Chef Christian Petroni has the ultimate chef appliance, which is, counter-intuitively, about as primitive as you can get. Except for a snazzy ventilation system (and perhaps some high-tech insulation), the dual, wood-fired pizza ovens that Petroni uses at Fortina are not substantially different from the domed brick ovens of ancient Rome. Go ahead and Google “ovens + Pompeii” and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Of course, Petroni’s ovens cost a few more denarii than those ancient Pompeiian beehives. His twin, Italian-made Marra Forni ovens cost a cool $20K each. They’re built for volume: At Fortina, Petroni is cranking through up to five cords of kiln-dried maple, hickory, and oak per week. When the restaurant is busy, he’s firing as many as eight pies at once in a single oven (which is heated to about 700°F—at which the pizzas take between 60 and 70 seconds to cook). Fortina’s second oven, which Petroni maintains at a lower temperature, is devoted to much of the rest of Fortina’s menu, which includes wood-fired vegetables, fish, poultry, and steak.
Wood-burning ovens—once the province of elite restaurants, pizzerias, and bakeries—are cropping up with increasing frequencyin home kitchens and backyards. Italian manufacturers like Mugnaini ship pre-made oven inserts that can be installed either indoors or outdoors. (In fact, you may have seen actor Stanley Tucci in the New York Times posing with his own Italian wood-burning oven in his Northern Westchester backyard.) Mugnainini ovens start at about $2,500, though Forno Bravo ovens (from Northern California) might cost a little less. Most of these wood-burning ovens can be finished on site to match any décor.
Wood-burning ovens are inextricably linked to the idea of pizza—and, it is true, no other tool makes a better pie. But wood also imparts a delicious, subtly smoky flavor to anything cooked in its blaze. To show off his ovens’ versatility, we asked Petroni to share a few of his favorite, wood-fired recipes. This is what happens when a chef gets fired up…
For Recipes, click here:
To be honest, this is more method than recipe. You can easily expand it to serve more diners or adapt it to suit other vegetables. Fresh ears of corn, with their husks still on, are delicious cooked this way.
- 6 whole, untrimmed artichokes
According to Petroni, “After a whole day of cooking pizzas, steaks, fish, et cetera, you will be left with an oven full of glowing coals. This is the perfect time to take some artichokes, bury them in the embers, and burn ’em to a crisp. After the outside of the Ê¼choke is nicely burnt, take them out, and allow them to cool. When they’re cooled, peel off the whole outer layer and trim the artichokes down to the hearts. What you’ll be left with is a perfectly cooked, smoky artichoke heart that you can then marinate with olive oil and vinegar.” Petroni recommends serving the artichokes as an antipasto.
Wood-Fired Eggs in Purgatory
MAKE THE MARINARA SAUCE
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 Spanish onion, chopped
- 5 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 #10 can (about 100 oz) Indigo brand tomatoes, passed through a food mill
- 1 large carrot, shredded
- Handful of basil leaves
In a large pot, heat oil and add onions. Sauté the onions until translucent, then add the garlic. Cook these until the garlic is softened but not brown. Add the tomatoes and carrot, and cook, stirring frequently, for about 30 minutes. Finish with basil leaves.
MAKE THE SPICY OLIVE OIL
- 1 liter extra-virgin olive oil
- 10 fresh Thai bird chilis, sliced, or a handful of red pepper flakes
Combine the oil and chilis and allow the mixture to steep for a few days. Periodically, shake the container. If using fresh Thai chilis, store the chili oil in the fridge. This is not necessary if using dried chili flakes; the oil can be stored at room temperature. Reserve, and use to garnish pizzas, pastas, and the eggs in purgatory, below.
MAKE THE EGGS
- 8 eggs
- 8 cups of marinara sauce
- Splash of spicy olive oil
- 1 Tbsp chopped parsley
- A few basil leaves, torn
Pour 2 cups of marinara sauce into 4 miniature cast-iron skillets. Crack 2 eggs into each skillet, then cover each skillet with foil. Place the skillets into the hot oven and roast until the egg whites are set but the yolks are still runny. The timing will depend on how hot your oven is—to be safe, lift the foil and check the eggs frequently. When the whites are set, remove the skillets and splash the eggs with olive oil. Sprinkle with fresh basil and parsley, and serve. Says Petroni, “If you really want to gild the lily, serve the dish with garlic bread with melted mozzarella on top. Then proceed to take a bow and maybe a long weekend.”
Like most pizzaioli, Petroni weighs his dough ingredients in grams. Measuring by weight rather than by volume in a measuring cup is much more precise, as Petroni dodges significant variations in density that can happen with shipping and storing flour. Slim digital bakers’ scales can be purchased at most good housewares stores.
MAKE THE PIZZA DOUGH
- 15 g fresh yeast
- 300 ml tepid water
- 500 g white flour (Petroni prefers Italian “00”)
- 15 g fine salt
- 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
A few days before you plan to cook the pizza, make the dough. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the yeast and water and allow the mixture to rest. When the mixture is foamy (this will take a few minutes), slowly add the remaining ingredients, then knead with the dough hook until the mixture forms a shaggy, loose dough. Remove the dough from the mixer and place on a clean, floured surface. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. Place the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rest in the refrigerator for at least one day and for up to three days. This, according to Petroni, “gives it time to build some complexity.” Allow the dough to return to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.
MAKE THE PIZZA
- ½ Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- Black pepper, to taste (though Petroni advises
- that you “go crazy”)
- Sea salt
- Sicilian oregano, to taste
- Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)
When your oven has reached about 700°F, make the pizza. Stretch and press the dough into a thin, 10” to 12” round, then cover with onion to within 1” of the edge of the pie. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and black pepper, and transfer the pie to the oven. Cook the pie until it is slightly charred around the edges and the onions have started to crisp. Remove the pie, and finish, says Petroni, “with a few more glugs of some good olive oil, Sicilian oregano, and, if you’re feeling frisky, sprinkle some Parm on that bad boy.”
Julia Sexton is a New York-based restaurant critic, food writer, and award-winning blogger. Her soon-to-be released book, Hudson River Valley Chef’s Table, profiles more than 60 Hudson Valley restaurants, and unites Sexton with her frequent collaborator, photographer Andre Baranowski, who also shot this story. She pines for a wood burning oven in her own backyard, but makes do with a Weber.