PHIL ROSENTHAL and Monica Horan have had a love affair with Italy and la cucina Italiana ever since they first flew there as couriers for DHL in the early '80s. They are especially enamored of the cooking done in the wood-fired ovens once found outside so many farmhouses across the Italian countryside.
These ovens still show little variation on the original Roman design: a round, domed chamber built out of brick or local stone and vented in front. Though we call them pizza ovens, they can be used to prepare practically any dish.
"A well-designed wood-fired oven offers many benefits over conventional ovens," says John Thess, general manager of Mugnaini Imports ( www.mugnaini.com) in Watsonville, Calif., oven supplier to chefs Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali and Alice Waters, as well as Francis Ford Coppola and the Culinary Institute of America. "The biggest advantage comes from using high heat and a live flame inside the oven. But the same oven can also be used as a bake oven for hearth breads by cooking with no flame, just the retained heat that is stored deep in the clay dome."
The brick oven floor, which generates conductive heat, can be used as a stove top. The dome provides radiant heat to the entire chamber. The fire generates convection heat.
Most of these ovens fall into two categories: the traditional clay or terra cotta ovens, made as they have been for centuries by Tuscan artisans; and prefabricated refractory pizza ovens, which take advantage of high-tech materials that heat the chamber faster.
Both types are available from importers who work with contractors on installation. Most ovens range from $2,500 to $10,000, sometimes more depending on the quality and the size. The traditional terra cotta brick and stone ovens are the most expensive.
-- Andrea R. Vaucher