When Ron Molinaro of Il Pizzaiolo built a wood-burning oven in his Market Square restaurant Downtown, he brought in masons from Italy's Forno Napoletano to assemble it. Made with Italian materials such as volcanic stone from Sorrento, it cost him $32,000 for the oven alone, part of a $1.5 million renovation to open the restaurant in March 2013.
Mr. Molinaro is one of a handful of chefs in Pittsburgh with a wood-burning oven. And his is the only one of three in Market Square that has not caused a building fire within the past two years. NOLA caught fire on Feb. 24 while Winghart's Burger & Whiskey Bar suffered a chimney fire in September 2012.
Wood-fired ovens have become more popular around the country for baking bread and Neapolitan-style pizzas, as well as for roasting meats and vegetables. Very high heat, upward of 700 degrees, allows for different styles of cooking than a conventional oven. It's important for texture and it imparts a complexity of flavor, the result of clean-burning woods.
As wood-burning ovens gain popularity, the city of Pittsburgh has implemented requirements for a separate hood and fire suppression system, an additional expense that ranges from $20,000 to $50,000.
Despite these requirements, hoods and fire suppression systems did not play roles in putting out the fires in Market Square.
As it beefs up requirements, the city does not enforce some rules that would prevent fires. There is no enforcement of how often a restaurant cleans the chimney or flue of a wood-burning oven, for example.
Restaurants with ovens built before 2010 are exempt from the new regulations.
Market Square fires
On Feb. 24, a fire started in the ceiling above the wood-burning oven at NOLA, arson detective Michael Burns told the Post-Gazette. It spread next door to Perle and Bruegger's Bagels, causing an estimated $1 million in damages.
According to John Jennings, the city's chief building inspector, NOLA owner Yves Carreau will be cited for having an improperly built wood-burning oven installed without city permits.
Mr. Carreau disagreed, and said plans for the oven were submitted to the city and approved in November 2010, before the oven's installation, by licensed contractors. He told the Post-Gazette that the city inspected the entire kitchen and issued an occupancy permit before the restaurant opened. Mr. Carreau and his lawyer were not available for comment.
The September 2012 fire at Winghart's started in a section of the oven near the chimney that didn't properly insulate the building from the intense heat.
"There was no way for building inspectors to know that a 4-inch space wasn't covered," said owner Zachary Winghart.
He inherited the oven from the former Buon Giorno Cafe when he opened the restaurant in January 2011.
"We had a hood and had everything up to code otherwise," he said. The oven was rebuilt and the renovated restaurant reopened in November 2012.
Wood- or brick-ovens have been rising in popularity in Pittsburgh since Mr. Molinaro opened Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon in 1996 and Larry Lagattuta, owner of Enrico Biscotti in the Strip District, built his the same year.
"People have used wood-fired ovens for 10,000 years," said Mr. Lagattuta. "It's a time-tested method." He says he does not have an oven hood because of the grandfather clause.
Roberto Caporuscio fueled the popularity of the wood-fired oven when he opened Pizzeria Regina Margherita in Bellevue in 2001. He later opened a location in Lawrenceville, also with a wood-fired oven, and closed the venue in Bellevue.
In 2005, he sold the Lawrenceville space to the Branduzzi family, which opened the second location of Piccolo Forno.
Mr. Caporuscio went to New York City to open Keste Pizza & Vino, an acclaimed restaurant that has helped stoke the passion for wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza nationwide.
High heat, campfire flavor
Domenic Branduzzi, now owner of Piccolo Forno, had been working for Mr. Caporuscio for two years before his family bought the space.
Mr. Branduzzi was born in Lucca, a walled city in the Tuscany region of Italy. His family came to Pittsburgh in 1987.
His father Antonio wanted to make pizza in the style of his homeland, but there were few to no wood-burning ovens in Pittsburgh restaurants.
"My parents went to New York in the late 1980s to explore how to bring a wood-burning oven here," he said. "But even in New York, they had trouble pinning down where to get one and what the regulations were for installing them."
Mr. Branduzzi keeps his oven safe with proper maintenance that includes a chimney sweep every four to five months, wiping down the interior and sweeping out ashes from the firebox.
He said wood-fired ovens are essential for creating authentic Italian styles of pizza, which differ between regions.
While working for Pizzeria Regina Margherita, Mr. Branduzzi said, he learned how the Neapolitan style differs from the Tuscan style.
"Mine is Tuscan-style in that the dough does not ferment as long and I keep the oven at a lower temperature, around 650 degrees. It gives me more control over the texture of the crust," he said.
Neapolitan pies bake at nearly 1,000 degrees for two minutes or less. It's a wetter pie, for which the center is often soft, since there's so little baking time for liquid within ingredients to evaporate. They're typically made with very fine "00" flour and are 12 inches across.
Mr. Molinaro of Il Pizzaiolo said wood-fired ovens are essential because of how they conduct heat from the floor, through convection, and through the dome airflow.
"This concentrated blast is important for texture to create a true Neapolitan pie but it's also important for flavor in that the toppings don't dry out," he said.
As the popularity of wood-burning ovens has grown, city inspectors have questioned their safety. As a result, in 2010, city code had been changed, confirmed Rob Chiarelli, contractor for Arriba Construction, the company behind the build-out of Il Pizzaiolo in Market Square.
"The city requires a separate hood permit for wood-fired ovens," he said. For Il Pizzaiolo, "We followed the protocol. We coordinated with Kevin Sullivan of Sullivan Building & Design Group for the engineering drawings and permits for hoods, ansul systems and inspections at Il Pizzaiolo."
Anna and Michael Mercurio weren't so lucky, having taken a hit from the changes in requirements. They intended to open Mercurio's on Walnut Street in Shadyside in August 2011, their contractor having applied for permits and having installed their Acunto Wood Fired Oven shipped from Naples.
But just before opening, it became clear they did not have the hood and fire suppression system required, said Ms. Mercurio. As a result, they had to wait nearly eight months and pay more than $20,000 to comply with the city's requirements.
The story of Brix Woodfired Wine Bar on the North Side is another tortured tale. Paul Tebbets and Chet Garland, who also run Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar in Shadyside, opened Brix in September 2011. It closed briefly after zoning and permit problems, despite the fact that three different restaurant/bars had previously operated in the space. But before long, the city's Bureau of Building Inspection cast a cold eye on Brix's wood-fired oven, and it closed again, for good.
By October 2012, Mr. Tebbets and Mr. Garland opened Benjamins Western Avenue Burger Bar in the space.
"Wood-burning ovens are a big gray area," said Mr. Garland. "There are a lot of inconsistencies in the city of Pittsburgh. The biggest issue is whether a restaurant has to get a HVAC permit or a Class I, Type 1 hood permit. And, if something happens, it's still not clear whether the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the city or the businesses."
(The Pittsburgh Bureau of Building Inspections as well as the Arson Squad for the Investigation Branch of the City of Pittsburgh could not be reached for a response to this article.)
Mr. Garland said he also wanted to install a wood-fired oven at Toast! but went with gas-powered instead.
"We would have had to close for two to three weeks to install another hood for the oven. And it would have cost us $50,000 to $60,000," he said. "For a system that's so expensive, we just didn't think it was worth it."
Mr. Winghart prefers wood-fired ovens because it's more of an art.
"I got to the point where I could hold my hand up to the fire and I could tell how hot it was and how much wood I needed to add," he said. But he installed gas-powered rather than wood-fired ovens in his four other Winghart's locations because the permit process is too expensive and time-consuming.
Others are giving up on wood-fired ovens, too, particularly small business owners without investors or contractors behind them.
"With the new regulations," said Mr. Lagattuta of Enrico in the Strip District, "I'd never put one inside a restaurant again."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.