A wood-fired brick pizza oven on wheels?

Why would anyone build a wood-fired brick pizza oven on wheels?

This was the question put to Giuseppe Puddu who built the wood-fired brick pizza oven on wheels that is parked besides his L'antico Caffé Italian cafe on Rt. 903 at 4 Danner Road in the Penn Forest Township suburb of Jim Thorpe.

Puddu, who grew up on the island of Ponza in Italy, saw an opportunity to combine his two vocations he works in construction and is a chef trained for three years at the Alberghi Hotel School in Genoa to create a classic Italian wood-fired brick pizza oven to go with authentic ingredients to create traditional thin crust Neapolitan pizzas.

Dating back to the days of the Roman Empire, Italians did their baking in wood-fired brick pizza ovens. Often, there was but one oven in a community, and it became a meeting place where friends, Romans and countrymen would assemble to bake their bread.

Thin crust pizza developed during the latter part of the 1800s after Italy became unified in 1861. To celebrate, a special variation using tomato, mozzarella, basil and extra-virgin olive oil representing the colors of green, white and red in the Italian flag was created for a visit to Naples from Queen Margherita, wife of Italian King Umberto I.

Pizza Margherita became one of the official variants of Italian pizza, and is the style favored by Puddu.

One of the secrets to authentic thin crust Neapolitan pizza is to bake the pie at a temperature of between 700 and 900°F. A home oven typically is limited to 450 or 500°F. A wood-fired brick pizza oven can reach temperatures up to 1,000°F.

"A wood-fired brick oven is important for pizza because once you get above 600° or 700°, you get the best texture from the flour," explained Puddu. "It cooks quickly. The crust is crisper which is better for thin dough. It tastes different."

At the 900°F temperature of a hot wood-fired brick oven, a pizza can cook in 90 seconds.

Puddu's oven-on-wheels is mounted on a twin-axle trailer reinforced to support the four-foot by five-foot by four-inch thick concrete base of the oven. On top of the concrete base, the oven is constructed of 350 firebricks, which, in turn are covered by insulation, wire mesh, and covered with stucco.

The interior of the oven measures 46 inches in diameter, which allows space for baking up to three large pizzas with an ample room for the wood fire. A 24-inch steel door provides access to the oven, and a chimney vents excess smoke.

Puddu places fireplace-size logs into the oven and begins heating the wood about 3 p.m. on a typical Saturday afternoon. By 6:30 p.m., the oven is hot enough to begin baking the pizzas. He bakes up to three at a time, usually 20 25 pies in a campaign.

"When the door is opened, you can see the flames inside from the burning wood," he said. "The smoke from the wood fills the oven."

Asked why he goes through all this trouble to make authentic Neapolitan pizza, Puddu said, "It smells and tastes different. The crust is more brown all around, and you have bubbles in the darker areas. The very hot temperature locks in the fermentation of the dough."

Although he makes many varieties of pizza, Puddu personally prefers the classic version with tomato, sliced mozzarella, basil and extra-virgin olive oil.

"Some pizzas are soggy in the middle," he said. "That happens when you put on the sauce an cheese before baking."

To avoid this, he bakes the shell first, and then takes the pie from the oven, adds homemade sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese, basil, olive and toppings and returns the pie to the wood-fired oven for a final baking.

"You know why Italians are thin?" he asked with a smile. "They eat pasta and pizza."

L'antico Caffé is on Rt. 903 at 4 Danner Road in Penn Forest Township. For hours, call: 570-732-4092.