GROVELAND — Al Contarino works a Weber kettle in the parking lot of his office building and announces, “I’m not a chef.” But he is turning out Neapolitan-style Margherita pizzas so beautifully browned, with a charred crust and leopard-speckled bottom, that you might think you were in a celebrated wood-fired pizzeria.
As smoke wafts from the grill, heat from hot charcoals and blazing chunks of mesquite and applewood bake the pie in minutes. To achieve this, Contarino and business partner George Peters have invented a gadget to transform the Weber into a wood-fired oven that can reach 800 degrees. Called KettlePizza, the device is a 6½-inch-high stainless steel collar with two large wood handles, which sits on the grill’s rim between the rack and lid. Contarino and Peters brought KettlePizza to market five years ago, and it’s starting to get traction among avid home pizza makers. It costs between $140 and $400, depending on the number of accessories.
Wood-fired pizza, which some consider the best, is typically baked in a domed brick oven in which wood has burned. After the oven is blazing hot, the coals are brushed to the edges of the walls, making space for the pizza. The technique is ancient, and goes back to the time when village bakers, waiting for their wood-fired oven to heat for their loaves (it takes hours) stretched small pieces of dough and baked them to snack on while working, says “Cooking With Fire” author Paula Marcoux. “They would put on a lamb mixture, spices, and onions,” she says. No doubt, a precursor to pizza (and something similar to lahmacun, also lamejun, served in Turkish, Armenian, and other cultures).
In this region, grilled pizzas were popularized at Al Forno restaurant in Providence, whose pizza bakes on a grate in a grill that resembles a fireplace heated with maplewood charcoal. “The close contact with the charcoal gives pizza a sweet, subtle flavor and not an overpowering taste of wood,” says co-owner George Germon. Patrick Barnes of Caffe Bella in Randolph first spreads dough on the back of a sheet pan and bakes it on a wood-fired grill, finishing the pie with toppings in the oven. Wood-fired pizzas are made at Area Four in Cambridge, A4 Pizza and Posto in Somerville, the new Babbo on Fan Pier, Pastoral in Fort Point, and Picco in the South End.
But every home cook who loves pizza also wants to replicate wood-fired pies at home. KettlePizza takes dedication: You have to stick with it to get those picture-perfect lightly charred rounds.
In the KettlePizza system, the collar goes on any kettle style grill. The hot coals cause the collar to radiate heat and create a chamber that maintains a consistent temperature during baking, even with the shallow slit in the front open.
To show how to use it, Contarino puts a pizza on a wood paddle dusted with cornmeal. On the grill rack sits a special pizza stone — not a conventional stone — made of cordierite, a material that can withstand ultra-high temperatures, which has been heating for 10 minutes. Through the semicircular opening in the front of the collar, he slides the pizza onto the scorching stone. A built-in thermometer on the collar shows the temperature creeping up to 700 degrees — far hotter than a home oven. Each pizza cooks in 5 to 6 minutes. The opening also lets the cook add more wood to keep the flame ablaze.
Contarino, 47, worked in his family’s electronics business until it sold in 2006. An avid barbecuer, he found flaws in most grills. “When you cook on a grill you keep lifting the lid and losing heat,” says the Boxford resident. In the past, he designed several types of gas grills where you can insert foods with the top down, but he faced obstacles bringing them to market. When he saw an upswing of interest in home pizza making, he developed a crude prototype of the KettlePizza. “I realized some people would like to cook wood-fired pizza but can’t afford a wood-fired oven for their backyard,” he says.
With the help of Peters, 58, a Haverhill resident, the two improved the design and together manufactured the collar in Contarino’s barn. Peters, a former supervisor at Lawrence’s public works department and property manager for Greater Lawrence Community Action Council and Merrimack Valley YMCA, is also an inventor. One of his products is a mitt to apply repellent and other sprays and lotions; another is a cardboard stand-up used by large companies and schools to block exits for fire drills.
When the KettlePizza began to sell, the inventors moved the production to a building in Groveland. A basic kit includes the collar and an aluminum pizza pan (no baking stone); higher-end sets come with baking stones, pizza paddles, and other accessories.
KettlePizza isn’t just for pizza. “We’ve created an 800-degree oven where you can make chicken wings, ribs, or skewers of shish kebabs,” says Peters. They have tried baking cookies and brownies, though the oven burned them because they were left in too long. “People from all over the world send us pictures and videos cooking foods besides pizza,” he says.
There’s a learning curve to perfect pies, even with a detailed instruction booklet. Cook’s Illustrated magazine tested the KettlePizza by cooking 40 pies. Assistant editor Lauren Savoie, one of the testers, says that it took some trial and error, but they got the temperature between 700 and 900 degrees. “Keeping the temperature high by refueling with wood when the flames subsided was key to turning out a restaurant-style edge to toppings,” she says. “You also have to turn the pie with tongs or a spatula.”
The inventors get phone calls, e-mails, and Facebook messages (they have 38,000 followers) about mishaps, some laughable. One customer called to say he burned every pizza. Peters immediately knew what the problem was. “Instead of fist-size chunks of hardwood, he had split logs of wood under the stone, causing flames to practically come out the front,” he says.
A watchful eye is critical. You can’t turn away to grab a beer, lest your dough burns. One user went inside to open bottles of wine and lost all the pies. Open the wine outside, advises Peters.
Another message thrilled the inventors. A customer kept the grill hot enough to cook 60 pizzas, one after the other.
Says Peters, “You can keep it going until you run out of wood or dough, or the party’s over.”
KettlePizza available at Franklin Fire Place, 456 W. Central St., Franklin, 508-528-1234; Main Street Hardware, 136 Main St., North Andover, 978-683-4351; Dawson’s True Value Hardware, 50 Enon St., Beverly, 978-927-1320; Crate & Barrel locations, or go to www.kettlepizza.com.