The Oven of His Dreams

Photo: Jeremy Liebman

Anthony Mangieri, certified pizza obsessive, has a sterling reputation, a devoted following, and an East Village pizza shop, Una Pizza Napoletana, that’s packed every night it’s open. But until last month, the thing that Mangieri had wanted since he was in short pants had eluded him: a bona fide wood-burning pizza oven handcrafted by the same Neapolitan artisans who built the ones at Naples’ legendary pizzerias like Da Michele. With its meticulously precise proportions, its hand-laid firebrick, and its heat-sucking floor, the oven is the devout pizza man’s holy grail. It’s also nearly impossible to get—unless, as Mangieri says, “you make it easy for them.” This summer, he did just that. He closed Una Pizza Napoletana for three weeks to prepare for the arrival of the 4,000-pound beast, a production that entailed hiring a rigging company, buying a shipping container, wrangling with customs, and replacing his storefront, and that sent one employee to the hospital and ended up costing Mangieri $19,000, all told. Secrecy and inscrutableness among Naples’ pizzaioli and especially its oven builders—of which Mangieri says there are exactly two who count—is a time-honored tradition. Russian spies have nothing on Neapolitan pizza oven builders. In that hush-hush spirit, Mangieri’s keeping his oven builder’s name to himself. But he was willing to divulge the finer points of what makes this thing so great.

1. Tiles
From a shop around the corner; Mangieri did the work himself, emulating the classic ovens of Naples.

2. Birth Date
Mangieri recorded the date that he laid the last tile: 9-10-07, at 4:30 in the morning.

3. Oven Chamber
Firebrick-lined and specifically proportioned in relation to the arch and the pitch of the oven dome so that the flame licks the ceiling and heat is perfectly distributed throughout. This allows the pizza’s top and bottom to cook uniformly in 40 to 90 seconds, at a temperature of 900 to 1,000 degrees.

4. Wood Shavings
Mangieri tosses a handful of aspen and pine wood shavings onto the embers just before he shoves a pizza into the oven to give it a smoky fragrance.

5. Wood
Estonian white birch. “I like oak too,” says Mangieri, “but I haven’t been able to find any that’s consistently seasoned and burns as beautifully as this does.” With the efficient new oven, he’s using a quarter of what he used to.

6. Base
Built by Mangieri from concrete board to support the oven; steel arch is repurposed from the old Una oven’s mouth.

7. Oven Floor
Made from refractory material in Sorrento that absorbs the heat and prevents the pizzas from cooking too fast and burning. A layer of volcanic soil lies underneath. “Its job,” says Mangieri, “is also to absorb heat, and as with tomatoes that grow on Mount Vesuvius, to impart a distinct flavor that can’t be duplicated.”

8. Patron Saint
Not everything concerning pizza-making is left to art and science: Mangieri keeps this portrait of a patron saint of people who work with fire next to the vent.

The Oven of His Dreams