Monday through Saturday and has a place on Philadelphia Pike called Mr. Pasta. His food is authentic, and he is quite a character. He only accepts cash, and he sips beer and can be a bit cranky, but he told me that he is the one who helped Pizza Hut make the pies so fast. I tend to accept what he says as true; the man knows his stuff and was making under-2-minute pies years ago. He says he stopped doing so because the customers didn't believe it could be done and that they thought he was just reheating yesterday's leftovers. He only works with original equipment, and you will not find a more interesting and candid person.
Thanks for the tip on Mr. Pasta and Nick, Timothy. And thanks for being a good sport here. This was fun. And I love the inverted wok idea!