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Wood-fired ovens bake pizza to perfection

Above left: Chef Tony Andiario prepares a pizza in a wood-fired oven, which he said gives the crust a satisfying crunchiness.

Left: Flames lick the ceiling of a wood-fired oven. Later, chef Tony Andiario will push the glowing coals to the side and bake pizza on the oven floor.

Voila! A finished pizza, hot and bubbly in two minutes flat, from a wood-fired oven.

DON CAREY photos/THE TIMES LEADER

Jan Sailus and John Clark of Something Special in Kingston watch Chef Tony Andiario as he slices an artichoke for use in a salad he’ll serve while the fire continues to heat the oven.

DON CAREY/THE TIMES LEADER

If you want to master a wood-fired oven, Tony Andiario said with a laugh, “It’s a matter of burning things a couple of times.”

But once you know what you’re doing, the chef added, this could well become your favorite method for preparing homemade pizza. “It gives the crust so much smoky crunchiness.”

Andiario is a 1997 graduate of Wyoming Valley West High School in Plymouth who works for the Quiessence Restaurant in Phoenix, Ariz.

The restaurant, which uses produce from its own organic garden and buys whole, 200-pound pigs and 1,000-pound steers instead of cut meats, also will bake pizza or bread in its wood-fired oven and then allow a pork shoulder to cook slowly, for hours, in the residual heat.

Call those practices thrifty or avant-garde, as you will. Andiario considers them “kind of old-school” and enjoys “the freshness, the rawness, the simplicity” of cooking that way.

He also enjoys working with the restaurant’s wood-fired oven and, during an early-July visit to his family in the Wyoming Valley, he agreed to demonstrate what he’s learned on the job.

With his mom, Betty Andiario of Kingston, her friend Jan Sailus of the Something Special restaurant in Kingston and Sailus’ chef, John Clark, eagerly watching, Andiario built a fire in an oven recently installed in the outdoor kitchen of a private residence in the Back Mountain.

“It’s not a quick process,” he said as he arranged kiln-dried hardwood in a square pile, leaving air space between each piece.

Andiario lighted the fire with a propane torch and, as previously prepared dough continued to rise on the counter, spent the next hour slicing olives and peppers, mincing herbs and prepping other mix-and-match topping ingredients -- everything from strikingly shaped “hen-in-the-woods” mushrooms to goat cheese.

He tested the oven by inserting his hand for a fraction of a second and determined it was too hot.

“It’s instinctive,” he said of this method for estimating when the temperature was an ideal-for-pizza 700 to 800 degrees.

If you’d rather buy an infrared thermometer, he estimated you can find one for $50.

Half an hour later, after the fire had burned for a good 90 minutes, Andiario used a long-handled tool to push still-flickering coals to the left side of the oven and began to bake.

“If you’re making bread, you’d sweep the ashes out into a galvanized pail, but for pizza, you leave the coals inside,” he explained.

Using a large paddle called a peel, Andiario pushed pizza after pizza into the blazing-hot chamber. He also used the peel to rotate the pizzas for even browning.

Now and then he fed the fire another log, and each pie took only a few minutes to bubble to doneness.

Cheese melted, veggies softened, the fragrance of herbs intensified and crusts became crunchy and fluffy at the same time.

“The balance of flavors is perfect,” Sailus said with a happy smile as she tasted a pizza topped with herbs and mushrooms.

Today we’re publishing some pizza recipes, courtesy of Jan Sailus. If you don’t have a wood-fired oven, you can use a conventional oven but they will take longer to bake, at least 10 to 15 minutes.

PIZZA DOUGH

4 cups bread flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 and 1/2 cups warm water

2 teaspoons yeast, dissolved in

1/4 cup warm water

Place flour and salt into mixing bowl. Add water and dissolved yeast, mix well, scraping the sides of the bowl to incorporate all the flour. Mix until dough takes on a shaggy appearance.

Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 7 to 8 minutes.

Place in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm location for 2 and 1/2 to 3 hours. The dough should double in size.

Turn the dough back out onto a lightly floured surface, Divide into 6 to 8 pieces (5 to 6 ounces each for individual pizzas) and roll gently into balls. Place the balls into a proofing box with lid, or place on a sheet pan sprayed lightly with olive oil and cover with plastic wrap. Let rest for about 20 minutes.

PIZZA CON PATE DI OLIVE

Stretch dough onto wood peel. Sprinkle with a pinch of finely chopped fresh rosemary and grated Parmigiano. Bake in wood-fired oven for 2 minutes or until done and serve with olive tapenade.

PIZZA CIPOLLA

Spread small amount of onion and herb mixture onto pizza dough and sprinkle with crumbled bleu cheese. Bake in wood-fired oven for 2 minutes or until done.

Onion preparation: Thinly slice onions, place in a skillet with olive oil and pinch of salt. Cook, over low to medium heat, until caramelized. Add finely chopped fresh thyme.

PIZZA AI FUNGHI FRESCHI

Sprinkle dough with grated provolone or fontina cheese and top with thinly sliced, fresh shitake mushrooms (sauteed to bring out the flavor.) Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and tarragon. Add a pinch of grated Parmigiano and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in wood-fired oven for 2 minutes or until done.

PIZZA MARGHERITA

Place a spoonful of tomato sauce in center of dough and spread in a circular motion with back of spoon. Be careful to keep sauce inside perimeter edge of pizza dough. Top with fresh mozzarella and bake in wood-fired oven for 2 minutes. Add fresh basil leaves after pizza comes out of oven.

WOOD-FIRED OVENS

Wood-fired ovens use wood fuel for cooking and come in two types: “black ovens” and “white ovens.” Black ovens are heated by burning wood in a chamber and the food is cooked in that chamber alongside the fire while it is still going, or in the heated chamber after the fire and coals have been swept out. White ovens are heated by heat transfer from a separate combustion chamber and flue-gas path. A traditional wood-fired oven is a brick oven, but they also can be built of other materials, such as adobe or cast iron. Also, in some cases, a substance such as coal can fire the oven.

Wood-fired ovens are different from wood cookstoves, which have a hot cooking surface for pots and pans. A wood cookstove also may have an oven but it is separate from the fire chamber.

Prices for residential wood-fired ovens run quite a gamut, from about $2000 to more than $12,000. Adventurous souls can build their own backyard version, or the less inclined can give pizza from a high-end specialty oven a try at a local business, such as Fort Café & Pizza on Wyoming Avenue in Forty Fort.

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