From a strip mall in Morrisville to a downtown nexus in Durham, wood-fired pizzas are hot in the Triangle these days. Forget the frozen Amy’s, passively reheated at home, and bypass the gargantuan pie chains for which we’ve previously settled. Now, at a number of new restaurants, locals can get fabulous gourmet pizzas that whisk you to Italy (or Connecticut)for a meal at least.
But now I can go one better: In my yard, I have my own personal Pizzeria Toro, Pie Pushers and Bella Mia, with a bonusI have to throw a party whenever I want pizza.
My new wood-burning oven is a masterpiece made by many hands. My son, Paul, hauled rocks from the nearby woods and fields and smashed old bricks into pieces to shape its handsome base. He and his friends stood around that foundation and drank beer to make empties to use for the insulating layer, along with assorted chunks of rubble. Then came the tamping of the fire-brick floor, the patting of a sand dome to hold space for the oven vault, the stomping of backyard clay mixed with sand and water, and the shaping of this muck into handmade bricks. Once the clay dried, I carved a door and removed the sand. My brother, Stu, spent several mornings mixing stucco and shaping an artistic top layer, complete with an Aztec sun symbol. Together, we built a proud shelter over the oven from fresh-cut cedar posts and reclaimed lumber and tin. The project was complete. The time for pizzas and parties was near.
Before people start arriving to these pizza soirees, I’ve already spent several hours splitting oak wood into small chunks and igniting the oven, tending and feeding the fire until there’s a strong bed of coals and flickering flames. The oven surface should be hot to the touch. The sauce simmers on the stove, while bowls of homemade dough rise in the bay window.
Friends arrive, bearing their favorite toppings. These fill small bowls that, in turn, fill the kitchen counter with a multitude of choices: soft mozzarellas, mushrooms, fresh pepperoni and sausage, garden spinach, a selection of chopped veggies, always a surprise or two. Everyone will soon have a chance to assemble their own pizzas on wooden peels and cook them in the oven. After only two minutes, they’re donehot, crispy, made in my backyard.
We all share bites of our pies, offering tips on how to shape the perfect crust and taking a turn to tend the fire while the pizzas keep appearing and disappearing. Way beyond the typical potluck, these evenings are all about the beautiful flickering fire seen through the oven door, the steaming pizzas with their perfect crusts and bubbling cheese, the laughter in the kitchen, and the dusk slowly settling in on the party of contented souls, now fully fed on pizza and friendship.
(More on making your own pizza dough, including Panzanella’s recipe.)