WAKEFIELD - It’s a typical Saturday afternoon at the Roberto house, which means 15 to 20 people are gathered in the backyard - a significant number of them who share the hosts’ last name - enjoying each other’s company and plates of nibbles. David Roberto is busy tending to the main attraction, a multi-course meal, in the wood-fired oven he built at his house about a year ago.
The oven is the centerpiece of what used to be a detached screened porch. Now open on two sides, with a roof, the space “was the perfect spot for the oven,’’ says Roberto’s wife, Margie. David Roberto decided to build the oven last fall, because, he says, “I like wood-fired food.’’ The modern-day Renaissance man, who works in the facilities department at Tufts Medical Center when he’s not hunting, foraging, tending to his vegetable and herb garden, or renovating his house, had helped a friend build a similar one a few years ago. An engineer who used to build ovens for Bertucci’s restaurants served as their mentor.
Roberto started working on his oven early last October, and it was ready to use by Thanksgiving. It is a work of art as well as a functional piece of equipment. Inside is a fired-clay dome. The facade, designed by its owner, is a blend of stucco and stonework, anchored on two sides by antique oak wine barrels.
With a removable canvas awning to keep out the snow, the space is usable year-round. During football season, Roberto brings out a television and keeps friends and family well fed while they all enjoy Patriots games. “It’s cold,’’ his wife concedes, “but the wind doesn’t hit you.’’ A cousin, Steven Roberto, is a regular for these gatherings. “He does some crazy pizzas,’’ he says of his relative. “You never know what you’re going to get.’’
David Roberto grew up in this house, which used to be a three-family belonging to his grandparents, and his love affair with food started early. “I cooked with my grandfather. It’s that basic Italian stuff - whatever you have in the refrigerator [or] pull out of the garden,’’ he says. And no recipes.
On this early October day, he had in the refrigerator shrimp, pizza fixings, rabbit, and pork - all of which are now lined up on the granite counter next to the oven. A 10-pound Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom that Roberto picked up (literally) at Breakheart Reservation in Saugus a few days earlier sits on display next to the countertop but will not make it into this day’s mix. Roberto plans to pan-fry it in a few days, then marinate and jar it. The bag of oyster mushrooms he gathered, however, will go into a dish of oven-roasted peppers and mushrooms - peppers courtesy of cousin and neighbor John Roberto.
For the first course, Roberto slides a large metal pan of shrimp flavored with garlic, white wine, and parsley into the oven. “Sort of a scampi,’’ he says. He pokes the crustaceans a few times to see if they’re done, then, using a long-handled metal peel, pulls the pan out and transfers it to one of two large, round marble slabs on a nearby table. While the crowd swarms around, drawn by the scent of garlic and butter, the host busies himself with the second course - pizza.
Standing at his work station, David Roberto rolls out a round of dough, transfers it to a pan, spreads his homemade tomato sauce over it, then lays generous slabs of mozzarella cheese on top. He finishes the pie with basil from his garden. Moving like a pro, he slides the pizza into the oven, then pulls it out a couple of minutes later, slipping it onto another marble round while the cheese is still bubbling. Two more pizzas follow in quick succession - another Margherita and one with peppers and onions. They are gone before they have time to cool down.
“He’s an artist in multiple mediums,’’ notes John Roberto, pointing proudly to signs and carved woodwork on the wall, all done by the host.
“We’re all in awe of him,’’ adds Roberto’s brother-in-law, John Rohner, who came from Newburyport for the afternoon.
Rabbit, which has been marinating in white wine, rosemary, and olive oil, follows the pizza, accompanied by oven-roasted potatoes with lemons and onions.
While the assembled crowd meanders from the immaculately manicured lawn to patio seats to the covered area for more food, Roberto never leaves his post. He moves comfortably between the counter and the hot oven, chatting happily with whoever stops by. “It’s not work,’’ he says, wiping a drop of sweat from his cheek. “I love doing this.’’
The final dish is pork tenderloin stuffed with broccoli rabe, provolone, and prosciutto, roasted with wild mushrooms in wine sauce. In the high heat of this wood-burning oven (600 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit), nothing takes too long to cook, and the pork is done before the rabbit is gone.
“Whenever we have company, [David] just makes what he wants,’’ his wife says. “He’s creative and everybody loves what he throws together. It’s fun. People like to get together, drink a glass of wine, and have a good meal.’’
Just another Saturday afternoon at the Roberto house.
Andrea Pyenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.