Fire It Up
Wood-fired ovens impart flavor, character on Italian menus.
Wood-burning ovens aren’t always easy to install in a restaurant, and they sure aren’t cheap. But the additional time and expense required to include these ovens in the kitchen is necessary for many Italian chefs and restaurateurs who utilize them for distinct flavor in not only pizza, flatbreads, and focaccia, but also a wide variety of entrées ranging from short ribs and veal to radicchio and romaine.
Depending on the space, time frame, cost assessment, and need, those looking to install a wood-fired oven have options. One option is to bring an oven over from Modeno, Italy, like the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group did at 411 West Italian Café in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Another option is to have one built by Italian artisans with Italian materials on location, which is what owners Kathie and Mike Gordon, along with chef Luca Crestanelli, did at S.Y. Kitchen Cucina Rustica in Santa Ynez, California. Or restaurateurs can use a standard model from the U.S., which is what chef/owner Angelo Elia decided on for his handful of South Florida Angelo Elia Pizza, Bar & Tapas locations after importing his first oven from Italy for his flagship Casa D’Angelo in Fort Lauderdale.
In fact, the wood-fired cooking at 411 West proved so popular that during a 2003 renovation, the partners replaced the original oven with a larger version, managing partner Tommy O’Connell says. After experimenting with several types of wood when it opened, the team decided on red oak over white oak (not strong enough) and hickory (too strong).
“[Red oak’s] even burn provides a consistent temperature and predictable variations with new logs,” O’Connell says. “It also provides a pleasant but not overpowering smokiness to food prepared in the oven.”
S.Y. Kitchen’s Crestanelli also prefers red oak, although he has nothing against the slightly less flavorful white oak. He sometimes uses fruit tree wood to roast his citrus-scented olives and sear his thyme-accented globe artichokes—but only if they come from organic farms. “I don’t like pesticides to flavor my food,” he says.
At Casa D’Angelo, it’s oak all the way. Elia, who grew up in Italy, says that not only does oak provide the best results—producing a “smoky, well-done flavor”—but it’s also a custom in Italian food. “Oak wood was always used in the wood-fired ovens there,” he says. “It is a tradition we honor in our restaurants.”
What chefs choose to cook in wood-fired ovens can vary greatly. At a.o.c. in Los Angeles, renowned chef Suzanne Goin has prepared dishes as varied as pancetta-wrapped trout with sorrel gratin; Ricotta tartine with wild mushrooms and hazelnuts; and kabocha squash gratin with spigarello, raschera, and radicchio in the wood oven. At Modesto Restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, chef Hector Diaz roasts everything from octopus and vegetables with balsamic vinegar to salmon piccata served over mussels risotto.
Meanwhile, chef Adam Superneau at Oak Oven in Harahan, Louisiana, offers local oysters topped with shrimp, crab, bacon, and white wine butter from the oven, as well as a rich black Angus braciole stuffed with artichoke and an assortment of cheeses. And Toscana Brentwood, a sister restaurant to S.Y. Kitchen, features an entire “Forno al Legna” (roughly translates to “wood-fired oven”) menu, overseen by executive chef Hugo Vazquez, that includes a 20-ounce prime cut frenched rib chop with cannellini beans, a veal chop with butter and sage, and New Zealand lamb chops.
At S.Y. Kitchen, Crestanelli says, he’ll cook his soups in the oven to give them a rustic edge, while at 411 West, O’Connell says he can’t think of anything that hasn’t gone in the oven—that includes truffles, which they’ll roast lightly to bring out “the smoky properties,” and even a double boiler of heavy cream for a sauce.
With his South Florida access to fresh fish, it’s probably not surprising that Elia often adds salt-encrusted whole grouper to his ovens, as well as lamb, pork, and a variety of vegetables.
The wood smoke adds its own seasoning, Elia says, so there is less need for salt and sauces. “Of course the level of seasoning, sauces, and oils varies per dish. [But] we don’t want to mask the robust flavors of the wood-fired oven,” he says.
Given that not all of these dishes are about juicing up and flavoring proteins, what’s the attraction of cooking in such an elemental style, where a chef has perhaps less control than he would over a gas burner or with a high-tech product?
Crestanelli says the inexact nature of wood-fired cooking is the point. “Personally, I like it because it has character. It’s never precise, never the same,” he says. “There are more margins for error with the wood-fired oven than other soulless techniques, like sous vide or convection oven. Fire is the element, and then it’s all in the expertise of who cooks and the product. It creates a one-on-one relationship between the food and the element.” υ