The Oh! in Oven

Ovens and I go way back. I started my long cooking career on the world’s crappiest, 70’s-era Magic Chef, with a 150-degree range of inaccuracy, and a vicious, back-corner hotspot. At some point (probably a decade before we junked it—Scots are pretty cheap), the pilot light failed, and when I wanted to cook, I had to reach inside it with a lit match and find the tiny hissing gas jet. Then—to see whether I succeeded—I had to drop to my knees and pull out the drawer, peering up into the oven’s guts to see whether its broiler jets were firing. (If I failed, I had to immediately turn off the gas, flap the oven doors a few times to get rid of built-up gas, then start all over again.) Skill was required just to get this thing hot—producing anything delicious was more challenging.

Then there was the time when I was babysitting for folks even cheaper than we; they had one of those ancient, pilot-less ovens with the little hole into which you dropped the lit match. This particular bad boy had a gas leak that—with a sound I’ll never forget—went whuff! when I approached it with the lit match and singed off my bangs, giving me scarlet, first-degree burns on my right hand and forearm. (I survived—and thanks to date-bane eyeglasses—managed to keep my eyelashes and brows intact, in case you were worried.)

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Then there were the beasts on which I started my professional cooking—three side-by-side sixties-era Garland ranges on which I had to remove the heavy bottom plates to light the jets. Every morning, after lifting out the heavy, sooty, industrial racks and plates and lighting the jets (there was some landlord complaint about leaving the leaky pilots on), it took over an hour until the ovens were truly hot. I always felt a sort of symbiosis with those Garlands. The ovens heated as the morning progressed, and my stiff muscles limbered up after yesterday’s exertions, and, eventually, last night’s offenses by co-workers lost their bite. The ovens climbed in temperature exactly at the rate that I revved up for a brand-new night. Plus, on cold mornings, the most desirable work station was at, or beside, those ovens, when at least my legs would be warm while the rest of me shivered under my thin, poly-cotton chef’s jacket.

So…scary, cozy, and demanding—that’s my feeling about ovens. And I’ve never even cooked in a great oven.

Great ovens—like the old-school coal ovens at Totonno’s, and, soon, Pepe’s—are the Himalayas of cooks. (P.S. Look for more on Pepe’s in the November issue of the magazine—this time, for realsies.) There’s no Ron Popeil set-it-and-forget-it stuff with a coal oven. You have to shovel that 19th-century fuel into the iron mouth like a stevedore. You have to load the stuff into your restaurant with chutes, and there are no handy, temperature-setting dials—you actually need to gauge how much coal you need and then light a fire like a Boy Scout. Coal ovens are persnickety, insisting that bakers feel their way around their massive, masonry beehives to navigate each one’s personality—mapping cranky hot spots (and discovering how to use them), while predicting the weird, cooling conditions that occur when strong winds pass over the exterior flues. Not be purple, but baking in a coal oven is a serious relationship—with fire, with food, even with nature.

Want to check out an unsung beauty of a coal oven? Drop by Sabatino’s across from the Saw Mill Multiplex. While the pizza there is not amazing (though they do everything right, from imported tomatoes to house-made mozzarella), the oven is definitely worth a trip all on its own.

I actually managed to talk my way behind the counter, taking an impromptu tour of this sexy-hot behemoth. (People like me! Really!). I’m in love. Imagine a large, white-tile bathtub/pool filled with glinting coal, lying beside a true beehive oven, with a round, stuccoed dome punched only by two iron-framed doors. My guide swung open the fuel hatch, and we peered inside to see orangey-yellow glowing coals, so hot that each piece had lost its individual shape, looking for the world like a ball of molten metal. Like a tiny, little sun in whose warm light our faces bathed. I’m talking I LOVE this thing.

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PS: The Magic Chef is gone, and now I rock a fairly swank Wolf. But, every once in a while, I long for those childhood days, when every single day I had to get on my knees and tempt the Gods to immolate me like a burnt offering. I don’t know…it just made making dinner so much more interesting.

Sabatino’s Coal Brick Oven & Café
101 Saw Mill River Rd, Hawthorne

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