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Wood-burning ovens take on new life in restaurants

At Bricco Ristorante in the North End, a branzino is center among the dishes in the wood-burning oven.

PHOTOS BY YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF

At Bricco Ristorante in the North End, a branzino is center among the dishes in the wood-burning oven.

Despite freezing temperatures outside, the door to the contemporary Brookline restaurant Lineage is wide open. Chef de cuisine Richard Morin is getting ready to build the daily fire in a large freestanding wood-burning oven. “Fire is a living thing, it needs food and air,” he says. Morin builds his base with two pieces of hardwood (usually oak) parallel to each other and another across the top. He loosely crumples copies of last night’s menu and sets a few beneath the logs, along with kindling. He aims a butane torch and a flame licks the paper. The fire is slow at first but then the dry logs combust and a blast of heat comes from the mouth of the oven.

“You can’t be in a rush when you cook with fire,” says Morin. It will be two hours and more than a dozen logs later before glowing wood embers get the oven to the right temperature. “Historically, this is why a cast-iron kettle was set in front of a fireplace to cook all day.”

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The chef of Bricco Ristorante and Enoteca in the North End is also cooking with fire, as is Michael Leviton of Area Four in Cambridge, and others around the city and the country. A fire has been at the center of human social life from the beginning, and an enclosed hearth gives any restaurant a welcoming feeling. But these ovens are not for decor or ambience. They are workhorses, central to the cooking of many, if not most, dishes on the menu. What’s appealing about wood-fueled ovens is the intense, dry heat that sears food, creating a crusty exterior and a moist interior.

In a cast-iron skillet, Morin sears slices of foie gras with matsutake mushrooms and bacon, he roasts chicken, fires pizza, and braises lamb.

At Bricco Ristorante & Enoteca, where there is an Old World vibe, chef Gianni Caruso presides over a more diminutive and older Italian-made oven surrounded by 1-inch square white tiles. It is fired with hardwood and reaches temperatures over 700 degrees. Beside the glowing pile of wood embers, a log is always burning. This oven performs the herculean task of “cooking all the protein on the menu,” explains Caruso, “including meat, poultry, and fish, as well as dishes like baked gnocchi.” Late in the evening he offers pizza. “It takes 70 seconds,” says the chef.

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Leviton is almost poetic about his oven. “There is something so primal about the nature of cooking with fire that you can’t get with a gas stove or grill,” he says. “It gives a rustic and casual quality to food and raises roast chicken to a different level.”

Both Lineage and Area Four have Wood Stone ovens made in Washington state. Both chefs cook in cast iron and use the ambient heat in the oven for braising (about 220 degrees), after the fire has died down. These state-of-the-art ovens are regulated by digital thermometers mounted to a wall nearby to keep track of interior temperatures, which hover around 500 degrees.

The Pilgrims built their houses at Plimoth Plantation to make the hearth and its fire central to their lives. It was where the women cooked, the family gathered, and everyone stayed warm. Explains Kathleen Wall, Plimoth’s Colonial Foodways Culinarian, “A house in the 17th century was one 20-foot-by-20-foot room.”

At Lineage, Morin, a Framingham native, uses a long-handled tool to push the blazing fire to the rear of the oven. He recalls family campfires and pie irons. “My dad would get a whole loaf of white bread and cans of apple pie filling for us kids. We would put in a piece of bread, the pie filling and another piece of bread, and close the pie iron [and toast it]. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.”

Caruso, who comes from the small village of Capestrano in Abruzzo, puts fresh apples and quince directly into the hot ash without any foil. When the fruit is tender, he peels away the skin. “The ash imparts a very special flavor to the fruit,” he says.

Although home cooks can’t achieve the extreme temperatures of a restaurant’s wood-fired oven, we can do some of the same things in our fireplaces after the logs burn down to embers.

Caruso’s favorite wood-cooked dish is whole fish. He’s making two tonight, both with Mediterranean fish, one a branzino, the other orata. He brushes the branzino with a flour-and-water paste and presses handfuls of large-crystal salt onto the skin. When it emerges from the oven, he breaks open the salt crust with a knife and his hands. “You have to be able to stand the heat,” he says, wincing a little. Under the skin, the sweet flesh is moist and surprisingly, not salty.

He cooks the orata in a packet of foil lined with parchment (this keeps the fish from tasting metallic), stuffs it with vegetables, and surrounds it with artichokes. “We add vermouth to the packet before we serve it,” says the chef, “so when the foil is opened at the table, you get a blast of aroma.”

Bricco’s oven is the center of activity in his open kitchen, with staff using a long metal paddle to ease dishes in, reposition others, and give the blazing cavity a sense of musical meals.

Debra Samuels can be reached at dgsamuels@gmail.com.
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