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Pizza Week Chat: Renato Riccio of Renato Ovens

By Danya Henninger
September 25, 2013
Photo by: Danya Henninger

If you’ve eaten top-of-the-line Neapolitan pizza lately, there’s a good chance the oven it came from was built by Renato Riccio. Hailed around the world for their quality and consistency, the the premium kilns produced by Renato Ovens are renowned - Phoenix’s Pizzeria Bianco relies on one, as does just-opened Pizzeria Vetri in Philly - and the Italian-born founder personally vouches for each and every one. We caught up with the man behind the bricks via telephone for a Pizza Week chat.

Zagat: How did an Italy native end up with a pizza oven business in Dallas, Texas?
Renato Riccio: When I was still in school, I took a vacation to Mexico, and was introduced to Texas along the way. I loved the open space, the air, the “cowboy” feeling and the niceness of the people. The only thing I didn’t find was any good Italian food or pizza. So as soon as I could, I got out of New York City and came here to start my own restaurant serving Neapolitan pizza.

Zagat: The restaurant turned into a brick oven business, somehow?
RR: It was really thanks to the FDA, actually. I had been importing ovens from Italy to bake my pizzas, and one day these inspectors showed up and - these ovens, they’d never seen anything like them before. Neapolitan pizza was hardly known at all in the U.S. back then, in the 1970s. They demanded documentation, like an MSDS sheet and other specifications. They gave me a six month desist order - after that, no paperwork, no more pizza oven.

I called up the Italian companies and asked for this kind of information, which they didn’t have, of course, and they had no desire to get. They’ve been building these ovens for hundreds of years, what use do they have for documentation required by the NSF or FDA? It would have cost me thousands of dollars to send an inspector over there, and no guarantee of success. I saw no choice but to start building the ovens myself.

Zagat: So where did you learn how to build pizza ovens?
RR: Actually, even though I was born in Tuscany, I mostly grew up with my family in the south of Italy, the Amalfi Coast, and we lived very simply... we didn’t have a stove at all until I was 12 years old. All the heat and cooking came from an open fireplace that my grandfather built. So at a very young age, when I had to go make a living, I went to work with a mason - I apprenticed with one and learned to build ovens. When I found myself in 1980 in need of a pizza oven, I realized I had learned the trade at age 12. I just hadn’t used it until then, but it was in me - it was like riding a bicycle.

Zagat: Your old skills came through for you, then?
RR: Well, the FDA was nice and gave me an extra six months so I didn’t have to shut down, and in the interim (which actually stretched to about a year and a half), I invented a few things to make the ovens better. Two main things: I developed a grout-free oven - no grout between bricks that could possibly fall into the pizza - and also invented the combination oven, which uses both gas and wood for more consistent heat. By the time I launched Renato Ovens in 1981, I had seven patents pending.

Zagat: And the rest is history. Are your ovens found on every continent?
RR: Every continent except Antarctica! We do have ovens in Alaska, and all over the US, but also in India, Africa, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Hong Kong, Macau and Europe - they’re in Disneyland Paris, in London, Germany...

Zagat: But not in Italy?
RR: No, well, that would be like trying to sell ice to an Eskimo. Actually, after I got the patent on incorporating gas heat with wood, I was invited to a conference of the EU pizzaiolo trade association to talk about the new technology. They flew me out to Italy to a beautiful conference center, but when I got up to speak, with all my charts and graphs, I was practically heckled off the podium with shouts telling me I was a heretic for using gas - if the audience had tomatoes in their hands they would have thrown them at me. I just stepped off stage and enjoyed the rest of my vacation. That was in the early 2000s.

Zagat: So there are no combination gas-wood pizza ovens in Italy?
RR: Well, that’s the funny thing, now my technology is used all over Italy. There’s so much demand for Neapolitan pizza there, and it’s not the high-ticket item it can be here in the US, so there aren’t enough people who want to slave over the ovens. My hybrid oven makes a great pizza much easier to achieve. You don’t have to sweat as much over the craft.

Zagat: So anyone can make great Neapolitan pizza with a Renato oven?
RR: I wouldn’t say that. The key really comes down to ingredients - I always say, if it doesn’t taste good raw, it’s not going to taste good cooked. But if you have great sauce, great dough, great cheese, the gas and wood combination makes it much easier to control the temperature and ensure consistently great pizzas will emerge.

However, I always travel personally to check each installation and give instruction and demos on how to best use it. Chefs like Jeff Michaud at Pizzeria Vetri, they don’t necessarily need me to do that, but my ovens are becoming more and more popular in corporate companies - Hyatt Regency uses them, for example, and California Pizza Kitchen. There it’s key that I make sure they’re using the ovens properly. My name is still on all of them, it’s my reputation on the line.

Zagat: Has anything ever gone wrong?
RR: The one thing that can happen is if a client doesn’t follow the cleaning instructions. It’s very important to clean the stack, the chimney, at least four times a year with a physical brush. Otherwise the soot and carbon and vapors will solidify into this asphalt-like tar, which is very flammable. It’s only happened a few times, I can count them on one hand. But anytime you work with open flame there’s that risk. You have to be careful.

There was this one fire at a Macaroni Grill in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1990s. The restaurant called and told me there had been a fire and the whole restaurant had burnt down - but they wanted to know if I could fix up the oven so they could use it when they reopened. I remember heading out to the site, and it was an amazing scene: there was a big open cement square where the building had been with not a single thing left... except my oven, just standing there in the middle. It was blackened on the outside but totally intact. I told them, sure, I’ll fix it up for you. And I did.

Zagat: That’s a strong oven.
RR: It’s a beast. I remember in the 1980s there was a big earthquake in San Francisco, and I had a bunch of ovens set up there already. The ovens are set on casters, heavy wheels, and so some of them had busted through walls, but none of them were damaged. We didn’t lose a single one.

Zagat: You must have a pretty big company, to have ovens all over the world.
RR: No, not really. We’re probably around a dozen people. I could go big, sell 200-300 ovens a year, but I keep it to 90-100. My factory has two speeds: slow and stop. Every piece we sell is a work of love.

Zagat: So all your clients are high-end, then.
RR: Also no! We sell ovens to residential customers - the least expensive is actually just $1,995. I can’t promise to personally fly over to install it with you, of course, but it works great for a backyard. I have a personal oven myself - it’s probably the only brick oven in the world on top of a 25-story skyscraper. Let me know if you come to Dallas, I'll cook you a pizza.

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