Oven-making has been Ferrara's family business for nearly 100 years; he is a third generation oven-maker. And Ferrara has been learning the craft since he was 13 years old, when he helped his father build the oven at Pizzeria Brandi in Naples. In 2001, Ferrara started his own oven business, Stefano Ferrara Forni.
As the Neapolitan style of pizza-making has boomed in America over the last five to six years, so has the presence of Stefano Ferrara ovens. Now, notable pizzerias such as Una Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, Paulie Gee's in Brooklyn, Cane Rosso in Dallas, and Motorino in Brooklyn and Hong Kong own ovens bearing the Ferrara name. "The name Stefano Ferrara and the ovens themselves are synonymous with quality in the same way that [New York City butcher] Pat LaFrieda might be synonymous with good burger quality," says I Dream of Pizza writer Jason Feirman.
And pizza-makers have been willing to drop some serious money on a Stefano Ferrara oven: a mobile 120-centimeter diameter oven starts at 6,500 euros ($9,042), while a fixed (built on-site) oven of the same size starts at 12,000 euros ($16,693). Factor in the costs of building, customizing, shipping, and installation — all of which, by the way, can be a logistical nightmare in and of themselves — and a Stefano Ferrara oven can end up costing as much as the $25,000 that Paulie Gee spent on his first oven.
Meanwhile, a handful of manufacturers right here in the US are building wood-fired ovens that cost less and are easier to obtain. So why do restaurateurs covet these wood-fired ovens built from Italian brick and soil? Eater talked with pizza-makers, pizza obsessives, oven importers, and Ferrara himself to discover the allure of the Stefano Ferrara oven, and what it takes to actually get one.
The Costs and the Complications
In 2009, Paulie Gee imported his first mobile oven directly from Stefano Ferrara. He paid 7,800 euro ($10,850) for the oven, and another 2,000 euro ($2,782) for a shipping container in which to transport it. Customs detained the oven in Newark for two weeks and a $750 charge. Paulie Gee then paid Brooklyn-based Hulk Rigging & Hauling — on recommendation from Motorino's Mathieu Palombino — $5,500 to lift and install the oven into his Greenpoint, Brooklyn restaurant. Finally, he was forced to drop another $4,500 to vent the oven.
In today's exchange rate, that comes to $24,382. In 2009, though, the exchange rate was less favorable to the dollar. The oven cost somewhere around $25,000. It's a jaw-dropping amount of money, and one of the most expensive Neapolitan wood-burning ovens available on the market today. "But," Paulie Gee says, "considering it is the one thing that I absolutely need in my restaurant, it was a bargain."
But even if the price tag seems worthwhile, consider the red tape. Like, say, a safety inspector who won't sign off on your restaurant until you install an unnecessarily pricey hood over that oven. Or the fact that the documents needed to import one container — including logistics to the Italian port, US customs documents, sea vessel information, insurance documents, and logistics from the US port to the oven's final destination — total more than 20 pages of paperwork. Customs brokers can shoulder the burden of most of that paperwork. Of course, a customs broker will cost another $400, according to Jay Jerrier of Cane Rosso in Dallas.
For Jerrier, though, the real stress starts when the oven finally arrives at the restaurant. A 140-centimeter Stefano Ferrara oven — the size Cane Rosso uses — weighs more than 6,000 pounds and costs more than $10,000. One wrong move in lifting it from the bed of a truck and into the restaurant space could be disastrous.
Cane Rosso's first oven installation went fine. The second time, they destroyed two pallets trying to get it up the walkway to the restaurant and had to destroy the storefront to get the oven in. The third time, he says, they just took the storefront off in order to bring the oven into the restaurant via forklift. That cost about $3,500. The installation process was such "a white-knuckle moment" for Jerrier that he couldn't even stand to be present for the last two, he says. (And, each time, the contractor texted Jerrier an apology for dropping the oven before reassuring him that all had gone well. "They all have to be comedians," he says.)
The installation process was "a white-knuckle moment."
Removing the front of the building isn't an option for everyone, though. When Mathieu Palombino opened Motorino in Hong Kong, he knew he'd never be able to roll a mobile oven up the steep street and into his restaurant space. Instead, he flew Stefano Ferrara out to build a fixed oven on-site, the first Ferrara oven in China. But while fixed ovens do alleviate the stress of importing and installing a 6,000-pound oven, they come at a price. Stefano Ferrara's 120 cm fixed ovens — with a capacity of five pizzas at a time, the minimum need for most restaurants — costs 12,000 euros ($16,693).
And that's just the base cost. Anyone who wants Ferrara to build them a fixed oven on-site must pay his airfare and that of his assistant, plus the cost of room and board for the 10 days it takes to build an oven. The customer also has to foot the bill for shipping Ferrara's building materials which, as LA Weekly noted in 2011 when Sotto opened with a fixed Ferrara oven, weigh about 15,000 pounds.
Fixed ovens don't allow a restaurateur to circumnavigate customs-related headaches either. Boulder's Pizzeria Locale learned that firsthand when it opened in 2011. Owners Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson told Eater Denver back in 2012 that their initial plan was to bring Ferrara out to Colorado to build their oven. But when all of the building materials hit Houston, everything snagged. Customs declared that the three bags of Italian soil were "nonconforming goods," and quarantined the shipment for five weeks before Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson finally gave up and had Ferrara ship an oven instead. It's not too surprising, then, that Paulie Gee estimates 9 out of 10 pizzeria owners who have a Ferrara oven choose a mobile one.
Buying Through an Importer
There is a way to get around some of these complications that come along with buying a Stefano Ferrara oven. You can always just go through Ellie Olsen.
Olsen is a consultant and trained pizzaiolo with an exuberance for pizza that's clear when you walk into her 2,000-square-foot import facility just outside of Denver, Wood Fired Oven Baker. "Artisan pizza and importing as a whole are flushed through my veins," she says. After leaving a job importing products from India and Southeast Asia for a European politician, Olsen says she fell in love with the old-school way of cooking with a wood-burning oven while traveling Europe.
Olsen got into importing Neapolitan ovens (plus slicers, dough mixers, prep tables, and accessories) to make money during the 17 months it took her to retrofit a 1946 F6 truck with a Valoriani pizza oven, panini presses, a charcuterie slicer, and an espresso machine. Now, the food truck has taken a back-burner to the importing business.
It's cheaper to import a Stefano Ferrara oven through Olsen or her California-based competitor Michael Fairholme. For one thing, an importer can lower individual shipping costs by consolidating several oven orders into one shipping container. Olsen says that one 40-foot container can hold five Stefano Ferrara ovens, meaning the cost of shipping the container can be split five ways. The prices Olsen charges for ovens all include shipping and customs fees at a savings of about $1,000-$2,000 compared to importing an oven directly.
Here's what it costs in US dollars to buy a mobile oven, tiled and untiled, from Wood Fired Oven Baker:
Olsen also handles all of the logistics and paperwork associated with importing these ovens for her clients. And even if a catastrophe occurs — such as a shipment damaged at sea — Olsen's insurance absorbs that cost. Her customers don't pay anything. The only extra fee a customer has to pay is the cost of delivery from her Denver warehouse to the oven's final location, which varies by ZIP Code. Though some customers order customized, tiled ovens in advance — a process which takes 12 weeks — those who prefer to order an oven untiled can get it in as quickly as eight weeks, Olsen says. Perhaps even sooner if she happens to have the right size and type of oven in stock.
Ferrara declined to disclose the number of ovens he has shipped to and built in America since he began his company, but Olsen says the import business has picked up across the board with Neapolitan ovens. (She also imports Acunto Forni Mario and Acunto Forni Gianni ovens.) Each month, Olsen usually brings in two or three containers filled with ovens. On any given day, she might get five or six inquiries from restaurants. And, earlier this year, she placed an order for 18 more ovens, only two of which were spoken for at the time. Nine weeks after she placed the order, another 14 had been snapped up.
It's no accident that some of the most celebrated Neapolitan pizzerias in this country are using Stefano Ferrara ovens. An active network of pizza-makers is in play here. When Motorino chef Mathieu Palombino was looking for a new pizza oven, he talked to Una Pizza Napoletana chef Anthony Mangieri as well as Paulie Gee. Jay Jerrier also went to Paulie Gee for advice when he was opening Cane Rosso in Dallas. And Paulie Gee went out to Hopewell, New Jersey to check out Nomad Pizza Company's Ferrara oven, after having been captivated by one that he had glimpsed years earlier at Caffe Calabria while vacationing in San Diego.
"All of my Neapolitan friends, they kind of universally agree that Ferrara is the top of the line for making Neapolitan pizza," Jerrier says.
There are a few reasons for this, perhaps the most important being the personal touch of Stefano Ferrara Forni. Francesca Ferrara, Stefano's wife, is a big part of this. Because Stefano has a limited grasp of English, Francesca is the one who answers all of the inquiries sent to the generic email address on the company's website. "You can sense these guys want to make sure you know what you're getting and that you're asking for the right things," Jerrier says. He likens choosing such an attentive manufacturer to the value that chefs place on sourcing, noting, "You want to know where things come from and you want to know who's growing it and who is making it."
And, like a good front of the house manager, Ferrara takes time to connect with his customers. When Palombino was first shopping for a pizza oven, he went to Naples to visit Ferrara. There, the oven-maker took Palombino on a tour of his manufacturing facility and demonstrated his building process. Right on the spot, Palombino ordered his first Stefano Ferrara oven. "I just felt like this was the right guy for me to work with," Palombino says. For him, buying a Stefano Ferrara oven is not just about the oven. It's about Stefano Ferrara, whose personal service comes as part of the package.
And that is key. As Paulie Gee puts it, "If I'm opening up a place, I want to make sure that if something goes wrong I have somebody to turn to other than me."
That turned out to be a good thing last year when the two ovens bound for Paulie Gee's forthcoming Baltimore location bumped each other in transit, messing up some of the tiling. The damage was actually pretty minimal, he says, but the ovens still had to be repaired. So, earlier this month, Ferrara flew to Baltimore to patch up the tiles. It was a final assurance of customer service.
Ferrara's intensity and pride in his craft were evident while he was in Baltimore repairing those ovens, says Paulie Gee's Hampden co-owner Kelly Beckham — a man who is perhaps better known in the pizza community under the alias Pizzablogger. "It was exciting to see Stefano in person holding his hands up, covered in mortar, and mentioning he built the ovens with his hands.... that each oven is like one of his children," Beckham says. "He was very passionate explaining this and it was invigorating to see." Just the fact that Ferrara would fly from Naples to Baltimore ought to be a pretty good indication of the man's dedication to craftsmanship, Beckham adds.
That craftsmanship goes back three generations in Ferrara's family. His grandfather began building these dome-shaped ovens in Naples in 1920, later passing his craft onto his son, who passed that onto his son. Though there may have been some little improvements in technique over this near-century of building ovens, Ferrara says the techniques and the materials he uses are the same as his grandfather's.
So it's understandable when Motorino's Mathieu Palombino describes Ferrara as being "very particular" about the way he builds an oven. "He's doing every single one of his ovens himself," Palombino says, though acknowledging that Ferrara does have assistants. "He also works at such a speed," Palombino adds. "it's just incredible. He doesn't walk. He runs."
When Jay Jerrier was first opening Cane Rosso in Dallas back in 2011, he knew he needed a pizza oven that would be more efficient than his modular Forno Bravo home oven. The Forno Bravo was fine, but Cane Rosso's oven would need to be well-built and able to churn out pizza at a fast enough clip for a potentially high-volume restaurant. It would need to be hand-built.
After talking to Paulie Gee about it, Jerrier decided a Stefano Ferrara oven was the right choice for Cane Rosso. The combination of a low dome height and a small mouth that marks this style of oven is ideal for maximizing convection and retaining heat, he says. Meanwhile, the position of the flue is in the back center of the oven rather than by the mouth, which would bring too much smoke into the restaurant. All of this comes together to create an ideal Neapolitan-style pie. When an inspector from Vera Pizza Napoletana — the non-profit organization that certifies pizzerias as authentically Neapolitan — came to Cane Rosso, he told Jerrier that there's no better oven than a Stefano Ferrara oven for Neapolitan pizza.
Stefano Ferrara came onto the American pizza scene at just the right time. As recently as 2009, Beckham says that it was an oddity for a pizzeria to have a brick oven imported from Naples. Beckham starting blogging about pizza in 2009, a time when he says online communities were just starting to really geek out about everything pizza. It was also a time when the Neapolitan style was rising in popularity. Slice posted a photograph of a Ferrara oven at Nomad Pizza Company in September 2009, which is the first time Beckham says he ever saw one. Within months, Paulie Gee installed a Ferrara oven in his Brooklyn restaurant.
There were other Neapolitan oven manufacturers at the time who might have been poised to lead the American market in a Neapolitan boom had it not been for one factor: UL certification, a mark that independent safety inspectors award to products in America. Without it, Palombino says, there's little chance a restaurant will pass local safety inspection. Beckham notes that it is possible for restaurateurs to get their equipment certified on their own, but it's really just simpler to buy pre-certified equipment. All you have to do is install it and go.
Stefano Ferrara was an early adopter of the UL certification, which Denver-based importer Ellie Olsen says was a key to his success. His ovens became more desirable to American consumers just in time for that aforementioned Neapolitan boom. Though other oven manufacturers are catching up — both Gianni and Mario Acunto earned their UL certifications last year — Ferrara got a head start that continues to propel his business forward. He's also still the only manufacturer building fixed ovens with both the UL certification and the NSF International certification for food safety.
In the last 90 years, nothing has changed in the way that the Ferrara family makes its ovens, Ferrara writes in an email. All of his ovens respect the tradition started by his grandfather years ago and by other Neapolitan oven manufacturers before that. It is Ferrara's responsibility to uphold that tradition. And, by extension, some pizza-makers feel that it is their responsibility to uphold that tradition by using these ovens in their restaurants.
"It's the right way to do it," says Motorino's Palombino. "You want to do a Neapolitan pizza, this is where it starts. Get a Neapolitan pizza oven from Napoli if you're passionate about the pizza that you had in Napoli and that's what you want to serve here in Brooklyn. … Get the real stuff."
It wasn't just the logistical nightmare of rolling a 6,000-pound oven up a steep hill that prompted Palombino to install a fixed oven in Motorino's Hong Kong location. It was also a nod to tradition. Owning a fixed pizza oven is a badge of honor that few pizzerias can claim. The ones that can proclaim it loudly: In 2010, pizza nerds worked themselves into a frenzy over the construction of Donatella Arpaia's golden oven at Donatella, the first fixed oven Ferrara built in New York City. And, in 2011, Steve Samson and Zach Pollack of Sotto in Los Angeles meticulously documented the on-site creation of their Stefano Ferrara oven.
Though Palombino doesn't think a fixed oven is technically any better than a mobile oven, he likes that it doesn't feel like it was made in an assembly line. "I think you do have an oven that has a little bit more of a history," he says. "You know that you're never going to take it away. It just was born there. There's something noble about the fixed oven."
Of course, he admits, knowing that you can never take a fixed oven out of your restaurant space is something that restaurateurs worry about. A fixed oven evokes a terrifying sense of permanence in a transient industry. In January, a little more than three years after it opened, Donatella shuttered, leaving behind its gold-plated oven. Fortunately, as Grub Street later reported the group taking over that space will still be slinging pizza from the Ferrara oven, as well as meat, fish, vegetables, and bread. When a fixed oven pizzeria hits the ropes, an unofficial pizza oven inheritance plan comes into play.
Finally, a certain degree of shallowness explains the popularity of Stefano Ferrara ovens. Sure, the Neapolitan wood-fired oven can bake a pizza in two minutes or less at temperatures of up to 1000 degrees. It's built by hand with techniques that go back nearly a century by a man who takes pride in carefully crafting each one himself according to his customers' exact specifications. But that's not why Cane Rosso diners are always trying to take pictures in front of its red-and-white ovens, says Jay Jerrier.
Whereas Ferrara ovens take a very classical dome shape, its competitors pursue other aesthetics. Mario Acunto, for example, offers a couple of ovens whose domes slope upwards into a point. Appearance factored into Jerrier's choice of the Stefano Ferrara oven. And it's also what made Paulie Gee track down the manufacturer of an oven he glimpsed through a window in San Diego three years after the fact. "I love the look of it," he says.
There's also the customization aspect of a Ferrara oven. Olsen, the Denver importer, points out that it's faster and probably cheaper for restaurateurs to order an untiled oven to customize themselves. But it's exactly that customization that draws these high-profile pizza-makers to Stefano Ferrara ovens. They go back and forth with Stefano and Francesca Ferrera on the colors and styles of tile, emblazoning their logos and restaurant names upon them before they even reach American shores. That customization is what helps Ferrara ovens stand out from their competitors, who generally prefer to ship their ovens untiled. As Jerrier says, these competitors are "not nearly as sexy as Ferraras."
But choosing a Ferrara oven isn't an indictment of its brick oven competitors. Olsen, who also imports two of Ferrara's biggest rivals, Acunto Forni Mario and Acunto Forni Gianni, says that it's really "splitting hairs" when choosing among these ovens. "There is no better or best. There's different," she says.
For example, Mario Acunto is an engineer. The bricks of his ovens are built out on an angle in order to better retain the walls. He also offers three different oven shapes: the classic, vulcano, and vulcano extra. The legs on all of these ovens can retract internally. Gianni Acunto, on the other hand, offers just one oven shape, but three different leg options: welded legs, removable legs, or an oven set on a stand. Stefano Ferrara, Mario Acunto, and Gianni Acunto ovens all have different heat sink sizes, which allows for different rates of cooling. And, of course, they all come at different prices. But they should all make a delicious Neapolitan pie.
"If you were to look inside the oven, there is no difference," says Palombino, who also owns an Acunto Gianni that he inherited in his East Village space from Una Pizza Napoletana's Anthony Mangieri. "There is really no difference about the way they function. Those guys, they're all buying their brick from the same brick factory. Of course, I assume they have their own technique and they have their way to do things, but the final product is pretty much the same."
And plenty of chefs using other ovens would argue that theirs are as good if not superior to the Ferrara oven. Boston chefs recently talked to Eater Boston about their love for their own pizza ovens — none of which was a Ferrara. Joe Cassinelli of Boston's Posto and Painted Burro even went so far as to say that he believes his Valoriani Mugnaini oven is more consistent than the Ferrara, which he claimed to have heard were having workmanship issues. (No one interviewed for this article had heard about any such issues.) Internet forums such as PizzaMaking.com feature threads upon threads debating the relative merits of other competitor ovens such as the Marra Forni, Forno Napoletana, Forno Bravo, Wood Stone, and more.
For Palombino, the main difference is that these guys aren't Stefano Ferrara. "When you go to Napoli, he shows you great places around," Palombino says. "He comes with the whole service. It's not just the oven. The guy, himself, is very helpful for someone like me."
A Badge of Honor
You can walk into a pizzeria not knowing anything about it, glance at the oven, and feel reassured if it says Stefano Ferrara, according to I Dream of Pizza blogger Jason Feirman. "I think the first thing that comes to mind is, well, they must be doing something right."
Feirman writes about pizza every week and is active in a community of pizza experts. Still, Ferrara is the only oven maker whose name he sees as being so closely associated with a certain type of pizza. In a way, he says, Ferrara is a celebrity among oven-makers. "Is the quality that much better than an oven created in the United States? Probably not," Feirman says. "But it's a badge of honor having one of them because it has a reputation of being the best oven."
And Stefano Ferrara ovens continue to spread across America. Paulie Gee will be using exclusively Ferrara ovens in his upcoming national expansion. Jerrier also plans to stick with Ferrara for any future Cane Rosso expansions, perhaps even a fixed oven next time. Ferrara says he doesn't like to count the number of ovens he builds and ships overseas. "I believe the importance is in the details and not in the numbers," he writes. "Would it make sense to claim to have built [a] thousand ovens if those ovens were badly made and maybe they didn't get satisfy the customers?"
But Feirman says that pizzeria owners seem happy with their Ferrara ovens, which offer an experience. They provide a customer service experience that allows a pizza-maker to create a relationship with Naples. They give a pizzeria the look and feel of Naples. And they produce pizza that tastes like what you might taste in Naples. All of those things might come at a cost — and with plenty of hassle involved — but, for some of these pizzeria owners, it's all worthwhile.
"These guys have been making it over there in Napoli for so long," says Motorino's Palombino. "You know it's the right stuff."
The Costs of Acquiring a Stefano Ferrara Oven
Getting a Stefano Ferrara oven can be a challenge. For one, importing an oven from Naples is expensive. Here's at look at what it costs in US dollars to buy a Stefano Ferrara oven, untiled and not including shipping fees, with data provided by Denver-based importer Wood Fired Pizza Oven. Though there are more sizes available, this table displays the costs of the 120, 130, and 140 centimeter diameter iterations as they are the most commonly found in restaurants:
|Stefano Ferrara fixed oven|
(does not include fee for shipping materials, or travel, room, and board)
*prices converted from euros
|Stefano Ferrara mobile oven|
(does not include shipping fees)
*prices converted from euros
And those prices don't really get at the true cost of a Neapolitan pizza oven. For the mobile ovens that are made in Naples and shipped overseas, there's the price of the oven itself, the shipping cost, a fluctuating array of fees from customs inspections, and installation fees. The ovens that are built on site are even pricier. For one, they're larger — built directly into the restaurant space rather than sitting on a stand, they also have a space at the base for firewood storage. But the price of a fixed oven also includes parts and labor, the shipping and customs fees for transporting several thousand pounds of raw materials overseas, and the cost of airfare plus 10 days of room and board for Ferrara and an assistant.