I'm happy to highlight Mark Graban's pizza oven here on the site today. Mark was actually the first Slice reader to ever contact me and send me links and info about a backyard pizza oven. This must have been back in early 2007 or so. Since then, I've checked in on his blog* periodically to see what he's up to. Without further ado, let's fire up this Q&A! --The Mgmt.
When did you put it in?
Our inspiration for the oven was the world-famous (rightfully so) Pizzeria Bianco. My wife and I used to live in Phoenix, and we ate there at least once a month. When we moved to the Fort Worth, Texas, area, it was just prior to the mini boom in coal- and wood-oven pizzerias. We couldn't find good pizza. So, in researching an outdoor kitchen project, I stumbled across the idea that you could actually get a backyard oven. I fell in love with the idea. I talked to Chris Bianco about it in a return trip to Phoenix and he gave classic advice, "Just keep burnin' 'em 'til ya get it right."
I wish I could brag that I built the oven myself. I'm not that handy. In October 2006, I bought an Artigiano brick oven dome and floor set from Forno Bravo. We hired a local stone mason who had built another oven in town (click here for photos). As I was supervising, it turned out they refused to follow the Forno Bravo directions, and they were making all sorts of errors (including not insulating it properly). So we agreed they would knock it down and walk away.
In December, 2006, I found a second mason who, while having never built an oven, was more willing to follow directions—except for one detail. They insisted in framing the oven and chimney with plywood, as they normally did for fireplaces. I stood there and asked and they insisted it would be OK. The completed oven finally took shape and it was done. Gorgeous.
After making pizza a few times (photos of first attempts), we finally had some friends over. As the oven was still preheating, I saw flames shooting out the top of the chimney (above). The optimist in me said, "Oh, it must just be some soot burning off." No, the wood frame inside the stone had caught on fire. Apparently, the first few firings had just dried out the wood enough that it sparked (and the second masons didn't properly seal off the chimney vent, leaving some gaps.
There was nothing we could do but stand and watch it burn. Oh, and I went ahead and made pizzas anyway. The mortar cracked and a bunch of stones cracked and came apart, but it didn't collapse.
The masons were extremely embarrassed and rebuilt the whole thing from the hearth up (with a huge metal frame). Everything has been perfect since. What an experience. So while I didn't build it by hand, a lot of sweat and frustration went into the even, so I can appreciate the result that much more.
Wow. What an ordeal. How long did the construction take?
It was November 2006 until April 2007 when things were finally completed and 100 percent correct that last time. Much longer than it should have given the crazy story above.
How often do you use it?
Probably about twice a month, on average, year-round (nice to be in Texas). I use Texas white oak, mainly, but also use pecan wood to help get it going at first.
Do you cook anything besides pizza in it?
What style of pizza do you normally do?
Neo-Bianco style (Neapolitan). I make my own dough, using the basic recipe from the Reinhart American Pie book. I've used Caputo flour (blue and red bag), but my best results come from the King Arthur Perfect Pizza Blend (although it's a bit of a cheat). I make my own sauce (slightly cooked, based of Italian tomato puree, onion, garlic, and spices). I've made mozzarella once, but that didn't prove worth the effort (I'll use fresh mozz from the gourmet Central Market chain or even Sams Club or Target mozz - buffalo mozz is too moist).
My staples: Margherita, of course. A Neo-Rosa (Bianco-inspired, above) with pistachios and red onion but with salami and a lemon olive oil base. I also do a "Hatch chile" pizza with Hatch Jack and cheddar cheese and Hatch chile sausage (and chiles). Also like quattro staggioni and experiment with other toppings here and there.
Do you cook for friends/neighbors?
We do a lot of small parties (my in-laws, or a couple or two), but we also have done a number of 25- to 30-person large family parties or coworker gatherings. A large party is great, where I have people help with topping the pizzas (I'll stretch the doughs and tend the oven). But I'll even take the effort to fire it up just to make a single batch of six pizzas.
What does your family think of your pizza madness?
They love it and, even during the trying construction period, never questioned it. A little mad? Sure, but they love it. My wife says, "We, at first, wondered if this might be a fad, and I thought he was a little crazy, but now we reap all the benefits of great pizza. We have become pizza snobs, too, and have fun picking out new topping combinations to try. I recommend it to anyone serious and considering the investment. It was a gift that keeps on giving!"
My dad adds, "It's great pizza! I'm glad Mark decided to put in the pizza oven instead of a swimming pool. I'll come to Texas anytime for Mark's pizza (as well as the family gathering)."
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Mark's blog is called My Pizza Oven--a title that predates my use of it for this column. I must have subconsciously appropriated the moniker. I'm sorry, Mark! Lemme know if you want me to change this column's title.