Wood-fired pizza ovens are for so much more than just pizza.
Each day at 4pm, Jim and Michele Wimborough light up their dual wood-fired ovens at Hazel Restaurant in Occidental. Cords of hard wood are fed into the domed brick ovens that look like something straight out of a Neopolitan pizzeria. By dinner service an hour later, the front room’s oven is at a blistering 800 degrees, with red-hot coals that cook pizzas in mere minutes.
But the second oven plays a role that has nothing to do with pizza. As the pastry chef, Michele works with the oven’s 24-hour heat cycle (temperatures range from 250 degrees in the morning to 500 degrees later in the evening) to bake bread and cookies for the restaurant, turning it over to the kitchen in the evening for roasting branzino and vegetables and braising meat.
Like many local restaurants, wood-fired cooking has all but taken over gas and electric stoves. It’s an old-is-new technique that’s been around for millennia and was one of the first forms of controlled baking and braising.
Though emerging technology and building materials may make for a more consistent heat, the domed masonry ovens of the Neapolitan pizzaiolos, Argentinian parrilla, or coal-fired grills haven’t changed much—which is part of the attraction for many chefs.
“I like the versatility—you can cook in the coals, on the surface, braise or roast in pans, add smoke for flavor—and it’s just cool,” says Jim Wimborough.
“Long before gas and electric, everything was cooked with fire,” says Reese Corgiat of Mugnaini Pizza Ovens. The Healdsburg-based domed pizza oven maker whose name no one can pronounce (it’s moon-yah-ini) is a favorite of many local chefs both for its cachet and its traditional design. Like the dual ovens at Hazel, these can hold heat for 24 hours or more, ranging from a relatively cool 250 degrees to a scalding 800-plus degrees.
“This is old-school cooking where you’re not at the mercy of a dial. You’re watching the food, you’re constantly controlling the location,” Corgiat says.
You’re playing with fire, no matter how you look at it.
Rather than being hidden in the kitchen, most wood ovens have become centerpieces in wineries and restaurants, including Geyserville’s Diavola, Benzinger Winery, the Glen Ellen Star in Glen Ellen, Rosso Pizzeria in Santa Rosa, and Vignette Pizzeria in Sebastopol. What they all have in common, however, is that the pizza ovens aren’t just for pizza.
Sebastopol chef Mark Hopper has a passion for dough that borders on the obsessive. But some of the most incredible dishes to come out of his Vignette restaurant’s wood-fired oven are the vegetables. Caramelized, ever-so-gently-charred fire-roasted carrots, eggplants, and peppers all become far more complex versions of themselves inside Hopper’s tiled oven. Thursday through Saturday nights, he puts the oven to use making chicken meatballs, fire-roasted potatoes, and braised meats.
At Santa Rosa’s recently opened Bird and The Bottle, chef Mark Stark has defined much of his Jewish-meets-Korean-meets-Southern-comfort-food menu with a $30,000 custom-made Grillworks cooker. Unlike a pizza oven, this 1,600-pound wood-fired grill has a bed for red-hot coals and burning wood that emanates blistering heat throughout the day.
With a system of cast-iron crank wheels, the grilling surfaces can be lifted or lowered for more or less heat, making it a multi-tasker for the restaurant’s grilled Gulf prawns, brie cheese and radicchio, breads, and perhaps most spectacularly, the whole fish that emerges tender and moist from the bed with a gentle wood-smoke flavor.
A special v-shaped channel in the grill allows fat to be collected from grilled beef and chicken, which he uses for basting. “Or I just take a spoon to it,” says Stark, who is an avowed fan of schmaltz. “I love cooking over live fire,” he adds.
At the heart of Frances Ford Coppola’s Rustic restaurant inside Coppola Winery is an Argentine-style wood-fired grill called a parrilla. Chefs grill meat inside the restaurant, filling the room with tantalizing smells, and—true to Coppola’s theatrical nature—make for culinary entertainment.
Perhaps one of the biggest proponents of wood-fired cooking in Sonoma County is John Franchetti, co-owner of three restaurants focused entirely around his favorite thing: Fire.
“While I’m talking to you, I’m looking in the oven,” says the Rosso and Rosticceria owner by phone. At Rosticceria, they use the ovens for roasting meatballs and vegetables, as well as fish and pork.
“It’s challenging to retain a hot enough temperature and to know where to put the dishes in the oven so they cook but don’t burn,” he says. “You do it by feel. Some people pick it right up, and some people are afraid of it.” But, he adds cheerfully, “if you’re not burning anything, you’re not trying. Ultimately shit’s gonna burn, but it takes practice to learn the different zones. I tell people to watch the Italian guys on YouTube.”
Cooking this way isn’t for everyone, Franchetti cautions. You’re playing with fire, no matter how you look at it.
“It’s ashes and coals and flames and stoking the fire,” he says, “that’s the art of it.”