At the end of our dining room stands a beautiful stone fireplace. The outside chimney and the interior of the fireplace is lined with brick. The facade facing the dining room is decorated with Maine granite blocks and cobblestones, smooth rocks and sentimental trinkets we collected over time from our favorite Maine beaches. Although, it is not a massive fireplace, everyone loves it. It complements the furnishings in the room, it works like a charm (You can even string roast a duck in it), it’s delightful to gaze upon and it keeps us warm and enchants us all winter. It was built by two of my favorite men: Ben Cable, local brick mason and brick oven designer and Lenny Van Gaasbeek, a true Maine artist who has a special affinity for stone. Of course, when I decided to build a pizza oven, I knew who to call.
Ben and I sat in rocking chairs on my tiny porch last June drinking bourbon and scratching out plans, trying to decide how big we wanted the oven to be, what we wanted to incorporate into it, what it might cost and where exactly on the property we were going to place it. I changed my mind about every detail at least 100 times and Ben patiently put up with my changes. Although Ben is capable of creating a handmade brick interior, I finally decided to go with a Mugnaini prefab oven–one that famous Italian chef and restaurateur Mario Batali himself has used outdoors for his home in Michigan and indoors for several of his restaurants. It’s not that a prefab oven is better than a custom built brick oven. But a prefab is relatively quick to assemble (if the mason knows what he’s doing). I also believe the commercial Mugnaini Primo 100 model is well designed, is the right size for my small classes and includes a Valoriani firebrick floor–imported from my beloved Italy.
My masons began work on my pizza oven project in August of 2012 –about four weeks before Val and I left for Naples to study with master pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia. I told Enzo (with the help of interpreters) about my prefab pizza oven and he tried not be unkind. It was clear, though, that he believed a true Neapolitan pizza oven should be designed by Italians, built by hand by Italian artisans using only Italian materials. When I want to tease Ben, I remind him of Enzo’s words. Ben believes that American ingenuity and American materials are just dandy, thank-you, and Ben made it his mission to prove to me that my Mugnaini oven would reach 1000 degrees, retain the heat for many hours, and easily support my efforts to produce pies that rivaled the best of what we tasted anywhere in Italy.
My oven, topped with a Pennsylvania slate roof and fieldstone chimney was ready for its trial run the end of October. After a week of slow curing, I began to apply what I had learned from Enzo. The first thing I noticed: no matter how hot the interior got (I brought it up to 900 degrees within 90 minutes) the outside of the oven stayed cool. In Italy, Enzo’s oven was always hot inside and very warm in spots on the outside. Ben told me my oven stayed cool on the outside because he super-insulated it to keep heat from escaping.
It took me some time to refine my pizza recipes. Ben, Lenny and the crew, thankfully, were willing guinea pigs. After the oven was completed, the men kept working, beautifying the property with stone steps, a stone surround for the well, a massive granite bench, bluestone wall and patio. While they worked, I developed my own style and learned the idiosyncrasies of my pizza oven. Based on the wonderful testimonials we received from them and are receiving from clients, we’re feeling very happy about the choices we made.