I Just Scored a Commercial Pizza Oven Stone

The Bari Restaurant Supply store on Bowery and Prince is a magical place. I take tours there all the time to check out pizzeria equipment in a place where actual pizzeria operators are buying it. The centerpiece of the showroom is a brand new oven, which was on location in the store’s manufacturing department. That makes Bari the only remaining pizza oven manufacturer in New York City.

I take pizza tours into the manufacturing area whenever it’s safe (and whenever the door is unlocked) so we can see the process from frame to finish. It’s amazing. I’ve been noticing scraps laying around recently — pieces of marble and stone destined for dough stretching tables and ovens, respectively. When I asked Patsy (the manufacturing honcho) about the bits, he said the stone was heading for the trash. WHAT!?!?!?! So I asked him to chop it down so I could fit it in my home oven and sure enough he did.

This thing is huge. It’s 1.5 inches thick, much larger than the average 0.25 - 0.5 inches of pizza stones made for the home. There’s a good reason nobody sells domestic stones this thick - it would take forever to heat it up. Most pizza stone users don’t realize that it takes at least 45 minutes to preheat a baking stone before it’s ready for use.  A quick 20 minute preheat only results in surface heat, which disappears immediately upon releasing a dough onto it. The whole point of a stone is to be saturated with heat in order to conduct directly into the dough.

This stone, which is called FibraMent-D, is going to take forever to preheat in my home oven. The manufacturer actually requires users to pre-dry the stone for 7 hours before first use. YOWZA! So it’s going to be a while before I can really test this thing out. Still, I’m pretty stoked to have it in my possession. Now if only I could track down some older pizza oven hearth materials to test them head-to-head my life would be complete. Too bad the “good” ones are illegal to manufacture because of asbestos issues. Anybody got pre-1980s transite?

Searching for New York’s Hidden Coal Ovens

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My journey into one of NYC’s salvaged bakery ovens.

The subject of coal-burning ovens seems to be popping up a lot lately and I have a feeling it’s at least partially because of the recent Grimaldi’s relocation. To sum it up, Grimaldi’s recently moved up the block from its original location after lease problems with their landlord but had to leave the oven behind. Not a huge problem because all they had to do was to build another one in the new location. This sent the press and public into a tizzy because, even though I covered the history of coal-fired ovens just a few months back, people still believe the myth that they are on the endangered species list. The fact is that New York City has more coal-burning ovens than it knows what to do with.

Coal ovens come in several formats, but the oldest are the cavernous mason-built bread ovens from the turn of last century. These beasts are so massive that they were either built out into a building’s back yard or into the foundation itself, extending beyond the building’s footprint. When a bakery went out of business, it was much easier (and cheaper) to slap a wall in front of the oven than doing any kind of demolition. This means that old bakery ovens are very likely still in place, just waiting to be discovered. Here’s a quick rundown of five dormant coal-burning ovens in New York.

Patsy’s Pizzeria
Everybody knows that Patsy’s has been making some of the city’s best pizza in a coal-burning oven since 1933, but not many are aware of the huge bakery oven in the basement of 2287 1st Ave. I only learned about it recently while talking to one of the owners about the history of the building. East Harlem became an Italian enclave in the early 20th century and this block was comparable to Manhattan’s Mulberry Street and the Bronx’s Arthur Ave at the time.

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NYC took a photo of every building for tax assessment between 1939 and 1941. Patsy’s is indicated by the white arrow.

As indicated by the building’s tax photo (circa 1940), the restaurant with the apron-clad man outside was flanked by a cheese maker, butcher and bakery. Reverse directories that let you look up a building’s occupant by address don’t go earlier than 1929, but I have a feeling Patsy’s location was a bakery before it became a restaurant.

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Beneath Patsy’s Pizzeria in East Harlem.

The adjacent Frank’s Bakery may have baked their breads in the oven beneath 2287 1st Ave for sale in their storefront one building down. This subterranean oven wouldn’t have been ideal for a pizzeria, so they shifted to a more compact unit that better suited their needs. Now the old oven sits waiting, but the building’s owners have no immediate plans to revive it.

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Pizza Pumpkin Carving

Happy Halloween pizza buddies! I thought I’d take the opportunity to share this pumpkin I carved at my buddy’s place over the weekend. DANG - I should have saved the seeds for use as a pizza topping. Oh well. Here are some photos of the best pumpkin I have ever carved.


All lit up!


Lined up with other pumpkins.


Lights out!


Decided to give it to one of my favorite wood-fired pizzerias, whose name I carved in with a key.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Coal

Our obsession with brick ovens is a fascination with the ability to harness fire itself. Ever since Prometheus stole lightning from Mt. Olympus, we’ve been entranced by the power of an unpredictable flickering flame. Although we’ve been baking breads in simple brick enclosures for six thousand years, ovens still carry an air of mystery that we can’t seem to shake. I’d like to take a close-up look at perhaps the most enchanting of pizza baking structures: the coal-fired oven. The once-necessary-then-obsolete-now-re-popularized coal oven has an interesting past that traces the story of pizza development in the Northeastern USA.

Those who have experienced the goodness of a coal-fired oven may take for granted the resulting pizza’s crisp yet chewy texture, but how did these chunks of black rock get into our ovens? Coal was already a dominant heating fuel when Neapolitan immigrants landed in the United States in the 1880’s. Newly arrived bakers used hard coal instead of wood to heat their ovens because it took up less space and burned more efficiently. A cord of wood (8 ft x 4 ft x 4 ft stack) weighs twice as much and takes up double the space as a ton of coal while both have the same heating capacity. So it’s cheaper to transport and store coal, which is important when storage is at a premium.

The biggest difference for bakers is that wood contains water whereas anthracite* coal is approximately 92% carbon, so the latter provides a much drier baking chamber. Wood smokes as it burns, but coal does not. That’s why chimneys fed by wood-fired ovens have to be cleaned more often than their coal-fueled counterparts. Coal ovens are also built differently to facilitate the unique requirements of the fuel. Since it burns best with constant oxygen supplied from beneath, coal sits atop a cast iron grate. The grate also allows ash to fall into a separate chamber so it doesn’t contaminate the oven floor.

You’ll recognize a coal oven when you see a firebox located to the side of the oven door, usually a bit lower than the floor of the baking chamber. There will also be a handle protruding from the oven face on the side opposite the firebox. That handle is your damper, which controls the flue opening and regulates your heat draft. This location allows air to move across the oven hearth and out the far end of the chamber. No need for a fan, just natural suction!

The oldest coal ovens were originally built as bread ovens. They would be fired daily until the chamber reached proper baking temperature, after which the fire was removed and bread baked on the bricks’ stored heat. The jump to pizza came with the food’s increase in popularity as more Southern Italians entered the USA, but the ovens remained outfitted for bread production. These beasts are so large that they were often built outside the buildings in which they continue to reside. Take a look at the building’s profile next time you visit a century-old coal-fired bakery or pizzeria and you’ll see a multi-story building that drops to a single level extension. There might even be a visible shift in brick color or a line where the construction began. Bakeries/pizzerias that still use century-old coal-fired masonry ovens include Lombardi’s (original location AND current location), Parisi Bakery, Luzzo’s, Verde (Bushwick), 18th Ave Bakery (Bensonhurst), Royal Crown Bakery (Bensonhurst), Frank Pepe’s (New Haven), Sally’s (New Haven), DeLucia’s Brick Oven (Raritan, NJ) and Little Rendezvous (Meriden, CT).


This is the building profile of Frank Pepe’s in New Haven, CT. You can clearly see the oven and chimney as additions to the left of the main structure.

Most of these surviving ovens are known as Scotch or black ovens because the coal burns inside the baking chamber. The other coal oven type, white ovens, are loaded through a completely separate compartment in the back and feature pipes that direct heat into the baking chamber. These ovens are much more manageable than black ovens but they can’t get quite as hot. The only white oven I’ve seen in a pizzeria is at Modern in New Rochelle, NY but it was converted to oil sometime in the mid 20th century.


White oven in use at Modern in New Rochelle. It used to be a bakery-grocery, now it’s a restaurant-pizzeria.

By the 1920’s, new coal-burning ovens were available in stainless steel frames for better mobility and a smaller footprint. Still quite large by today’s standards, these manufactured ovens were being used for small bread production and pizza. They function exactly like their big brothers but tend to be more efficient. You can still find them in use at John’s (Bleecker Street), Totonno’s (Coney Island) and Arturo’s (Houston St). These were built locally by the Universal Oven Company and date as far back as 1924.

Most coal-fired ovens exist in the Northeastern US because that’s where our nation’s largest anthracite mines are located. Shipping coal to the west coast was possible, but not economical. Any glimmer of coal was crushed when the Federal Fuel Administration prohibited shipments of coal to the western states during the first World War. The ban provided a perfect opportunity for more efficient fuels like oil, gas and electricity to pick up the slack. Just as it replaced coal in home heaters, natural gas was the big winner in pizza ovens. Nobody cried for the loss of coal, which was dirty, heavy, required storage, and demanded constant supervision. Gas ovens turn on and off with the flick of a switch and bake more easily than their predecessors. There’s a romantic idea that coal ovens are incredibly rare in New York City because they were outlawed, leaving only those with previously existing ovens “grandfathered in,” but I have found no such law in the building code or Clean Air Act. The truth is that coal ovens are rare because nobody wants to deal with the hassle.

Plenty of new coal ovens have been built in NYC and the rest of the United States in the past 15 years. Los Angeles-based Earthstone Ovens has shipped over 130 units in the past few years, starting with the now defunct Lombardi’s location in Philadelphia. Chains like Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza have introduced this oven style to customers all across the country, specifically in the chain’s home base of Southern Florida. Anthony’s slogan “Our pizza is well done” attempts to educate their customers that the pizza is charred—not burnt. It’s a new concept for some and a reminder of New York for others.

*For more information about anthracite coal, visit the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, PA. Trust me, it’s amazing.

Lombardi Pizza Co.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Lombardi Pizza Co. mobile pizzafication station! This beast houses a brand new Mugnaini wood-fired oven and enough storage space for 250+ dough balls for all your pizza party needs. It’s the brainchild of Pete Lombardi, who was a chaperone on a pizza tour for a middle school Italian class back in 2009. It was just a couple of weeks before he left for his first pizza-making session in Naples with Enzo Coccia. Pete was eager to practice his new skills upon returning from his pizza pilgrimage, so he practiced a bit at his aunt’s house where there just so happens to be an outdoor Earthstone oven. Pete honed his skills at Nomad Pizza in Hopewell, NJ. They make some of the best Neapolitan pizza in the state and Pete definitely built his pie-making chops while working there.

 

Now he’s taking his powers to the streets with a brand new mobile catering truck. He’ll be doing weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, graduations, family reunions, and random partying all over the place. The truck has it all, you just have to provide the parking space.

I had the privilege of attending LPC’s friends and family grand opening shindig and I can tell you that this guy makes a mean pie. Pete does a long cold rise on his dough and uses only fresh ingredients. It’s the real deal. Here are some full size shots of the main event. Eat them with your eyeballs!

 

Contact Pete at Lombardi Pizza Co right now!