When you get your first glance at L.A.'s Fox Pizza Bus, you might think you've stumbled upon one of those movie star home tours -- or maybe a sightseeing bus. Rather than tourists, though, the backseats of this bus are occupied by a 6-ton pizza oven.
The country's first mobile wood-fired oven, a commercial Forno Bravo that heats to 900 degrees, is the brainchild of chef Mike Fox and co-founder Jordan Hieshetter. Inspired by the food-truck craze, Fox and Hieshetter retrofitted a double-decker bus, formerly used to transport Scottish schoolchildren, with an oven that can bake a made-to-order pizza in less than two minutes.
"Most food trucks have propane tanks or hot frying oil to worry about," Hieshetter explains. "We just have some burning logs sealed behind a metal door. We could roll this bus over 12 times and the oven would still work fine."
Los Angeles is no stranger to state-of-the-art pizza ovens. Santa Monica's Milo & Olive imported an Italian Mugnaini; designer Stefano Ferrara hand-built a custom version inside the kitchen at Sotto. Over at Stella Rossa Pizza Bar, chef Jeff Mahin -- a former UC Berkeley chemistry student and Heston Blumenthal protégé -- prefers a gas-powered, triple-stacked Baker's Pride oven to the wood-fired variety.
But as the passion for making great pies extends beyond fancy restaurants, so does the emphasis on the oven, the quintessential tool in the pizza-making craft. Custom-built versions are catching on among hands-on food geeks, putting crisp-edged pizza into the hands of nontraditional chefs and amateur bakers.
At-home food scientists have been trying to re-create, or hack, the high-powered effects of a traditional pizza oven for years.
"A brick pizza oven is a great example of a super-efficient cooking source," says Amy Rowat, professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA. "It has a large thermal mass, which means it's able to retain heat for a sustained period of time. The dome shape allows for the movement of heat upwards, which cooks the pizza with both conduction and convection energy."
In his blog, Atlanta food writer Jeff Varasano details his attempts to tap into a home oven's cleaning cycle in order to create a supercharged version hot enough to char crusts. The oven grew so hot that Varasano resorted to stacking bags of ice on the stove range to keep his cabinetry from catching fire.
The easiest method -- as Varasano and many other experts have concluded -- is to construct your own oven. Countless books, websites and videos are available for hobbyists looking to make a restaurant-quality oven, often for as little as $300.
About six years ago, Mark Stambler, one of the co-founders of Los Angeles Bread Bakers, did just that, constructing a barrel chamber oven in his backyard. He used websites that provide step-by-step instructions for building an Alan Scott oven, named after an '80s pioneer of amateur brick oven design.
"I knew almost nothing about masonry when I started," Stambler admits. "I just was really into baking good bread."
Stambler soon began meeting other like-minded home bakers in the L.A. area, including Erik Knutzen. Together they started the Bread Bakers, a Meetup.com-based group that now consists of more than 400 members (its logo, a riff on the pirate skull and crossbones, consists of a slice of bread and crossed rolling pins).
Like many club members, Stambler often uses his home oven for pizza-making dinner parties, which has led to many friends asking about access -- making him the foodie equivalent of the kid with the only below-ground pool on the block during summer.
"Pizza is always the most popular," Stambler says of the group. "Whenever we have events about bread, we get maybe 20 members. When it's about pizza, it's double that."
Early this year, Stambler and other LABB charter members finished construction on a large, sky-blue dome pizza oven in the Eagle Rockdale Community Garden and Art Park. The idea was to provide a place open to local members interested in creating their own baked goods -- a bit like an elevated version of a public park's barbecue pit.
At the oven's first official firing in January, the star of the event was undoubtedly crisp-edged pizza, studded with toppings like white anchovy, lemon kumquat and potato, or creamy Camembert, mushroom and thinly sliced prosciutto. When was the last time you had picnic food like that?
Back at the Fox Pizza Bus, parked outside the Altadena Farmers Market, people begin to queue up outside as the smell of baking dough wafts from the vehicle's tall chimney. Some patrons are skeptical about the oven in the rear of the bus. They question whether it's safe, how it can cook pizza so quickly, even whether it actually exists.
As to the final question: Oh, yes, it exists. Hieshetter opens a back panel that exposes the rear of the oven, which is covered in a special type of stay-cool steel. It's no warmer to the touch than your laptop computer.
The bus actually finished construction around 2009, but permitting battles kept it off the road for the next two years. "None of the inspectors had seen anything like it before, so it essentially became a 'pass the clipboard' type of thing," Hieshetter says.
The oven acts as the ideal mechanism to show off Fox's dedication to local ingredients: dough that comes from fresh sourdough starter made with California flour; heirloom tomatoes from Munak Farms; oven-roasted porchetta from ReRide Ranch hogs; fresh mozzarella from Angelo & Franco Cheese; and even orange-tree wood, donated by Schaner Farms, which lends a distinct flavor.
"It's such a great tool to have as a chef. It's the only heat source we have on the truck," Fox says, "and we're able to put out an amazing variety of food."
Pasadena resident Kristin Ferguson, a charter member of the L.A. Bread Bakers and the pastry chef formerly tasked with making pizza for all three restaurants at the W Hotel in Westwood, aims an infrared laser thermometer at her backyard oven, a structure that stands about 5 feet tall and is shaped like a miniature igloo covered with white plaster. There is a brief beep and a number pops up on the thermometer screen -- 1,020 degrees Fahrenheit.
"That's as high as it reads," Ferguson says. "It's probably closer to 1,200 degrees. I plan on asking for a thermometer that can read higher for Christmas this year."
Most days, Ferguson can be found at the Silver Lake restaurant Forage, where she works as a pastry chef (she's known for her fork-tender strawberry galettes and creamy ricotta cheesecakes). On her days off, she's often behind her house, tending to her oven with a long-handled, flat shovel tool called a peel.
When Ferguson and her husband moved into their new home a year ago, they decided to construct a miniature wood-fired oven based on plans from Kiko Denzer's book Build Your Own Earth Oven.
The monthlong process began with constructing a brick base lined with a recycled wine bottles (for structural support and insulation). Next, a slurry of watery clay and sawdust was poured in a dome of wet sand and allowed to set, forming the oven's 4-inch-thick wall. Finally, the hearth was lined with special bricks made from the same material as pizza stone, and the exterior was washed with a layer of white plaster.
The result is an extremely well-insulated oven with a huge amount of what is referred to as "thermal mass." It's so efficient that a single bundle of wood from the supermarket can heat the inside of the oven to blistering temperatures in about 45 minutes -- making it probably one of the hottest-burning ovens in L.A. County -- while the outer shell remains cool to the touch, allowing a cape plumbago shrub draped over its roof to grow comfortably.
A few weeks ago, Ferguson invited over a few guests from work and cooked 10 pizzas in just about 20 minutes. The heat radiating out of the oven door was hot enough that a pair of goggles and a wide-brimmed boonie hat were necessary to avoid singed eyebrows. But the result was worth it: The pizzas were a smash hit.
"I don't really host actual dinners anymore," Ferguson admits with a laugh. "Just pizza parties."
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She even hosts occasional pizza classes, inviting friends and guests to learn the basics of dough making and baking techniques.
Ferguson's secret to great pizza? Very wet dough and, of course, that very hot oven. The surface develops a beautiful crisp char, while the steam generated by the heat puffs up the crust, making it chewy and moist inside.
"Once you have really great homemade pizza, it's hard to enjoy anything else," she says. "It's like eating the most wonderful vanilla creme brulee and then going back to Jell-O instant pudding."