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Cooking Alfresco : Fully Equipped Back-Yard Kitchens Add All the Comforts of Modern Home to an Old Tradition


When Phillip DiSaia scoops dinner--in this case, pizza--out of the wood-fired oven in his back yard, he's carrying on the old California rancho tradition of preparing food outdoors.

Somewhere along the way, kitchens moved indoors. But there is a renewed interest by some in getting the action outside again. While many cooks are happy with the occasional barbecue on a Weber grill on the patio, others have made their outdoor kitchens a primary area for cooking and eating.

And we're not talking about summertime hot dogs and paper plates, but year-round, sit-down family dinners.

Patti and Phillip DiSaia of Tustin cook outside four days out of seven; Nancy and Bill Bartlett of Irvine also cook outdoors several times a week. Both have fully equipped, open-air kitchens in the middle of suburbia.

For the DiSaias, their back-yard kitchen is a focal point for entertaining, the place where family and friends gather and where culinary skills are honed.

The outdoor kitchen is a relatively new addition to their 20-year-old home. "The boys were teen-agers, and we wanted a place where they could entertain and have fun. And we love to entertain people at our home," said Patti DiSaia.

The DiSaias had been cooking on a portable barbecue, so they knew they wanted something more elaborate that would be able to accommodate large groups. About 18 months ago, they hired landscape architect Dale Waldo of Tustin to design their outdoor kitchen and redesign the entire back yard.

Waldo created three outdoor areas for the DiSaias. To one side of the kitchen is a swimming pool and Jacuzzi; on the other side is a lawn, orchard and garden area.

Corner beams connected by trellises were used to established the kitchen area and give a structure for lighting and plantings. There is no roof.

"Where the kitchen is now, there used to be bushes, a bench and a cement patio," said Patti DiSaia. "Our new kitchen really opened up the whole area."

The star attraction of the kitchen is the pizza oven, a feature that both the DiSaias wanted as a reminder of their Italian heritage and travels to Italy. It has also been an ideal way to cook for their teen-age sons, Dominic and Vincent, and their friends.

Phillip DiSaia, is the main pizza chef in the family and cooks often. He experiments with ingredients, combining things such as spinach and anchovies, and in five minutes can come up with a pizza that would make chef-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck proud. "Since the temperature gets (to) 1,000 degrees in the oven, food cooks fast. You can't be talking away while the pizza's cooking," he said.

Patti DiSaia also uses the oven extensively, even for baking Italian bread. In addition to use as an oven, the 42-inch-wide structure also has a metal grill that can be slipped in for cooking hamburgers or fish when the coals are cooling down.

Other elements in this outdoor room include a stainless steel gas grill and separate gas burners. The weather-resistant stove is from Dynamic Cooking Systems in Huntington Beach. Patti DiSaia uses this professional-quality appliance for making pesto sauce and cooking pastas.

Built into the tiled counter are a garbage disposal and refrigerator with an ice maker. A stainless steel sink with an instant hot water maker helps make cleanups easier. There are also storage areas underneath for dishes, glasses and pots.

Because the DiSaia outdoor kitchen is free-standing, Waldo brought in the electricity, water and gas underground. He framed the structure with stud-wall construction like that done for houses and added a three-inch-thick veneer of concrete. "You don't always have to get this elaborate," Waldo said. "It all depends on the location."

The outdoor kitchen of the Bartletts in Turtle Rock was an expansion of an existing patio area. Nancy Bartlett designed it using books and articles she clipped for ideas. She hired a good bricklayer and cabinet maker, acting as her own contractor.

"My almost U-shaped kitchen backs up to the inside kitchen so I could use the existing water, electricity and gas. Even in the winter I cook out there two or three times a week," she said. Bartlett used the existing patio and patio cover to define the perimeter of the outdoor room.

The kitchen counter is covered with the same blackish-brown Corian as her indoor kitchen. "Corian isn't guaranteed for outdoors, but I haven't had any problems with it," she said. Bartlett chose the Corian over tile because she felt it would be easier to keep clean since it could be easily washed and the color didn't show the dirt.

Because the Bartletts love the outdoors and entertaining casually, the two-kitchen arrangement works well. Last summer they hosted a wedding for 200 in the back yard by using both cooking rooms and placing tables outdoors.

The exterior kitchen consists of professional stainless steel burners, again by Dynamic Cooking Systems, a refrigerator and ice maker and storage cabinets.

"I use my outdoor kitchen even in the rain because I can take the whole mess outside," Nancy Bartlett said. "And during the summer the kitchen comes in very handy since I don't like to turn on the air conditioner, and this way I can cook and not heat up the house."

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