Jenna Sneed, chef and owner of Fresca on Addison (Photo by Jay Paul)
“I call her my fire-breathing dragon,” says Jenna Sneed, chef and owner of Fresca on Addison. “She has a personality and you have to talk to her sweetly.” Sneed keeps her gas-powered dome humming at 800 degrees all day; it can’t run below 500 overnight, “or else it takes too long to heat back up.”
At its heart, an oven is about two things: temperature and heat distribution. While most any oven will make good pizza, strict certifications, precise ratios and refraction dictate a great oven’s floor runs at 750 to 800 degrees, while the dome nears 1,000. At these temps, dough cooks in 90 seconds. And when a pizza is lifted to the dome, toppings are blistered in even fewer. “But it’s not easy to use,” says Randall Doetzer, executive chef of Nota Bene. He spins pizzas around the deck to work his Neapolitan oven’s hot and cold spots. “With so many variables, I can do a hundred pizzas just fine and then wreck the next one. It’s humbling.”
Then there’s the fuel. Wood is sexy, but it’s also dirty, full of oils and tough to control. Coal is cleaner but it’s hard to get the fire started, and more difficult to master. Lots of pizzerias keep oven-side piles of cordwood or coal, but don’t get burned by marketing; if that wood or coal isn’t the primary heat source, it’s just a fancified gas oven.
Chefs agree that the most efficient, safe and uniform method is gas and stone: Set the temp, and it stays right there. Iain Mayo, kitchen manager of Mellow Mushroom, keeps his Montague Hearth Bake oven at 525 to 550 degrees, while Michael Calogerakis, chef and owner of Anthony’s on the Hill, slides crispy crust from his Garland Air Deck convection oven — though he longs for one with a dome. Whatever the method, he adds that baking on stone is best: “It holds heat. Dough on hot stone gets that oven-spring and jumps right up.” Whether or not any progressive Richmonders will one day open “420 Pizza: Home of the Stoned Dough” I cannot say, but this wave of dome ovens and legalization begs the question.