When lifelong friends John Dawson and Todd Vestby decided to open an Italian restaurant in Toronto, they figured they’d need a wood-burning oven. So they imported one from Italy made from special heat-absorbent clay. “It came in six pieces,” says Dawson, sipping coffee at F’Amelia’s butcher board-topped bar on a recent morning. “It took eight guys just to unload it from the truck.” Two days later, the oven was assembled; after, “we fired it for seven days to dry the clay slowly, starting with a small fire and doubling it every day.” The oven turns out delicate Neapolitan-style pizzas, blasted for just 90 seconds in intense 650° F heat; it sits behind the bar, where diners can watch the flames inside.
F’Amelia is just the latest to install a wood-burning oven, which have been popping up in restaurants, parks, and backyards across the country. Of course, local builders are perfectly capable of making them, but for some restaurateurs, only Italian-made will do. Transporting one of these monsters across the Atlantic isn’t for the faint of heart. F’Amelia’s competition, Pizzeria Libretto, has brought over three for its two locations; unlike the oven at F’Amelia, theirs were assembled in Naples. “The last time we shipped two ovens over, they got to Montreal, and we were randomly chosen to search for weapons and drugs and pornography,” says owner Max Rimaldi. “That held us up a couple weeks.” When the ovens finally arrived they were a bit banged up, so Rimaldi flew in the man who built them to do the repairs.
Olivier Reynaud, who owns Rouge Restaurant in Calgary, emigrated to Canada in 1999. He used to have a restaurant in Andorra (between France and Spain) with a wood-burning oven, and making pizzas was one of its many jobs. “At the end of the night, I would let the oven cool down and, just before leaving, I’d put in an iron pot of cassoulet and leave it overnight,” he says. “It would be done in the morning, with a nice smoky flavour.” Reynaud doesn’t have a wood-burning oven at Rouge, known for its upscale French food, but he installed an Italian-made one in his backyard. “I cooked a 20-lb. Thanksgiving turkey in it,” he says. “We had it brine overnight,” then cooked it at a low temperature, covered in foil. “It was very juicy, and not at all dry.” F’Amelia uses its oven to bake bread, too.
David Thurgar is Western Canada’s representative for Mugnaini, the California-based company that imports Italian-made ovens, including those at F’Amelia and in Reynaud’s backyard. (Kits start at around $4,000.) “You’d think these ovens are old-fashioned, but it’s amazing how technical they can be,” he says. Food is cooked by the chef-approved trifecta of radiant heat, blasting from the fire and oven walls, convective heat, through air circulation, and conductive heat, transferred up from the oven’s hot floor. “It makes the pizzas nice and thin, crispy on the bottom and soft on top, and the dough doesn’t puff up because it cooks so fast,” Dawson says. “You can maintain high heat, which you couldn’t do in a conventional oven.”
Toronto is a hotbed for wood-burning ovens: a few parks have locally built ones for community events, including pizza making and bread baking. Even so, Italian-made fornos create an atmosphere well worth the hassle of shipping them across the ocean. “It’s almost like you’re watching a movie, and you have New York in the background as a character,” Libretto’s Rimaldi says. “The oven is a character here. It was made by a third-generation pizza-oven builder, brick by brick. These guys are artisans.”
At Colonnade Pizza, an Ottawa institution, diners are greeted by the sight of massive golden pizzas being pulled from electric ovens. “Our pizza recipe is something my parents came up with 44 years ago,” says manager Peter Dahdouh. “The dough is sort of in a Lebanese bread tradition, very soft when it’s baked.” Colonnade ad libs its pizzas in other ways: instead of mozzarella, they use brine-salted brick cheese. Pizzas are cooked for about 10 minutes at 650° F; they come out piled high with toppings. Compared to daintier pizzas from a wood-burning oven, “ours are more of a comfort food,” Dahdouh says. “The others are maybe an appetizer.”