All photos/art by Julie Bidwell
When Sonya Speranza was 7 years old, she took her first trip in an airplane. She traveled all the way from Hartford, Connecticut, to the village of Pescara, Italy, to meet her relatives and to see the place where her mother had grown up. In the backyard of the family home stood a rustic wood-fire oven that’s still in use today.
“Before my mom came to America and married my father, she was something of a caterer,” says Sonya. “If a neighbor was getting married, they’d ask her to help cook.”
Sonya’s mom, Antonietta D’Aloisio Speranza, passed along to her offspring her gift for conjuring up delicious fare: Her three daughters are chefs, and son John is an inventive home cook. (When the family gathers, they good-naturedly try to outdo one another.) To Sonya, her mother also passed along a passion for Old World cookery: A wood-fire oven anchors the spacious kitchen she shares with her husband, Joe Abbruzese, at home in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.
In 2000, when Joe and Sonya set about designing their house, they were inspired by the book Great Kitchens: At Home with America’s Top Chefs (Taunton, 1999). “Many of the chefs had wood ovens in their kitchens,” says Sonya. As well, the couple’s favorite restaurant was Todd English’s first establishment, Olives, in Boston; that, too, featured a wood oven. The Abbruzeses’ builder had never constructed an indoor wood oven before, so Joe, who builds new restaurants for a living, pitched in on the research and design fronts. Later, alongside his father, Joe faced the stove with flagstones to match the hearth in the family room, which is visible from the kitchen.
The wood oven was just one part of an intentionally generous floor plan, explains Joe: “Every party we’ve ever had, people always gather in the kitchen. So we decided to design a kitchen to handle the masses.” It includes an 11-foot-long island, providing ample room for simultaneous preparation and serving — the perfect setup for the family’s famous pizza soirees.
For entertaining, the Abbruzeses have found no better menu than pizza. “We host ‘bring your favorite topping’ parties, and people get very creative, especially if we give out prizes,” says Sonya. Recent winners include clam chowder pizza with bechamel sauce and chopped clams, and a “kitchen sink” recipe with caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and goat cheese.
Over the years, the Abbruzeses have developed crowd-pleasing combinations and personal favorites. But they use the oven for much more than pizza; they cook everything from stews to prime rib in it. “Once we became comfortable using high temperatures, we began to experiment,” notes Joe. “Now we’re spoiled with fast cooking times and the extra flavor it adds.” Any stay-at-home Sunday with the hint of a chill is all the excuse he needs to fire up the oven.
Fresh Aromas: For herb-infused dough — the perfect complement to the simple flavors of fresh tomatoes and basil — add 3/4 cup Romano cheese and 1 tablespoon oregano to the Basic Pizza Dough recipe.
Hot Stuff: The Abbruzeses bake pizza in their wood-fire oven at 550 to 600 degrees. If you’re using a conventional oven, heat it to 500 degrees. Baking times will vary depending on your method: As a general rule, the Abbruzeses precook their pizza dough until just firm, then finish baking the pie after toppings are added.
Bottoms Up: When making pizza in a conventional oven, use a baking stone or unglazed quarry tiles (available at flooring stores). If you have a gas oven, line the bottom with tiles, leaving about an inch around the perimeter. In an electric oven, move the rack to the lowest rung and place tiles on top. Be sure to use a sprinkling of flour or cornmeal to prevent the crust from sticking or burning.
The Peel Deal: Whether wood or metal, a giant, long-handled flat spatula — a pizza peel — is the perfect tool for handling pies. If you love pizza making, it’s worth the expense.
Grate Pizza: When the weather allows, cook pizza on your gas grill. Heat it to medium-high and place the lightly floured dough directly onto a clean grate. If you’re precooking the dough before topping it, do three to four minutes per side, until it’s firm and brown. If you’re cooking with toppings, reduce heat to medium, close the grill, and bake the pizza as you would in a conventional oven.