"Harv went to hardware depot and asked for 3,000,000 bricks. "What on earth are you building?" asked the clerk. 'A pizza oven' he replied. '3,000,000 bricks for a pizza oven? Are you sure?' asked the clerk. 'Yes, I live on the tenth floor.'"
Since taking out a second mortgage for playthings is not a great retirement strategy, the good news is that finally there are some excellent wood ovens that are affordable.
Wood ovens do many things well, not the least of which is the creation of outstanding pizza. Hearth breads, roasted meats with a smoky perfume, roasted veggies, melted cheese wrapped in vine leaves, you name it. Almost anything you can cook in a conventional oven can be made better in a wood-burning oven, even baked desserts like crumbles, crisps, and betties. Low-and-slow overnight beans are among our favorite things!
Several companies sell small ovens for less than $1,500, and some, like the Italian made Pizza Party ovens, below, can be mounted onto carts. Click the link to read our review. We love it.
Pre-made large refractory kit inserts start just a hair below $3,000 and go up from there (some of them to astronomical levels) like this copper clad beauty.
But be aware that's just the start. You'll need a sturdy base for this very heavy, dome-shaped assembly, which can be constructed from concrete block and clad in stucco, brick, or, if you are really feeling flush, stone. (Or, not as pretty, buy a purpose-made heavy-duty metal stand.)
The rounded top of the oven needs a layer of insulation (usually supplied) and a finish coat, which can match the base. Or not. Don't skimp on insulation: if the installation instructions suggest using a shielding material used in the space shuttle (mine did), do it!
You can also build a square housing for the beehive, in which case only you will know at first glance that there's a dome inside. Most companies that sell the refractory concrete dome kits are falling over themselves to instruct you in how to assemble your oven, even to always-available human help hotlines, but be sure you read the fine print five or six times before you rent a mobile mortar mixer. Height and depth of the lip in front of the oven door are crucial ergonomic decisions that require deep thinking. You'll be kicking yourself for years if you set the door height near your waist. Imagine having to bend forward from the waist in order to shove pizzas around, turn poultry, retrieve heavy braising pans, etc. For most people, midway between shoulder and elbow is the right height.
Be aware that building the fire to optimum temperature to make pizza, give or take 700°F, will take two to three hours (longer, if you use the oven only infrequently), and you will burn through a fair amount of wood. It would be a waste of resources to fire up the oven just for pizza, however, so plan on fully utilizing it from first heat (the aforementioned melty cheese, amazingly wonderful wood-roasted olives) through incendiary heat (pizzas and flatbreads; big ole steaks), and on to the waning heat phase (desserts, beans, fibrous cuts of meat like brisket and pork shoulder).
If you feel like channeling your inner peasant, let your neighbors know the oven will be firing, and invite them to bring over loaves of ready-to-bake bread, a big heavy pot of short-ribs, or a fruity dessert. Let them contribute some nice, seasoned firewood, and you have the beginnings of a nice local barter economy.
As with other wood burning cooking systems, you need only well-seasoned hardwood. Manufacturers tell you to not use charcoal. Make sure zoning permits your oven before you buy it. The chimney needs periodical cleaning to remove creosote buildup.
Rob Baas, a regular fan of this site, sent this slide show of the construction of his oven. "It definitely cost more than we planned" he says.
How pizza ovens work
The classic pizza oven shape, sometimes called an igloo, has an arched front opening and an igloo-like dome. The shape serves a vital function.
The best designs have a vent just above the front opening to draw the heat and smoke from the rear to the front and funnel it to a chimney. As hot air rises through the chimney it pulls more hot air up. The whole system creates a superheated "d" shaped convection flow inward from the lower front opening to the fire in the rear, upward along the dome ceiling, and before the smoke and heat spill out in the cook's face, it is captured by the vent and sucked outward and up the chimney. There is often a flue to control the updraft, and I've even seen one with a digital thermocouple thermometer probe built in.
To start mine, I pile some kindling in the center of the oven and stack some logs on it. Pizza Party supplies a helpful wire rack to hold the logs above the kindling. I either light it with a long handle lighter, Weber parafin cubes, or use an propane torch as shown here:
I then use a BBQ Dragon which is like a battery operated hairdrier with a long flexible handle and a sturdy clip. It really gets the logs moving in a hurry. Neither gadget is necessary, I use them because they are sure-fire and get thigs hot in a hurry.
I then push the logs to either the side or the rear, close the front door, and wait til it reaches 600°F at least. When the oven is ready I take a 5' length of aluminum pipe (electrical conduit) and blow the ashes to the back so they won't be under the dough. I then build the pie on a wooden peel and slide it in (click here to see my favorite pizza tools and click here for my pizza recipes and technique tips). This unit fits three 12" pies easily.
I close the door for only about a minute. Then I use a metal peel to lift one edge and rotate the pie so I don't burn one side. Close the door for a minute, turn the pie, and check the color of the bottom. I look for some black splotches which are flavorful but don't taste like carbon. If the bottom is done and the top is not quite the way I like it, I lift the pie and hold it just below the ceiling wher it is hot. A minute there and it is time to eat. Total elapsed time? 2 to 5 minutes. Even with raw meat.
Kamados work great
A much less expensive option is a kamado like the Big Green Egg. These are both superb ovens for pizza and baking bread, but also fine smokers. Click here to read more about them.
Pizza attachments for your grill
There are several accessories that can be attached to charcoal and gas grills. I have testing many. I am unimpressed. My advice is get a good stone, an infrared thermometer to read the stone's temp, and practice until you can get the air temp hot tenough to cook the top, and the stone temp cool enough that it darkens, even chars, the crust, but doesn't burn it. For more, read my article pizza on your grill.
Oven and kit suppliers
We have a few pizza ovens in our seachable database of grills and smokers. Click here to see them. Here are some of the producers.
- Acunto Neapolitan Brick Oven. High end brick oven for the serious pizza aficionado. Each oven is built by hand by the Acunto family in Naples in the same fashion since 1892. The 32" floor model is great for residential use as a crowning feature of an outdoor kitchen.
- Alfa Pizza. Alfa Pizza began making heavy, traditional refractory pizza ovens in 1977. In 2009 they introduced their popular 5 Minuti metal oven. Metal pizza ovens heat up faster than heavy brick and cast refractory ovens, but they cool off faster as well. They are also much lighter and may be moved around a patio or balcony with ease. Alfa now offers a variety of ovens and related accessories for residential and commercial use. Sold in Italy with limited availability in the USA.
- Blackstone Patio Oven. Although Blackstone presents their Patio Oven as a versatile device that cooks a variety of foods, it seems best suited for pizza and is reported to do a decent job. This is a unique offering at a modest price point. Easy to find in stores or online, it's a nice backyard addition for those who love pizza and would put a dedicated pizza oven to good use.
- Beech Ovens. Established in Brisbane, Australia in 1958, Beech is now owned by the Middleby Corporation, a global giant in commercial cooking and processing equipment. They manufacture big, commercial cookers in a variety of designs. Product range has expanded from their original Stone Hearth Oven, to include Rotisseries, Tandoors, Duck Ovens, Char Grills, Specialty Grills and Bread Ovens.
- Earthstone Ovens. Earthstone was founded in 1987 by Maurice Sabbagh Yotnegparian, a car mechanic who relocated from France to California in the 1950s. An avid cook, Yotnegparian found time to explore culinary pleasures while pursuing his craft restoring luxury cars in the Los Angeles area. He began importing and selling ovens from France to west coast clients. The initial success led him to design and build his own ovens. Today Earthstone produces a large selection of residential and commercial ovens and accessories. Their most popular residential model is the 90-PA Wood Fired Oven.
- Fontana Outdoor Ovens. Fontana Forni metal ovens are made in Italy, but relatively easy to find in the USA. Metal pizza ovens heat up and cool off faster than heavy brick and cast refractory ovens. They are comparatively light weight and easier to move around a patio or balcony. Fontana Forni offers some unique features, such as integrated convection fans and interior lights, not commonly found on most backyard pizza ovens. Two of their popular residential ovens are the Small-Est and Toscano Margherita.
- Forno Bravo. Forno Bravo produces a wide variety of Pizza ovens and related accessories like pizza peels. While in the past many wood-fired ovens were made from natural clay and terracotta (baked earth), modern materials have dramatically improved performance. Today's wood-fired ovens heat up more quickly, and hold their heat much longer than their old-fashioned predecessors. Forno Bravo uses a proprietary mix of castable refractory material for their oven interiors and a thick layer of insulation on the exterior. We reviewed their residential Primavera 60.
- Kalamazoo. Known for superb high end custom made grills, Kalamazoo also makes wood fired pizza ovens.
- Los Angeles Oven Works. Made in Italy with modern refractory materials, Los Angeles Oven Works is known for great performance and engineered for easy installation. They produce a wide variety of modular and pre-assembled models for home or commercial use.
- Mugnaini. Mugnaini manufactures most components of their ovens in the USA, but still imports their Valoriani refractory core oven from Italy as they believe to these to be best in class for performance and longevity. Mugnaini wraps the Valoriani ovens with an insulated skin then places them on a thick refractory tray to enhance heat characteristics. Their catalog encompasses a wide variety of residential and commercial ovens as well as related accessories. Check out our review of the Medio 110 Barrel Oven which details some of Mugnaini's unique design features.
- Pavesi Outdoor Ovens. Modular oven built in Modena, Italy. Can be purchased as a kit or in a pre-fabricated form.
- Pizza Party Wood Fired Pizza Oven. Handmade in Florence, Italy, "Pizza Party" were the first portables in 1998. They also sell all the tools you need to make great pizzas.
- Renatos. Renato manufacturers and distributes Wood, Gas and Infrared brick ovens, rotisseries and charbroilers. They strive to combine old world tradition with modern technology by adding temperature controls, safety features and gas options. They produce a variety of products for residential and commercial use. Click here for our review of the Renato PR/310 Residential Outdoor Oven.
- Stonehouse Pottery. Stone house creates German Kachelofen: beautiful clay stoves that burn wood efficiently and produce clean, long lasting radiant heat. The heat is stored in the Kachel (clay brick). As the Kachelofen is made of clay bricks, the design possibilities are endless. Stone house takes pride in making each custom Kachelofen a work of art.
- Tuscany Fire. Based out of Connecticut, Tuscany Fire is the exclusive, authorized North American distributor for Di Fiore wood fired ovens from Italy. They offer a very large selection of residential and commercial ovens.
- Uuni. This small modestly priced oven is portable, it burns wood pellets, and it is very cool looking.
- Wildwood Ovens. Wildwood offers a diverse collection of ovens and BBQ's for indoor and outdoor use in the home and garden. They offer quality products in easy to assemble kits. Wildwood also produces many out of the ordinary accessories and imported Brazilian Stoneware to enhance the experience of wood fired cooking.
- Wood Stone. Wood Stone Corporation, based in Bellingham, Washington, has been manufacturing stone hearth and specialty commercial cooking equipment for the foodservice industry since 1990. Their 117,000 square foot research and manufacturing facility is tasked to keep Wood Stone at the forefront of design and construction technology. Although the bulk of their business is large commercial equipment, they have a division called Wood Stone Home that offers some residential models.