By Andrea Tomkins –
When planning backyard landscaping projects, many families typically consider adding wooden decks, flagstone patios, flower beds, or maybe a hot tub or swimming pool. A rare few would build a permanent wood-burning pizza oven, but that’s exactly what Andrew Casey’s family did.
Andrew, his spouse Nancy, and their son Flynn (13) have lived in their Wellington Village home for about 11 years. The pizza oven was installed seven years ago as part of a larger landscaping project that also included an in-ground pool.
Drainage issues and deep shade had prevented much from growing, so the overhaul was a good solution for this family. A mix of trees around the perimeter of the yard now creates a tranquil setting both for lazy dips in the pool as well as backyard entertaining, which they do often. So how did a permanent pizza oven become part of their landscaping plan? It is an unusual fixture, especially in Ottawa.
The answer is simple. “Cooking is my passion,” says Andrew. When he was in university, Andrew worked as a waiter at the Ritz in the Byward Market, which had a wood-fired pizza oven. “I used to hang out with the chef there,” he says. “I’d go in early and watch them do the prep so I could figure out how they were cooking certain stuff and I sort of fell in love.”
This passion for cooking, as well as a memorable dinner party at a friend’s place who had an indoor pizza oven, essentially fuelled those landscaping plans. Their backyard wood-burning pizza oven, as he says, was a “dream come true.”
He did some research and purchased a kit online from a vendor in Italy. The pizza oven kit is sort of an “igloo” made out of the same material as a pizza stone, only thicker. It was delivered in pieces and assembled on a cement base by the company that installed their swimming pool.
Andrew guesstimates he makes 5-6 pizzas every week, which are mostly consumed on Saturday nights. It’s a bit of a process, but he insists that it’s worth it. First, the crust. A good pizza begins with a great crust and Andrew prefers sourdough for this step. Sourdough is not made with yeast, rather, it uses a “starter” made from flour and water. Naturally occurring yeast and bacteria ferments the dough, which results in a tangy flavour. It takes about four days to make sourdough for the pizzas, although Andrew has been known to buy premade dough from Il Negozio Nicastro if he doesn’t have a batch ready to go or has suffered a catastrophic sourdough failure.
Nicastro’s is not a sourdough, but Andrew insists it’s an exceptional pizza dough. “The dough is really elastic… the perfect size so they come out nice and thin,” he says. It comes frozen but it thaws in about an hour, which is ideal for a spontaneous pizza party. He admits that dough preference is a really personal thing – some like a thicker, bready pizza while others prefer a crisper, thinner crust – but thinner crusts are the best option for his pizza oven because the temperature is so high and the pizzas cook very quickly. You don’t want the crust to burn before it cooks all the way through.
Pizza party planning actually starts a few days ahead as the sourdough starter as it has to be “reinvigorated” on a Tuesday or Wednesday. He makes the dough Wednesday night and then after kneading it a few times he divides it into smaller portions on Saturday morning and lets them rest in the fridge until later that day. (Worth noting: He usually makes extra dough for calzones for Flynn’s lunches.)
The reason why pizza parties take place on Saturday nights is because it takes a couple of hours to get the fire burning and the temperature right. The wood is split into smaller pieces that can easily be fed into the oven. The fire is started in the front and middle and then pushed to the back and sides before sliding in the raw pizza. (Andrew recommends apple and cherry woods because they burn well and can hold their heat for longer and impart a nice flavour. )
The pizzas bake for three minutes at a very high temperature – 800-850F – and two can be made at a time. The result is a super thin crust that comes out charred and bubbly; crisp on the outside but tender on the inside.
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A happy side effect of pizza oven ownership is that it creates a dinner event. It’s the perfect opportunity to invite friends and neighbours. Sometimes Andrew supplies the dough and the dinner guests bring the pizza toppings. The kids usually opt for Hawaiian or meaty pizzas, but for the adults he uses different combinations of cured meats and fresh mozzarella.
His fave pizza this season is a rosemary-olive oil chili pepper base topped with thinly-sliced potato, red onion, and parmesan cheese. Sometimes he’ll add pancetta, but really, “the simpler, the better” is his motto, and of course, freshness. Fresh basil, homemade sauce, and fresh mozzarella come together to make a simple yet sophisticated dinner.
Nicastro’s is one of the family’s favourite places to shop for pizza-related ingredients such as meats, fresh cheeses, and the flour he adds to his sourdough starter (he uses double zero flour, which is finely ground and stretches out nicely).
The beauty of the wood-burning pizza oven is that it is more versatile than people think. Other foods can be made while the oven is heating up or cooling down. Andrew describes frying batches of King Oyster mushrooms in cast iron pans with butter, salt and pepper and a little fresh lemon juice as a pre-pizza appetizer: “They get some of that wood smokey flavour and char so beautifully in the cast iron, which gets super hot.”
Once the pizzas have been eaten and the oven is cooling down it can be used to make dessert, such as chopped fresh pineapple and cherries, caramelized with some rum and poured over ice cream.
What’s more, the oven retains the heat so well, he can also cook in it overnight (think, slow roasted meats).
Andrew uses his outdoor oven between Easter and Halloween. “After that, it’s too risky,” he says, because it gets too cold and the dome construction could crack with the extreme temperature variations.
Believe it or not, the family does go out for pizza sometimes, usually during the colder months when the pizza oven is not in use. Roberto’s on Preston is their top pick, but it can’t be take-out.
“The challenge in my mind [with regards to restaurant or take out pizza] is that you have to eat the pizzas on site because once you put them into a box, they’re so thin they get soggy,” says Andrew, who also strongly recommends Roberto’s kale caesar salad.
Of course, pizza night is about more than just feeding people. It’s an opportunity for friends and families to join together. “Everybody looks forward to pizza night, it’s a great social thing,” says Andrew. “[The pizza oven] becomes a place of gathering, and everybody likes to help turning the pizzas and pulling them out. Kids love it too. If you like cooking, it’s a lot of fun.”
The KT “Who lives here” series takes a closer look at some unique homes and the people who live there. Which Kitchissippi-area homes are you most curious about? It could be an old home, a new one, a big one, or a small one. Email a street address and a photo to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do the rest. To read other stories in this series, click here.
*This feature is brought to you in part by Engel & Völkers Ottawa Central, Brokerage.