The Past and Present of the Pizza Oven

December 26th, 2021

“For six thousand years and more it is the oven, however crude or complex, which has transformed the sticky wet dough into bread” say Ronald Sheppard and Edward Newton in their 1957 book called The Story of Bread. Perhaps even before they discovered how to make it, humans might have utilized the fire that was started by natural forces to manipulate their food. Archeological findings in Kenya show burnt clay, tools and bones as evidence of controlled fire 1.4 millions years ago. Other findings in Central Europe show that the prehistoric people in 29000 BC cooked gigantic mammoths and other animals with heating stones and roasting pits. But it is with the beginning of grain agriculture that the ancestors of modern masonry ovens appeared. Bread was the fuel that ignited the first pizza ovens, and kept them running all the way towards pizza Detroit MI.

The ancient Egyptians and early Jewish people were already building wood fired ovens. In fact, wherever there was wood and grain, there were ovens. But the construction and design of the pizza oven as we know it today is closely related to the Ancient Roman model. The area where Naples and Sicily are located used to be under the domain of the Greek empire. They built hollow constructions with flat floors and round tops with the particularity of a front loading design. Roman architecture introduced the arches, which allowed for higher thermal insulation, and there it was, an almost exact replica of the modern pizza oven. Except that it was used to prepare all sorts of baked goods. These old ovens were high in mass, insulated with thick layers of sand to soak up the heat. Firing took between three and four hours, sometimes more, and as it slowly cooled down, the Romans would prepare several batches of bread. Once the temperature was lower, they made other pastries that required less intense heat.

The building materials and structure would vary from one region to another, but the refractory nature was the key to these bread ovens. Their ability to hold heat for extended periods of time was substantial for the efficacy of production, to such an extent that the Romans celebrated a festival, called Fornacalia, to pray for the regulation of the grain’s heat. They would sacrifice grains of spelt to Fornax, the divine personification of the oven in Roman mythology, in exchange for the bread not burning in the oven.

Pompeii, before its tragic fate, seems to have been popular for its bread. In fact, Vesuvius, before becoming the culprit in the fall of the ancient city, blessed them with fertile slopes for the growth of cereals and strong lava for the shaping of tools and grinding of the grains. They used to prepare pinse, which is the predecessor of pizza, in domed clay ovens with chimneys. Thirty three of these ovens were discovered in the archeological site, showing outstanding craftsmanship and advanced techniques, some incorporating glass that cannot be replicated today. From that time on, there has not been much evolution in terms of structure of the modern pizza ovens.

During the Industrial Revolution, metal was applied in the production of prefabricated ovens, but the popularity of brick ovens would later resurface. The Victorian era did bring a peculiar change: there was a new distinction between bakeries and pizzerias, which marks the separation of the bread oven from the pizza oven. The major difference between the two is in the height of the vault that regulates the exposure to the radiant heat that falls on the surface of the dough. In the Pompeii oven, the dough would be cooked inside the chamber where the wood was being fired or had been fired before the coals were removed. This model is now called black oven. In the 18th century, the white oven -also known as French or Scottish oven- was introduced, where the dough was placed in a separate chamber and heated by transfer.

Further developments include the introduction of gas, soon after its discovery, and electricity in the American oven, which were an easier and more efficient alternative to wood. Then in the late 1900s, major developments in refractory materials allowed for high performing insulation in cheaper, smaller and thus more convenient ovens. Today, different pizza ovens are used to prepare different pizza styles. While wood fired masonry ovens that resemble the Pompeii model are still ideal for true Neapolitan pizzas, some of your favorite pies need longer cooking time and lower temperatures to hit the right note. Visit Paul’s Pizza to pay tribute to our hard working oven for producing our delicious Southwest Detroit pizza.