Secrets of a Pizza Oven

Claudio Vitale

Pizza can be made in any kind of oven. But unless the oven is built with special firebricks and fueled with oak or beech wood, the pizza will never be authentically Neapolitan. The classic Neapolitan pizza oven is shaped like a cross between a volcano and a beehive, with a hollow bottom to hold logs and shavings, and is usually faced with tiny, colorful tiles. A fire is built in the oven, and when the wood is reduced to embers, it is pushed to one side. Just before a pizza goes in, wood shavings are thrown onto the embers, creating the smoke that perfumes the pizza. If properly maintained, these ovens last for decades, but the bricks that make up the cooking surface can sometimes be changed as often as every two to three years.

Pizzaiuolo Vincenzo Buonocore told us, "You can count the real Neapolitan pizza-oven builders on one hand. They pass secrets down from father to son. When they install or repair your oven, they come at 5:00 a.m. and tell you to stay away." Most old pizza masters have a few secrets of their own—they don't like to divulge who makes their pizza ovens, and one, Vincenzo Pagnani, shared this with us: "[Pizza-oven builders] are extremely jealous of their secrets. But I have my little secret, too, and I send them out at a certain juncture and do something that we old pizzaiuoli do." We couldn't coax much more out of Pagnani, only that it's "una cosa scaramantica"—something to do with sorcery. The mystery it seems, is part of pizza's charm.