You may have seen the name on restaurant menus and dismissed it as marketing fluff, but the fact that restaurateurs are willing to drop upwards of US$25,000 to ship Stefano Ferrara ovens around the world and even destroy their restaurant fronts to install them, tells us that there’s something special about these domed brick caverns.
The first thing to be aware of here is the history of Neapolitan pizza and the lengths that upholders of the tradition have gone to in order to preserve its authenticity. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana publishes an extraordinarily stringent set of rules detailing everything from the ingredients, to the fermentation and proofing time of the dough, to the way the pizzas are cooked.
One stipulation says that the pies must be baked on the stone surface of a wood-fired oven that reaches at least 485 degrees Celsius. It even prescribes the use of a peel and guidance on how to rotate the pizza as it cooks. This obsession with detail and pride in upholding tradition makes the choice of oven extremely important.
The ovens used to cook the pizzas have as storied a history as the pies themselves. Oven makers like Stefano Ferrara’s family have been at it over 100 years. Just like Neapolitan pizzas, without the highest quality of raw ingredients, it’s impossible to have a high-quality end product.
Naples and the surrounding area provides all the materials, making the cooking apparatus as distinctly regional as the food itself. The cooking stone is made from Biscotti di Sorento. Essentially, it’s a giant clay brick with an impossibly smooth surface. The quality of the clay means that it retains heat very efficiently, providing an evenly hot surface that cooks the base of the pizza without burning it, during its 60-90 seconds in the oven.
The crown and dome are made from refractory bricks that are 60mm thick, able to withstand temperatures of over 900 degrees Celsius. If you’ve ever stood next to one of these ovens, you can feel the intense heat radiating from them, even through the handmade mosaic tiles on the exterior.
The domed shape of the oven is key for the proper circulation of air, which is needed to achieve very high and consistent temperatures. Cold air is drawn into the oven through the opening at the front and is heated as it moves towards the back of the oven. As it gets hotter it rises and flows around the curved rear and back towards the front, this time at the top. The combination of heat-retaining materials and the domed shape cooks the pizzas to perfection.
The very high temperatures mean that the raw tomatoes on the top of the pizza are cooked into a sauce in the 90 seconds that the pizza is in the oven. This reflective heat plus radiant heat from the brick walls also helps to raise and cook the crust. Conduction from the thick clay base cooks the pizza from below, at a lower temperature than the hot air above.
Finally, the movement of hot air around the dome of the oven cooks the pizza all the way around, but the air is far hotter at the top. If you ever see a pizzaiolo lifting a pizza towards the top of the oven near the end of cooking, this is to finish it off in the hottest part of the oven, ensuring it has the charred crust that is characteristic of Neapolitan pizza.
Christopher Mark, co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants, studied the intricacies of Neapolitan pizza making under maestro pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia at his world-renowned Pizzeria La Notizia in Naples. He had no qualms about installing the ovens in both Motorino restaurants in Hong Kong despite the cost and explains, “the pies should be cooked in a blazing hot, wood-fired oven to achieve the charred crust and molten centre. The quality of build and personal service you get from Stefano Ferrara make his ovens a point of pride for pizzerias”.
It seems there’s a lot more to this Neapolitan pizza stuff than meets the mouth. If you are going to make Neapolitan pizza you should use a Neapolitan oven and given the history and craftsmanship that goes into these ovens, it’s no surprise that pizzerias around the globe are willing to go to such lengths to install the real thing.
For more on the subject, read our comprehensive guide to Neopolitan pizza or for more food stories find out how Aberdeen Angus cattle became Argentina’s most prized beef.