Pizzaiolo, Pangea Kitchen

A big part of serving traditional Neapolitan pizza is cooking that pizza in the traditional Neapolitan way. And that means one thing — a wood-fired oven.

At Pangea, we have a hand-built, Acunto wood-fired pizza oven, made by a family-owned company in Naples, Italy. Four generations of the Acunto family have built this oven, using the same designs and materials as generations of Neapolitans before them. You can taste the difference when a pizza is cooked in this oven. The crust is lightly flavored by whatever kind of wood we’re burning, and each wood has a unique flavor!

When we first installed our Acunto oven here in Evansville, we were one of a few restaurants using a wood fired baking method. Now, there are even more, which I think is great! It’s a testament to the quality that comes from cooking food in this traditional way.

But with that quality comes complications. This is not a simple oven to bake with.

The oven is a large brick dome with a flat bottom and smaller dome-shaped entrance. I begin each morning by building a fire up against one wall of the dome. That in itself is not difficult, the tricky part is maintaining the right temperature with that fire so the oven can perfectly bake hundreds of pizzas throughout the day. This was something I had to learn by doing. And I wasn’t always perfect. I remember when we first opened, I was worried the oven wouldn’t be hot enough, so I kept adding more and more wood. Before long, it was blazing hot. When that happens, you can’t just turn down the temperature. You have to work around it. So, I placed the pizzas close to the entrance, where the temperature was coolest — watched them closely — and waited to for fire to burn down.

It was through those kinds of trials and errors that I’ve learned about how big to build up the fire. And I can gauge by the fire’s size and the internal thermometer when to add more wood. Still, baking in this oven is like a dance. It’s big enough that each spot in the oven has a slightly different temperature. And once the pies start going in, those temperatures change quickly. That means, you need to go in with a strategy. I’ll cook the first few pizzas in the cooler regions of the oven. As the structure cools, I’ll move the pies into the warmer areas closer to the fire. All the while, I’m stirring the flames to keep the oven well lit (otherwise a bizarre effect happens — the pizza crust turns grey) and adding wood.

It’s a challenging way to cook, but it’s a challenge that I really enjoy. I’m learning more about the process every day. And, in the end, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is through my labor and expertise that we are able to serve traditional, wood-baked Neapolitan pizza.

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