There’s just something wonderful about that combination of bread, cheese, and tomato sauce that makes pizza so alluring. And it’s highly customizable. You can pretty much throw anything on and toss it in the oven.
I’ve eaten hundreds of pizzas—both fresh and frozen—and nothing compares to a pizza fresh from a wood-fired oven. After watching several YouTube videos of Italian pizza makers and their mouthwatering techniques, my girlfriend and I decided to build our own oven as cheaply as possible using materials from the hardware store.
From the research I’ve done, you need to heat an oven space up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit and cook the pizza for 90 seconds if you want to have true Neapolitan pizza. It goes without saying that you must also use fresh pizza dough, sauce, mozzarella, basil, and olive oil.
It also doesn’t hurt if you gesture passionately with your hands while explaining your favorite recipe to friends.
A Brief History of Pizza
Pizza originated in Naples, Italy, and was considered uncultured to eat until the first unified Italian Queen Margherita developed a fondness for the dish while visiting the city in 1889. Pizza was a cuisine specific to Naples until the early 20th century when Italian immigrants brought their cooking knowledge to New York City and opened America’s first pizza parlors.
After WW2, Italians migrated further throughout the United States and abroad, bringing their pizza with them and turning the once regional food into an international staple.
The Traditional Neapolitan Oven
To replicate the perfect Neapolitan pizza at home, my girlfriend and I needed to get our oven pretty hot, 700 degrees on the surface and 1000 degrees on the oven roof. Pizza should cook in 60-to-90 seconds in those conditions. Traditional Neapolitan ovens are dome-shaped, made of brick, and have a smallish opening to add firewood and pizza. Smoke is channeled through a chimney near the roof.
It’s best to use non-resinous firewood in a traditional oven. Denser, dried woods like beech and oak work great since they burn hotter. You can also use fruitwoods like apple or pecan for additional smells and flavors.
Wood should be dry, but not lower than 15 percent moisture content because, like green wood, wood that’s too dry can cause extra smoke. Check out this thorough pizza oven wood guide from Forno Bravo if you’re thinking of building or purchasing a legitimate traditional Neapolitan setup, or are following our low-cost method.
Our Neapolitan Oven
With the magic of YouTube, I was able to see other pizza oven builds, like this one from ChefSteps that used bricks for construction. The problem with the ChefSteps build is the high heat directly underneath the pizza from the fire.
I modified their design so the finished pizza wasn’t burnt underneath and cooked evenly. We didn’t have a laser thermometer, so it was going to take a bit of trial and error to get our pizzas just right.
As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad pizza, so if we screwed anything up, we could just eat the results.
The Build (see materials list at bottom)
We first arranged the four cinder blocks into a square pattern as a platform for the oven so it wouldn’t burn the concrete. Then we laid one of the squares of concrete on the cinder blocks as a base, propped up one piece for the back part of the oven and two more on both sides of the base for walls.
We then stacked four bricks on the inside of each sidewall as a platform for our homemade pizza stone, which for price and convenience’s sake ended up being two pieces of slate tile we cut to fit the inside of the oven. If you use the same material, make sure the slate is unglazed or you could be adding some stomach-turning carcinogens to your diet.
I didn’t want to have the fire directly under the slate, so we cut the back piece of slate to be shorter to allow a larger gap in the back of the oven for flames and proper air circulation.
As you can see from the photo above, the flames have about 6 inches of space in the back, which also allows hot air from to fire to circulate over the top of the pizza. Once we cut and prepared our oven fuel—in this case, store bundled pine firewood—we got a fire going and prepared the first pizza.
We fed the fire for about an hour, warming the oven before we started.
My lovely girlfriend cracked the code on a green thai curry recipe, and we used some leftovers and vegan cheese to make our first pizza. We quickly realized we hadn’t gotten the oven hot enough and had made the pizza crust too thick as the pizza took about 15 minutes to cook. Even after all of that time, we still ended up with undercooked pizza, but like all pizza good or bad, we ate it anyway.
Next go-round we made a margherita inspired pizza with a thinner crust and faux vegan cheese, topping it off with some Thai basil we had leftover from our recent Thai curry cookoffs. By this time, we had a larger coal base and I added one large piece of wood for a larger flame.
By now I was learning that a bunch of coals underneath and a fairly larger flame from the big piece of wood made for plenty of heat on top. The dough on pizza number two rose significantly faster this time, but the pizza still turned out undercooked.
Here’s the key to getting a great pizza in this style of oven: the right amount of heat, how that heat is distributed, and thin crust. We had the first two parts nailed down, but we knew for our third and final trial, we needed to thin out the crust.
The third pizza was also margherita inspired pizza, and the pizza oven was so hot by now, that the crust began to rise within seconds. We could see the sauce and cheese bubble and the smell of the sauce, cheese, and crust was spectacular. For a moment, I thought I was in some alternate dimension vegan Naples.
The final pizza was cooked in about two minutes and we were in awe that we’d cooked a pie that closely resembled the local Neapolitan style we’d eaten in Italy and stateside. Now we had to taste the thing and we weren’t disappointed.
When I took bites of the succulent pie, the combination of tomato, and cheese, and crispy dough filled my head with the swells of an Italian opera and for a moment I thought I had become an honorary Italian pizza chef.
What I Learned
Here’s what you need to know to make awesome pizza in your new oven:
- It takes about an hour to get enough coals to heat the oven properly. You need hot coals underneath and a decent flame from a fresh piece of large wood to provide the right balance of heat from the bottom and top of the oven.
- Make that crust super thin if you’re wanting Neapolitan-style pizza. You can still cook thicker-crust pizza, but you’ll need to experiment with lower heats and cook longer.
- Pine works fine for cooking pizza in the oven, but if you have access to denser woods or even fruitwoods, use those varieties instead. The pine didn’t seem to negatively impact the flavor, however.
- Exposure to direct flame will likely cause your pizza stone to crack. In our oven, the slate piece near the back of the oven and the open flame did crack on one corner. Try to build at least 6 inches of flame and air space in the back of the oven.
- Don’t hesitate to experiment. Modify your design and go with what works best. Your friends and family will love you for it and you’ll be a local pizza folk hero.
(4) 16″ by 24″ Stepping Stones: $32
(6) Bricks: $9
(4) Cinder Blocks: $10
(2) 12″ by 24″ Unglazed Slate Tiles: $14