Great pizza begins with a great oven, which is why Steve Samson and Zach Pollack of Sotto, the Italian restaurant opening in the bottom floor of the Test Kitchen space, went straight to Naples for theirs, importing 15,000 pounds of materials and even the oven designer himself. It's a massive investment, especially for a restaurant where pizza will comprise only a quarter to a third of the menu.
Sotto, which should soft-open February 25, will feature a pizza oven designed and hand-built by Stefano Ferrara, a third-generation Neapolitan oven-builder who learned the trade from his father and grandfather.
Ferrara's ovens grace some of the country's most celebrated pizzerias including Mario Batali's Eataly (New York), Via Tribunali (Seattle and Portland) and Crostatas (Cleveland), but oftentimes, his customers buy one of his ovens and hire a local builder to install it. Ferrara himself has built fewer than 10 ovens in the United States. When Sotto opens, it will have the first Ferrara-built oven in Southern California. (Caffe Calabria in San Diego is getting a Ferrara oven soon.)
The key to a top-notch pizza oven is the slab on which the pizza sits. Too thin and it'll lose heat. Too thick and it will take too much energy to heat while burning the pizza bottoms.
The shape and height of the dome is also crucial. "You don't want a dome that's too high or the heat will escape and float around at the top," Pollack says. The mouth of Sotto's oven is ~8.66 inches (22 cm). "It's not easy to maneuver with that," Pollack says, "but it makes better pizzas."
At its full height, the oven is nearly 7 feet high, but Ferrara won't reveal the dome's internal height. "Trade secret," he says.
Per Ferrara's instructions, Samson and Pollack shipped everything from Naples: the thick slabs for the base of the oven, the bricks, the specialized refractory cement, the Vesuvian sand, the tools. It required seven massive palettes, and the truck nearly tipped over in Sotto's parking lot when delivering its payload.
Building the oven usually takes Ferrara, working with his assistant, Vincenzo, seven days from start to finish. He does almost everything by hand: cutting the bricks down to size, carefully placing layer after layer of brick pasted together with cement, packing in Vesuvian soil and earth for insulation. When we caught up with him this week on his third day of work, he said he expects to have the oven finished this Sunday.
In the final step of the process, the rough-hewn oven made of hardened gray cement and brown bricks is covered in a layer of decorative tiles, often spelling out the restaurant's name. Samson and Pollack aren't yet sure what their oven will read.
After the building is done, the oven must be dried before usage. Samson and Pollack will have to keep a fire burning in the oven 15 hours a day for 10 straight days. To make sure the oven isn't damaged, the fire starts low and slow, gradually increasing to 900º (F). After this initial phase, regular use can begin, though it takes another 20 days for the the oven to completely dry. For the next three weeks, steam and water will drip from the opening whenever the oven is in use.
Samson and Pollack plan to put 6-8 pizzas on Sotto's menu, cooking them with a combination of oak (for a consistent heat) and beech (for the flare-ups that cause those delicious little blisters on the crust).