“Pizza’s Popularity Powers Category Growth & Diversity”
The world just can’t seem to get enough pizza. If the pizza-fun-facts websites are to be believed, each year over three billion pizzas are sold in the United States alone, enough to fuel a 23-pound-per-capita consumption habit, and support over 61,000 domestic pizza parlors. But pizza as a menu staple has exploded well beyond the green-white-red confines of Italian restaurants and neighborhood pizza joints. Pizza, in some form, is found on the menus of white tablecloth fine dining restaurants and fast-casual bakery cafes, not to mention most schools, B&I dining rooms, and healthcare facilities. Even when seafood, steak, chicken, or burgers take center stage, pizza may be offered as an appetizer, vegetarian entree, or children’s menu option.
At its core, pizza is a flatbread, and flatbreads are part of the menu traditions of most world cultures and cuisines. So it is no surprise that the popularity of pizza has spread beyond the wellspring of Italy and its immigrant outposts in the U.S., Canada, and the UK. The offshore growth of the major pizza restaurant chains that was spearheaded by YUM! Brands’ Pizza Hut has exported “U.S. style” pizza around the globe. At last report, Pizza Hut operates over 5,600 restaurants in 97 different countries, in addition to their 7,500 or so stateside stores.
There is no question the world has a taste for pizza and that restaurant operators of all stripes aim to deliver. This popularity, among a diverse variety of service venues, has fueled the development of an amazing variety of baking platforms. But most serious pizza providers use a functional natural gas deck oven, a showy traditional brick oven, or an automated gas conveyor oven to bake their pies.
Some Bakery Skills Required
The majority of independent pizza restaurants find natural gas deck ovens suit their application needs. With their large cooking hearth and stackability, deck ovens can handle lots of pies needed for dine-in, takeout, and delivery orders. They can be ordered with ceramic or firebrick decks used for cooking product directly on the oven deck or steel decks if pizza will be baked on screens or pans.
They have a full-width hinge-down door that makes visibility, loading, unloading, and pie movement easy. That big open door also dumps heat, creates cool areas and necessitates some of that pie movement to even out the bake. While some deck ovens can be built-in and dressed up for show, most models are utilitarian workhorses that toil behind the scenes.
For Décor & Showmanship
Traditional brick ovens are more commonly found in high-end pizza and fine dining restaurants that craft-bake pizza, breads, and other menu items. Most of these ovens are designed to be built into an open kitchen or display cooking area. While brick facing is common, they can be dressed out with just about any construction material or decorative cladding imaginable. They often become the centerpiece of a restaurant’s design or décor, adding a warm open hearth ambiance, plus a concrete (or should I say brick?) demonstration of a fresh, bake-to-order commitment. Because of their size, ventilation requirements, outside-the-kitchen location, and built-in requirements, these ovens require a well-thought-out renovation or new construction plan.
If you have issues with consistency, kitchen staffing, and/or keeping up with orders, you may want to consider a conveyor oven. Natural gas conveyor ovens take most of the skill and guesswork out of the baking process. If the crust and pie toppings prep work is fairly consistent, you are off to a good start. Oven temperature and conveyor speed are the two critical variables. Once you have documented the correct settings for different crust and topping combinations, the pizza is placed on the belt, and a finished pie comes out the other side. Natural gas conveyor ovens are compact and very efficient. (Conveyor ovens will be discussed in more depth in an upcoming issue.)
What’s New and Improved
Deck ovens and traditional brick ovens have been around for decades. As the most basic of ovens, new product developments are typically refinements of existing designs. But a number of creative specialty ovens and hybrids have been introduced, as the popularity of pizza has spread beyond the friendly confines of the traditional pizza parlor.
Display Ovens Get Small
Several manufacturers have introduced new small-scale, dual-heat display cooking ovens. Wood Stone Corporation is best known for its big-and-showy traditional brick ovens, but they also offer the compact Vashon Stone Hearth Countertop Oven. The Vashon is a stainless steel unit with a full-width, conventionally hinged door with a large glass viewing window and a rounded, beveled Euro-style cabinet with solid-state touchpad controls. It has a ceramic cooking surface, and the cooking compartment is sealed for efficiency and uniform cooking. To deliver some of the visual effects of their larger open-hearth models, this gas/electric oven has a flickering, live flame burner behind the stone cooking deck. Remco Specialty Products has larger versions, but their Millennium 2000 CT2 Carousel Brick Oven is only 30 inches in diameter and designed to cook two 10-inch pizzas, three 9-inch pizzas, or four 8-inch individual pizzas on its rotating, composite stone deck. Using a combination of gas and electric heat, they claim cook times of 90 seconds on fresh dough, gourmet-style pies. In addition to a sleek stainless steel-wrapped exterior, this no-door oven uses an air curtain to retain heat, is only warm-to-the-touch on the exterior, doesn’t need a ventilation hood (just flue venting), and has a natural gas flicker-flame burner to attract attention.
Putting a Fresh Spin On It
While best known for their rotisserie ovens, Hickory Industries put their spin on display cooking with the introduction of the Model VPO-54 Visual Pizza Oven. The VPO is very different and provides attention-grabbing movement, perfect for open kitchens and high traffic locations. Hungry customers can watch their pizza or calzones “go for a ride” and cook in full view. Halogen lighting adds to the visual effects. Pizzas are placed on a fully exposed 54-inch diameter round, rotating steel plate. An infrared-heated hood covers part of the plate, cooks top ingredients and melts cheese, while the revolving plate is heated from the bottom, to cook and brown the crust. Plexiglas side shields corral any splatter and direct heat up and away from staff and onlookers. To fine-tune cooking, the speed of the revolving plate can be controlled and both the upper infrared heat source and burner height are adjustable. Hickory claims this oven will prepare perfectly done fresh pies in six minutes or less, and up to 60 pies-per-hour.
Best of Both Worlds
Like the look and taste of traditional stone-hearth baked pizza but need the production capacity and labor savings of a conveyor oven? Picard Ovens’ LP-200 Series is a granite conveyor oven that combines the best of both worlds. Available in 20-, 32-, and 40-inch belt widths, and single or two-deck models, these units have a cooking conveyor fabricated from thin sections of granite, which are linked to form a smooth continuous cooking surface as it moves through the cooking chamber. Gas burners heat the
granite cooking belt and surrounding air. Drawers at the beginning and end of the cook conveyor collect crumbs and ingredient debris, and a more traditional stainless steel mesh conveyor picks up cooked pies on the finished end.
For smaller operators looking to cook an occasional pie, small countertop electric ovens abound and are sometimes provided as part of a buy-our-frozen-pie deal. However, most operators serious about pizza prefer gas deck, brick, and conveyor ovens because of the substantial energy cost savings they deliver when compared to electric models of similar size and product output. For traditional open-hearth brick ovens, the visual appeal of those flickering flames is part of the package. While wood and charcoal-fired ovens impart some flavor and aroma characteristics to the food, those solid fuels are bulky to store, dirty, and difficult to handle. Solid fuel ovens also require more attention and skill to maintain the proper bake temperature. Wood-burning “style” gas ovens like those offered by Bakers Pride, Earthstone Ovens, Bravo Systems, MarSal & Sons, Rosito Bisani, and Wood Stone deliver the show of flickering flames with the temperature control of natural gas. There are also gas models that have a log, pellet, or chip box to generate wood smoke while relying on natural gas burners for most of the cooking heat.
Gas ovens also offer some installation advantages. In most commercial kitchens, a significant gas load can be installed without the need to increase the size of the gas supply line. A typical natural gas oven installation requires only a shutoff valve, approved gas appliance connector, and a 120-volt electrical power connection for ignition and control systems. Costly electrical panel upgrades and 208/240/480-volt power connections are not required when installing a gas deck oven. Because of the high power requirements of the larger ovens, there are not that many electric model alternatives. But gas-heated deck and brick ovens are available from plenty of quality manufacturers in an impressive array of models and configurations. These models offer a significant energy Demand Side Management (DSM) alternative for both operators and their local electric utility.
Pizza Oven Performance Review
So how do these major oven categories stack up? While generalizations are always risky, let’s roll the pepperoni and take a slice at it!
Did You Know:
- Most traditional brick ovens are designed to be dressed or built into enclosures that enhance their value as décor and open-kitchen stage. The cooking compartments themselves can be round, oval, or rectangular.
- While most traditional deck ovens have solid, insulated doors, Doyon PIZ-Series Pizza Ovens have viewing windows that help retain heat while monitoring cooking progress.
- While best known for their range line, Montague makes a deck-type pizza oven with a 1½-inch thick cordite deck for direct hearth baking, plus optional firebrick or steel deck for pan baking.
- If you want to double-stack a deck oven, check out Bakers Pride, Marsal, or Montague.
- If you want to triple-stack a deck oven, see Doyon.
*Based on information supplied by manufacturers for the 31st Edition Foodservice Gas Equipment Catalog.
Russ’s Top 10 Pizza Oven Specification Tips:
- When evaluating oven size and decks, remember that pizzas and artisan breads often need to be moved around the deck to even out the bake and handle orders as they come in.
- For more cooking capacity in the same space, specify a double or triple deck model; or consider mounting a brick oven above a deck oven.
- If pizza will be the only product baked, specify pizza- or deck-ovens with five-to-eight inch high cooking compartments. Why waste that compartment height?
- If the oven will be used to roast meats or for general bakery applications, specify ovens with 8- to 12-inch high cooking compartments.
- Most deck oven doors hinge down and spend much of their time open when pies are added, removed, or moved around. Brick ovens typically have a smaller door that loses less heat when open but makes deck access more challenging.
- Remember, baking in a brick or deck oven takes experience and near-constant oversight. If training and retaining cooks/bakers is an issue, consider the use of a conveyor or rotating deck oven.
- Decide if your preparation style calls for cooking directly on the oven deck; or will pizza or bread pans be used? If pans will be used, specify ovens with steel decks. If you want a traditional hearth-baked crust, specify a deck oven with a brick or ceramic hearth.
- If a deck oven will be built into a display cooking area and finished with tile, brick, or other decorative material, specify models without stainless steel sides, top, and bottom panels, designed for built-in applications.
- Make sure large built-in ovens are delivered early in the construction process before the kitchen/building shell is complete. They won’t fit through most doors.
- See the 31st Foodservice Gas Equipment Catalog for one-stop source information on manufacturers, models, and sizes available.