I'm a bit of a snob about pizza. To me, unless it's from New York, Chicago, or Naples, it's not really pizza. And one of the most important pizza characteristics is a hot, hot, hot oven, preferably wood-fired. A proper pizza oven runs at 750 degrees F or more (many top 900) and turns out a pizza in a couple of minutes.
At an outdoor event sponsored by the East Bay Nation of Men, dinner was "gourmet" pizza. Now, I think the Bay Area is one of the finest food locations in the world and the pizza here is often very good — but never excellent and I didn't expect much at an outdoor venue. But my preconceived notions about pizza in the park were about to change.
Around 2 PM, a truck showed up with a trailer carrying what looked like an igloo. It drew a lot of attention and guesses. No one guessed that it was a wood-fired pizza oven, made by our friend Tom Gerstel. Yes, "made by." It turns out Tom's new business is wood-fired pizza catering, using the "portable" oven he built.
A crowd gathered as Tom lowered the trailer (whrrrrrrrrr, men love machinery) and wheeled the oven into place. Whrrrrrr again as a hydraulic lift raised the oven to working height and he attached the legs to its custom-welded frame (men love welding: Fire and molten metal, what's not to like?).
He started a fire with just a few pieces of hardwood (men love fire, too). The thickly insulated box takes a surprisingly small amount of wood to get to working temperature. But it does take a couple of hours.
It gets mighty hot in there but the temperature is not the whole story. The pizza sits on the brick floor and heats by conduction, the way your feet do on hot sand at the beach. It also gets a blast of hot air, like a convection oven, since the flue is a third of the way down from the top of the dome, creating a constant swirl of hot air from the fire, around the top, and out the chimney. A third heating mechanism comes from radiant heat, the way a toaster works. The dome delivers radiant heat from all directions.
Tom built this himself. The oven interior is from purchased parts, most of the rest is from scratch.
The oven is extremely well insulated. It was cool to the touch even while an inferno ran inside.
But we're not here to talk about fire brick and welded stainless steel. This is about the food.
Tom believes in good ingredients. He uses organic flour and an array of prepared toppings. He makes a thin pizza which crisps up like a cracker in the high heat. We had an array of pizzas with pesto, marinara, a four-cheese blend, pepperoni, basil, mushrooms, roast garlic, anchovies, feta, and more. Most of the pies were simple and sophisticated with two or three ingredients. But the beauty of this is that he'll make what people want. He even had some tofu — not a hit, I have to say.
He can turn out a pizza in 90 seconds and run at least three at a time, meaning he can feed many hundreds of people.
Sound good? You can reach Tom via his website, Copper Top Ovens.com (it's a pretty primitive site right now — I think he's been busy welding). But right now, I will close with some glamor shots. Click to see them full-size.