Forza Forni pizza ovens are white hot

A personal pizza oven could be this summer’s latest backyard accessory.

If you want to stay on trend this summer, keep the Weber kettle in the garage and don’t bother stocking up on charcoal briquettes, because the hottest outdoor cooking experience this upcoming season is going to be wood-fired pizza — made in your own backyard.

As beautiful to look at as it is satisfying to use, a wood-fired pizza oven makes the best pizza. And fortunately for all of us, Forza Forni, the world’s No. 1 international supplier of commercial, residential and mobile pizza ovens, is located right here in our backyard, in Brewster.

The company was founded 15 years ago by Dutchman Peter de Jong. A trained pastry chef, de Jong was taken with wood-fired pizza ovens some years earlier and traveled to Italy to learn more about them. “I discovered the ovens they had out there, the people behind them and their passion,” he reminisces. Moving to the United States to join his brother, John, who was already living in Westchester, de Jong started building outdoor kitchens and ovens in his garage. “And that’s how this whole thing was born,” says Laura Giarratano, Forza Forni’s director of marketing and communications. 

As the business started to develop, de Jong rented a double garage and then a shared facility as the business continued to grow. Six years ago came the move to the current site in Brewster, from where Forza Forni now sends its ovens all over the world as it continues to serve a growing local market. Restaurants like Rivermarket in Tarrytown, Village Social and Locale in Mount Kisco and Parlor in Dobbs Ferry all use ovens supplied by Forza Forni. “If you’ve dined out and had a pizza in the area, chances are it’s from one of our ovens,” says Giarratano.

All the components come in from Italy and ovens are built individually and to order, with colors tilework and finishes to suit customers’ own preferences. John de Jong, who is vice president of operations, sends his trucks out all over the country to deliver ovens or build them on-site. (On the day of my visit, Forza Forni’s teams were building restaurant ovens on-site in Denver and Cleveland.)  “Most of our clients have our personal cell-phone number and we’re always there for them,” says Forza Forni’s general manager, Rick Figueiredo, reiterating the personalized and customer-focused nature of the business. 

But while the the main thrust of the business is commercial ovens, the residential market is growing exponentially. “Covid has undoubtedly helped,” says Giarratano. “People are spending more time at home and are investing more in their homes.”  The day before my site tour, she had taken a call from a pitcher from the San Francisco Giants, whose home is in New Jersey. He wants an oven for his backyard and the price isn’t likely to put him off. “They’re a showpiece,” says Figueiredo. “You can cook a gourmet meal yourself, or light the fire and sit back and have a few cocktails, and then have everyone make their own (pizza.)” 

But you don’t need celebrity status or a stratospheric income to indulge. With major, top of the line kitchen appliances like ranges and refrigerators running into the tens of thousands, the entry price for a residential wood oven of around $6,000 — while more than your average barbecue — is hardly beyond a lot of people’s means. Plus, the company offers financing.

Each customer, commercial or residential, has different requirements, but as Peter de Jong says, “If you can dream it, we can build it.”

The third type of oven Forza Forni supplies is the mobile wood oven. Mounted inside a custom-built trailer, complete with plumbing, refrigeration and counterspace, these ovens can be driven more or less anywhere — to ball games, for example, or country fairs, corporate events and, of course, weddings and celebrations. They provide a great opportunity, or angle, for restaurateurs who want to take their operation out of a fixed restaurant, or even add another oven to their brick-and- mortar premises. This is, in many instances, a circumstance created by Covid, what with restaurants being closed or having limited capacity indoors.

Apart from the novelty and the excellent pizzas, the advantage from the operator or event organizer’s point of view is that these ovens not only look beautiful but they can serve up customized pizzas at an impressive rate, which other food trucks or make-to-order food stations cannot match. As a Forza Forni customer, Bruno Zacchini, of Pizza Bruno in Orlando, Florida, puts it, “Food for 100 people in 20 minutes. It’s like bringing a Ferrari out to a wedding.”

The most significant recent development in the de Jong brothers’ business, however, has been the appointment of a dedicated culinary director. Enter Mark Hopper, formerly executive chef of casual dining with the Thomas Keller restaurant group (TKRG), chef de cuisine of Bouchon Bistro in Beverly Hills and sous chef of the famed French Laundry. The genial chef, who actually grew up in Westchester, also founded and owned Pizzeria Vignette, one of most popular Neapolitan pizzerias in California’s Bay Area. 

An expert in all varieties and styles of pizza, Chef Hopper will establish a full-service consulting program for Forza Forni’s clients worldwide, as well as setting up an adult education program, offering classes and demonstrations at the company’s test kitchen.

Additionally, although these ovens are first and foremost associated with pizza, Hopper is committed to demonstrating their versatility. With a cooking temperature of around 790 degrees Fahrenheit, they lend themselves to cooking all manner of dishes besides pizza, the wood and the ferocious heat producing deeply flavouful, almost ethereal results.

On the day of my visit, I found him in his chef’s whites in the Brewster headquarters’ backyard, one of his four ovens stoked and ready to cook. After an appetizer of fiery, blistered Padrón peppers, prinked with lime and sea salt, he whipped up a classic Margherita pizza — flour and water for the dough, tomato and mozzarella for the topping — pizza cheese “al fresco,” as he calls it. It took  around two minutes to bake.

This simplicity of the process belies the resulting texture and superb flavor, but it is also the starting point for professional or home pizzaiole (pizza cooks) to get creative.  “As the industry leader,” says Peter de Jong, it’s our responsibility to inspire chefs to think about pizza in a whole new way. (Hopper’s) expertise and vision will bring our clients much more than just pizza recipes. He’ll bring them opportunity.” 

And to prove it, next out of the oven is a cast-aluminum pan of roasted day boat scallops, prepared with spring asparagus, oysters mushrooms, pickled ramps and garden lemon thyme. It’s a multilayered, deeply sublime dish, the fat scallops firm to the touch yet yielding, the asparagus and ramps fresh and still crisp despite the high heat. 

As we savor the bivalves, Giarratano confirms that Hopper cooks steaks, chicken, fish, bread — even makes breakfast — in the pizza ovens. The possibilities are limited only by imagination and flair.

Hopper, meanwhile, puts it more succinctly. “Thomas Keller didn’t teach me how to cook,” he says. “He taught me how to think.”

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