Like so many American girls with Italian roots -- the lucky ones, anyway -- Pierina Morelli grew up feasting on homemade pasta and pizza.
Her mother, Madeline, was a second-generation Italian who fed the family focaccia-like pizza most Fridays in their Boardman, Ohio, kitchen, along with pasta fagiole.
Her maternal grandmother, who grew up in a small town north of Naples in Italy's Campania region, also had a knack for making pizza, although of a different variety. Maria Agnone was famous for her Brier Hill pizza, a homestyle pie with roots in the Basilicata region that in recent years has become the centerpiece of a large Italian fest in Youngstown each August (this year, Aug. 15-18). For those unfamiliar with this neighborhood specialty, it's made with generous amounts of "Sunday sauce," sliced bell peppers and grated romano cheese instead of the usual mozzarella.
Ms. Morelli smiles as she recalls being a kid and filling up on so much of that pizza that "there was a period after college that I didn't eat it for a while. I was so tired of it."
Since moving to Pittsburgh more than 20 years ago, she's rediscovered her love for homemade pizza. Many nights have been spent perfecting her crust recipe, both in her electric Thermador oven and on her outdoor grill -- she always uses Caputo 00 pizza flour, which has a lower protein content than regular flour, and proofs the Kitchen Aid-mixed dough overnight in the fridge. (While her mother and grandmother made dough by hand, she says, "some things you have to give up in life.")
She enjoys the process so much, and has gotten so good at it, that three years ago she decided to go even more authentic. She built in her Highland Park backyard a traditional clay pizza oven.
Nestled on a wooden plinth fashioned from reclaimed wood and 3-inch-wide pieces of slate from Construction Junction, the dome-shaped oven is far from fancy. She cooked her first Neopolitan-style pie in it New Year's Day. It was a huge success that's been repeated many times since.
"I don't know. Something inside me just wanted to see if I could do it," she says.
While pizza ovens in Italy are as common as barbecue pits in the U.S., wood-burning pizza ovens such as hers are still relatively rare in American backyards, in large part because they can be fairly expensive and aren't as user-friendly as, say, a really nice grill. Not only do you have to build a fire each time you use it with hardwood (Ms. Morelli swears by cherry), but also you have to wait until the cooking surface gets hot enough to quickly bake a pizza -- 700 or so degrees. It also takes a bit of skill to properly cook a pizza on the "floor" next to the fire.
That's why when you find these ovens, they're often in the backyards of accomplished home cooks with some sort of tie to the food industry. A perfect example is David Lagnese, who runs three stalls in the Farmers' Market Cooperative of East Liberty and also sits on its board. In December, Rick DiBucci of DiBucci & Sons put the finishing touches on a large brick wood-fired pizza oven he built in the Lagneses' Highland Park backyard. Mr. Lagnese has spent much of the summer practicing his pizza-making techniques, some of which he picked up on a recent trip to Italy.
He's been cooking lots of other good stuff in it, too, including roast chicken and veggies in a cast-iron pan. "I've also been experimenting with putting a clay pot with beans in the oven overnight as it cools down," he says. "It is a whole new way of cooking, but I am starting to get the hang of it."
Where to buy
That unexpected versatility often is the tipping point when homeowners are deciding whether to add a pizza oven to an outdoor kitchen, says Tim Hillebrand of Hillmon Appliance in Cranberry, which sells several wood- and gas-fueled pizza ovens. You also can use the oven to bake bread, roast meat, grill steaks, toast hoagies, make risottos and paellas, cook appetizers, and even prepare desserts and other dolce. In other words, anything you can cook in your traditional oven, you can make in a pizza oven.
Not only that, but also "it's something the whole family can do together," adds Mr. Hillebrand. "It's a fun way to cook."
Models sold at Hillmon include Kalamazoo's Artisan Fire Outdoor Pizza Oven. Sleek and shiny, it's fueled by twin independently controlled gas burners that heat up in about 20 minutes. It can bake a Neopolitan-style pizza in about three minutes on its 24-by18-inch cooking deck. Cost: about $6,500. The oven also is available at Don's Appliances in Canonsburg, Dormont and East Liberty.
A bit cheaper is a wood-fired pizza oven from R.I. Lampus Co., a Springdale-based maker of precast concrete products. It sells for $3,989 as a build-it-yourself kit (you need to be accustomed to working with mortar), and construction takes about a week. With a 36-inch cooking surface, it's big enough to cook a pair of 15-inch pizzas at the same time. You also can buy it already assembled for $7,595.
If you prefer a more traditional Italian design, California-based Forno Bravo offers several authentic (and portable) wood-fired pizza ovens. The smallest, the 34-inch-deep stainless Forno Toscano Margherita oven, starts at $2,339 and takes about 15 minutes to preheat; the best-selling model, the Fontana Gusto oven, starts at about $5,000 and includes three wire racks in an upper chamber in which to bake and roast meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables. Breads and pizza are baked on the composite stone bottom.
Chicago Brick Ovens feature a proprietary low, igloo-shaped dome design that is modeled on ancient Neapolitan or Italian wood-fired ovens. They're available either pre-assembled on a cart with a weather-resistant, power-coated exterior or as a modular kit that takes someone who knows what they're doing about 30 minutes to install. Prices range from $2,500 to $5,900. In September, the company also will offer a hybrid, gas-assisted tailgate model for about $8,900, says president Carm Parisi. (The 1,000-pound oven will come on a trailer.) The ovens are available locally through The Outdoor Pizza Oven company at theoutdoorpizzaoven.com or Watson Supply in Harrisburg.
Roundboy outdoor pizza ovens also are made in the U.S. (in Ashley, Pa., near Philadelphia). Available in a terracotta or slate color, each comes as a DIY kit that can be assembled in about two hours. They start at $1,400. New Jersey-based Grills 'n Ovens' wood-fired ovens include a 120-pound, 24-by-24-inch mobile model from Portugal that heats up in 25 minutes and costs $1,200. (The website claims it can be loaded into the trunk of a car to be taken to tailgates and parties.) It also sells several precast kits for traditional dome-shaped ovens that can be finished however you like -- with stucco, stone veneer, pavers, bricks, copper or steel. Prices start at $1,700.
Or maybe you want to shop for pizza ovens at the mall. Sur La Table sells a rolling 59-inch-tall terracotta pizza oven from Portugal for $1,900 plus $510 for shipping.
At the other end of the spectrum is a top-of-the-line dual-temperature Wood Stone oven that hooks up to natural gas or propane. Designed for professionals, the Naples-style oven costs $16,000 at Don's or Hillmon Appliance.
The DIY way
Ms. Morelli, a writer/photographer who is a producer at WQED Multimedia, built her oven by using mostly reclaimed materials. The firebrick came from Craigslist (she made three trips to Connellsville in Fayette County) while the chimney was fashioned from two pieces of terracotta roofing tile. Total price, including five bags of pure red clay from Standard Ceramic Supply in Carnegie: about $300.
"The biggest thing was patience," says Ms. Morelli, whose design was guided by clay-oven guru Kiko Denzer's "Build Your Own Earth Oven." She's also quick to give credit to her friends Dave and Sherry Geis of Richland and Sandy Vansuch of Wilkinsburg -- she calls them her "pizza angels" -- who helped with the bulk of the construction.
"It was real trial and error," she says of the process. "I learned a lot about fires." Not to mention mixing cement, laying brick and shaping clay.
If you're interested in constructing your own pizza oven, you can check out her blog at backyardpizzaoven.blogspot.com. She also recommends perusing Forno Bravo's website, or www.traditionaloven.com, an Australian site that offers useful information and tutorials on building a more traditional-looking oven (square).
"My oven is more of an earth oven," she says.
Sure, it takes a little more effort to cook pizza in her oven, especially because it's only large enough to cook one 12-inch pie at a time. "So we sit, then eat one, then sit some more."
But the look on their faces when they taste it? "That makes it worth it."
Cory Rockwood's Homemade Pizza Dough
David Lagnese usually "cheats" when it comes to pizza dough, buying pre-made dough balls from Mancini's Bread Co. in the Strip District on Sunday mornings. His friend Cory Rockwell came up with this Neopolitan-style recipe. You can find Caputo 00 flour at Pennsylvania Macaroni.
1 3/4 pounds Caputo 00 flour
1.1 pounds water (a little over 2 cups)
4 grams active dry yeast
24 grams table salt
Bloom yeast in water for 5 minutes. Add to the mixer.
Add flour and mix on low speed for 2 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap; allow dough to rest for 20 minutes.
Add salt and mix for 5 minutes on low, then increase speed to medium and mix another 2 minutes.
Portion dough into 9-ounce balls.
Makes 5 dough balls.
-- Cory Rockwood
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published August 3, 2013 4:00 AM