Friday, September 12, 2014

Building a High Heat Pizza Oven

We have a guest review from a pizza oven expert, Eli at

Unlike the pizza found in many contemporary restaurants, pizza traditionally has been cooked in large solid ovens built of brick and fueled by fire. These ovens are hugely versatile due to the extreme temperatures they can generate, their energy efficiency and ease of use. 
Conventional gas oven at DiFara Pizza in Brooklyn

The high heats of over 370°C (700°F) mean that once the fresh pizza is placed on the brick hearth of the oven, immediately the dough and sauce will begin to bubble and generate flavours unique to this type of cooking. 
High-heat wood-fired Naples-made oven at Vecchia in Phoenixville PA

The pizza will cook in only 90 seconds producing a perfect base and crust which has been cooked uniformly from all sides top and bottom. These types of ovens are coming back into favour as they create great tasting food and are fun to build and use.

A traditional wood fired oven in the ruins of Pompeii.

Building such an oven can be done at home as a DIY job on essentially no budget all the way up in to the thousands. The basics of the oven are a floor where the pizza is placed called the "hearth," a dome over the hearth which captures and radiates the heat, the "vault" which is the open space between the dome and hearth, and the insulation which is placed over the dome to minimise heat loss to the atmosphere.
Cob oven

Generally, temporary ovens built on the cheap are made out of mud and straw called "cob." Cob ovens are quite basic, cheap and easy to make. The oven is built directly on the ground utilising a few bricks, straw or grass, and standard mud found in your back yard. Simply create a flat section of ground and lay some flat bricks to create a hearth where the pizza will sit. 

The best type of bricks are called "fire bricks" which are widely used in industrial kilns or ovens. The bricks have a high alumina content which ensures they work excellently with high heats. Placing the bricks on a level bed of sand makes it easy to create a level hearth. 
Oven made with fire bricks

Once the bricks are laid a mound of wet sand is built up on the hearth in the shape of the inside of the oven or "vault" and then covered in wet sand. Cob balls are made by mixing wet mud and straw, and then moulding them in the palm of your hands. The balls are then used to create the oven dome using the sand mound as a supporting structure.

Brick ovens are similarly built upon a flat hearth of fire bricks; however, this is generally off the floor in a nice kitchen setting. A wet sand mound or a wooden structure is again constructed to shape the vault of the oven where the dome is built on top. For brick ovens the fire bricks are again used to create the dome, entrance and chimney. Although cob may hold high heats if insulated properly, fire bricks will function at much higher temperatures and create outstanding results.

Once the dome is complete the oven whether cob or brick will need to be insulated so as to retain heat for as long as possible. Well constructed ovens with domes of thickness 4” or more and insulation of 4” or more will take 1-2 hours to bring to temperature and then may stay at cooking temperatures for over 12 hours. Insulation for the oven comes in many different forms such as vermiculite mix cement, or insulating fire blankets.

Finally, the oven is clad with either a mud layer or concrete mortar like mix to create a smooth aesthetic outer finish. A fire is built inside and you’re on your way to cooking up your first of many perfect homemade pizzas.

Detailed descriptions, plans, techniques and how to source the required materials can be found here:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review: Grotto Pizza, Dewey Beach DE

Grotto Pizza is a regional small chain, with 16 locations in tiny Delaware, 3 in Pennsylvania, and 2 in Maryland. It's pretty much unknown outside the area, but it's the pizza of choice for many residents of the First State.  On a recent visit to lovely Dewey Beach, I had my first chance to try it.
A 12" pie from Grotto

In general, I avoid chain pizza.  Most of it is made with inferior mass-sourced ingredients, both to allow a low price and to appeal to the palates of children and ravenous drunks.  
Click on any pic for full size image

Having said that, some chains execute at a very high level, especially the smaller ones like Bertucci's, Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza, Jules Thin Crust, and Monical's.  Even California Pizza Kitchen is pretty good. Click on any of those for a full review.  

With that in mind, I was open to Grotto pie, given the love it gets from locals.

We didn't try the Gelato

We were on the beach on a beautiful sunny day, and this Grotto location (Route 1 at Read Street) was just a one block walk.  I chose a 12" pie with pepperoni, and to my surprise it took 15 minutes to get it. This tells me that they made the pie fresh when ordered - none of this pre-cooked or pre-assembled slop. I forget the exact price, but it came to over $15 for this small pie; I presume this was "beach pricing."

The strength of this pie was its crust, which was sturdy, with both good crunch and chewiness, and a nice interior hole structure.  All that, despite having been baked on a screen.  The sauce and cheese were suitably bland (but salty), and applied in about an ideal proportion.  The pepperoni was surprisingly spicy.
Damn good crust!

Cooked on a screen, but still well-executed

This pizza passes our "does it beat DiGiorno" pizza test. It's not destination pizza, but it beats 90% of the mom-n-pop stuff, and it is miles ahead of Domino's, Papa John's, and Pizza Hut. 
Pizza at the beach?  No complaints here

The crust gets a 7, the sauce a 6, the cheese and pepperoni 5. Overall, 6.5 pizza. Chain pizza can be just fine, but mostly when it is a regional, smaller one. Still wise to avoid the giant national chains.

Grotto Pizza - Dewey Beach on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Review: Tony Boloney's, Hoboken NJ

Because we at Pizza Quixote can't eat every pizza in America, we're glad to get guest reviews. Recently, a colleague visited Hoboken, ate some good pie, and brought some back to share. Let's get her thoughts first and then my perspective about the re-heated slices I was privileged to enjoy in my own kitchen.
"Arugula Smokeout" pie - click on this or any pic for full size resolution image

Sunny's Guest Review

"I was in Hoboken, NJ to see a family member few weeks ago. While I was in town, I decided to stop at Tony Boloney’s sub and pizza shop. Hoboken is their second location; the original shop is in Atlantic City, NJ. I have tried different subs and their Brussels sprouts pizza in the AC location and remembered it being good, so I decided to order one. 
Guest reviewer Sunny and husband Rob

"The Royal Balls pie has roasted Brussels sprouts on top of smoked mozzarella with truffle butter. I didn’t taste much of the smokiness of the mozzarella cheese, but there is definitely a dominant flavor of the truffle butter. It was as good as I remembered and I loved the roasted Brussels sprouts with crispy outer layers.
"Royal Balls" Brussels sprout pie
"After finishing the Brussels sprouts pizza, my husband and I decided to get a second pie and agreed on the Arugula Smokeout. Just like the name, the pizza had arugula topping all over it but the added lemon and Parmesan cheese made it even better. Obviously, this isn’t something you want to take to go because of the arugula. However because it was so good, we didn’t mind packing up what was leftover and eat it for late night snack. This is probably my favorite pizza from Tony Boloney’s.
The Gindolune

"Before heading back to Philly that weekend, I contacted my colleague who is a pizza fanatic to ask if he wanted to try any of the Tony Boloney’s pies. He chose to go with a Gindolune, a pie with fennel sausage and garlicky broccoli rabe with homemade mozzarella cheese toppings. 

"We split the pie and I tried it few hours after I picked it up. I loved the garlic flavor from broccoli rabe and the sausage was pretty tasty. I would like to get this again and try it fresh."

PQ Tasting Notes

This Gindolune pie was full of flavor. I could tell it was a high quality and savory sauce, and the cheese also gets high marks. Despite having eaten this pie on the re-heat several days after it had been baked, moisture from the generously-applied rabe had not soaked into the crust. 
A re-heated slice

On the perforated re-heating pan, post re-bake

The sausage seemed to be of good quality, but the pie would have been lots better if the sausage had been applied uncooked, instead of cooked and sliced. 
Underside of a reheated slice

The fundamental quality of any pie lies in the crust. From Sunny's pics, the crust looks superb. By the time I ate my re-heated slices, the taste was fine but the texture was unremarkable. I do suspect it is much better fresh out of the oven, and I hope to get there soon to verify.

Tony Boloney's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon