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[whitespace] Andrea Mugnaini
Board Member: Andrea Mugnaini, president and founder of Mugnaini Imports, demonstrates one of her state-of-the-art pizza ovens.

Pizza Play

Last week's gathering of Slow Food Santa Cruz at the Mugnaini headquarters was an evening of primal sensations

By Christina Waters

ANY ALTERNATIVE TO fast food has my respect, and after following the international Slow Food movement (www.slowfood.com)--essentially a network of bon vivants in search of each other and long evenings of food and wine--I thought their April gathering at La Cucina Mugnaini would be just the thing. Let it be noted for the record that it is often the case that groups, just like individuals, tend to live up to their name--to wit, the rotundity of Rotarians. The members of Slow Food turned out to be downright Southern in their approach to speech and movement. This tendency toward unhastened quietude (which decreased as the wine flowed) formed the right match for a demo of the ancient method of wood-fired oven cookery.

The Slow Food event unfolded as if by osmosis. There was no actual starting point for the evening of sipping and cooking and eating. After a brief introduction to the Mugnaini oven concept, it was manager Susie Dymoke's behind-the-ovens tour that was most fun. Entrepreneuse Andrea Mugnaini brought the concept to California from Tuscany, where the clay ovens are actually created.

Here's how the legend goes. After World War II, when so many of the communal ovens in Italy were destroyed, one Sylvio Valoriani won a commission from the Italian government to create a small, affordable oven for Italian households. Using a thermally friendly refractory clay dug from his native Tuscan soil, he created a small, fuel-efficient oven based upon designs we can see on ancient Roman frescoes. Valoriani patented his unique ovens, which became the industry standard. The company is now managed by Sylvio's son Massimo Valoriani, and distributed exclusively by Mugnaini Imports in the United States. The night we visited the Watsonville warehouse one of the demonstration ovens was already blazing. Through the mezzaluna opening we could see the oak timbers off to one side, glowing and ready to receive the modest little pizzas we were all going to make (slowly) that evening.

As Dymoke showed us, behind the attractive brick front the oven itself is a simple circular construction of terra cotta clay with a fire brick "floor," on which foods are cooked. The design ensures quick, even cooking. Thanks to the domed ceiling and thermal insulation these babies climb to extremely high temperatures, upwards of 750 degrees. We all know that this is the secret to making great pizza--and is also why, sadly, we really can't try this at home, unless we've ordered one of the Mugnaini ovens (from $2,750 for the smallest unassembled model, to commercial grade, factory-assembled ovens in the $9,000 ballpark).

Incidentally these ovens are used at Chez Panisse, Oliveto, Seascape Resort and Stars in San Francisco and are considered the Cadillac of pizza ovens. But not simply pizza. During the long, slow evening of cooking and eating, Susie Dymoke expertly roasted potatoes, asparagus, radicchio and chicken in the Tuscan oven. All delicious and all quite fun to cook.

We were all given a crash course on shaping the risen dough into individual pizzas, applying toppings, and then very deftly (or not so deftly as was the case with several of the Slow folk) shuffling the pizza off the wooden paddle (called a peel) and into the oven. As we watched, the pizzas cooked (much too quickly for Slow Food purposes, but whatever).

Joined by an excellent David Bruce cab 1999, I disemboweled my little disk (that's poetic license at its most extreme). It was utterly, gorgeously, genuinely pizza. Much was learned that evening, but the best thing I came home with was this: www.mugnaini.com. This is a terrific place to visit, and once you sample freshly made, wood-fired pizza, you simply will not be able to go back to or whatever ersatz pizza facility you might have frequented in the past.

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From the May 1-8, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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