Food in Forno
Pizza ovens make delicious meals year round.
Several years ago, on a photography assignment in Italy, I stayed on a farm in the countryside of Florence. My hostess, Juliata, made our evening meals in what I thought, at the time, was a fireplace. Years later I learned that it was a forno, a brick or clay wood-fired oven, sometimes referred to as a pizza oven; and that food cooked in one is called al forno. Little did I know at the time that I was on my way to becoming a pizzaiolo—who would be making a lot more than just pizza.
Then last year, my wife and I stayed at a bed and breakfast in Santa Cruz, California, and our room had a lovely view of a garden with an old, unused forno in the middle. These ovens, I discovered, get up to temperatures unreachable by gas or electric ovens—900 degrees—and can cook a Neapolitan pizza in 90 seconds.
Although you can purchase pre-made fornos, I decided to make my own. After much research, I settled on a centuries-old, Pompeii-style oven. It resembles an igloo with an arched tunnel-like doorway and a round interior approximately three feet in diameter. The inside dome is made of firebrick, cut and mortared in rings. For me, it brought to mind Florence’s famous Duomo and made me wonder: Could I build that?
My brickwork expertise up to that point was nil, and the construction of the dome was daunting to figure out. Some builders use a form made of sand or an exercise ball, removing the sand or deflating the ball after the bricks are set in place, but how do you mortar the inside? I discovered a tool often used in lieu of a form—appropriately named the “indispensable tool”—that is a simple radius arm that holds each brick in the perfect position and at the perfect angle as you mortar the curved sides.
Once my wife and I finished the forno, our first real test of its cooking ability involved a weekend visit by some out-of-town friends. We started the fire early in the morning and two hours later, made breakfast pizzas by putting raw eggs and other breakfast-y items on the homemade dough. That day we made 20 pizzas, roasted a whole chicken and a pork roast, and caramelized vegetables.
The dome, ten inches thick, consists of layers of firebrick, an insulation blanket, four inches of insulating concrete, and a stone veneer. Even with an inside temperature of 900 degrees, the outside stone never gets over 90 degrees. The wood-fueled fire, made in the center of the oven, transfers heat to the brick dome. As the wood burns down, red-hot coals at over 1,200 degrees transfer that heat to the brick floor. When the oven is fully heated, cooking can begin.
Pizzas and breads are placed directly on the brick floor. We use clay pots and shallow clay pans to roast meats, fish, and dishes like chicken cacciatore and apple crisp. Vegetables are caramelized in sizzle pans. For grilling steaks and fish, we rake the coals forward into the tunnel-like opening and place a Tuscan grill on top.
Our high-heat oven roasts food from all sides, sealing in flavors and caramelizing food as no standard oven can. Our favorite pizza to date is one made with caramelized onions, figs, goat cheese, and a reduced balsamic vinegar, topped with fresh arugula as soon as it comes out of the oven. In the summer, we even cooked soft-shell crabs.
One night last winter, with two feet of snow on our deck, my wife and I sat in front of the oven and roasted a chicken. We were wonderfully warm from the blankets on our laps, the fire in the forno, and the wine that was involved. And we savored every morsel of that succulent al forno chicken right from the forno’s mouth.