Most Americans were probably introduced to pizza through the work of East Coast Italian immigrants like Gennaro Lombardi and Frank Pepe. In the early 1900’s, these pioneers had to adapt large hand built coal ovens to bake their Neapolitan inspired pizza in the same way wood fired ovens were used back in their native Southern Italy.
The 1980’s saw another set of pioneers, West Coast chefs Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, utilize large commercial wood fired pizza ovens in their restaurants. Pizza was never the same once old world traditions merged with California cuisine and organic ingredients fresh from the garden. Savvy diners came to realize it was the high heat and live flame contained in the pizza oven that was responsible for the delicious results, but few could have imagined having such a large commercial appliance in their own home.
So in 1989, when Andrea Mugnaini sought to open the home market in the US to wood fired pizza ovens, it came as no surprise when she was met with skepticism here and in Italy. Andrea’s research had identified the 100 year old company Refratarri Valoriani, located in Tuscany, as the oven of choice. However, she had to first convince Sylvio Valoriani, the creator of the modular pizza oven in 1946, and his son Massimo, to sell Valoriani residential ovens to Mugnaini. They couldn’t understand why busy Americans would want to use old fashioned methods of cooking when they could use a modern stove or microwave.
Andrea persisted, convinced her new Italian partners and set about to groom these rustic clay ovens from Tuscany into what has become the must have appliance for any modern kitchen. Americans could now easily access this old world style of cooking and entertaining with an oven less than 4’ round. Design magazines, home chefs and builders all took notice of this “new” easy to install appliance that could cook a pizza in less than 2 minutes and roast a turkey in less than 3 hours.
With two demonstration ovens in her Aptos, California backyard and a lot of hard work, Andrea quickly became the ambassador of wood fired ovens to America. Homeowners would stop by and be amazed at the oven’s versatility and ease of use. Mugnaini ovens were featured in many magazine articles which helped to make Andrea and her company well known coast to coast.
After 10 years of growth, Andrea realized that Mugnaini needed to have a working showroom in order to teach their clients how to get the most out of their new ovens. Restaurateurs also wanted to expand their kitchens but they needed to see an oven in action and to test their menus first hand.
So in 2000, after a year of planning and construction, Mugnaini moved into their new headquarters in Watsonville, California. This is also when I came to work for the company as General Manager. My pizza experience would soon change from a bike ride and pizza party at Andrea’s home, to demonstrating fire starting and helping Andrea teach classes.
The new facilities boasted a large cooking school showroom with 4 working wood fired ovens enabling Mugnaini to offer a variety of classes and events. Andrea perfected her signature style of cooking and entertaining and I helped develop and document the Mugnaini method of working a wood fired pizza oven. You can learn our methods in the cookbook we coauthored: “The Art of Wood Fired Cooking”.
Today pizza ovens are well known and, thanks to the internet, there is a dizzying array of ovens offered. Most of our classes are now taught at the Mugnaini Wood Fired Cooking School in Healdsburg, California where Andrea continues to introduce people to the heartfelt style of cooking and entertaining with an authentic Italian wood fired oven.