Using burning wood is about the most primitive and original method of cooking food humanly possible. Wood fire stone or brick ovens quickly became the perfect way to contain this fire and cook, allowing for huge temps and a cooking method that is second to none. They have been found in the ruins of ancient civilizations and have continued all the way up until today.
Somewhere along the line an Italian decided to throw a pizza in the wood-fire oven and it was amazing. It was one of a million things that worked out well in the oven. Sadly by the time Arkansans starting throwing these perfect cooking vessels in restaurants it became mostly associated with just pizzas.
A quick look around the area reveals spots like Zaza’s, Raduno (gas not wood), Pizzeria, Loca Luna, Delucas, and others with brick or stone ovens cooking primarily pizzas.
You do not have to step far to see that it is not always the case, in fact it has become a major food trend to cook all sorts of things in wood fire ovens. Just up the road slightly in Northwest Arkansas there are several great examples.
Oven and Tap in Bentonville has built their entire menu around things they can throw in the oven. The pizza selection is just a minor part of the menu. They do an amazing lasagna, for instance, that comes out with a crisp exterior and perfectly cooked middle thanks to their roughly 1,000° wood fire oven. It is unlike any lasagna you have had. They also do some great sandwiches, dinner specials, veggies, and even desserts all from the oven.
Just down the road a bit is Bocca Italian Eatery in Fayetteville which became a story of starting with pizza and finding that there were many better things to cook.
“When we opened we started with mostly pizzas in the oven,” owner Keith Burmylo says. “One day we were just playing around and threw a steak on a super hot skillet in just to see how it would turn out. It was amazing. A year and a half later wood oven steaks outsell pizzas by a wide margin.”
Bocca has gone to cooking almost everything except their pasta in the oven. They run constant specials involving fish, seafood, chicken, pork, and anything else they can find fresh through the oven. The steaks are the best in NWA thanks to the extreme char and juicy middle.
It is not just NWA, it is a growing trend I find traveling as well. Wood fire oven restaurants that once produced only pizzas are now producing more and more from their ovens.
Today it is hard to find places cooking this way in Little Rock, but it is there if you know where to look. The Pizzeria on Kavanaugh runs the occasional non-pizza special, but the real draw is their special dinners.
“During normal business hours we run so many pizzas that we cannot take up the oven space cooking different things,” owner Jeremy Pittman tells us. “I love to cook different things in the oven though. We have a lot of fun in our special dinners where we can focus on things other than pizza without having to worry about oven space.”
Indeed a beer dinner earlier this week at the Pizzeria with Stone’s Throw Brewing showcased it perfectly. The highlight of the dinner was a steak cooked in the oven, maintaining that same outer char and perfectly cooked inside that only comes through an extremely hot oven. They also cooked a polenta cake topped with shrimp cooked in the oven. It showcased the flexibility of the oven in cooking more than pizza. They also frequently cook desserts in the wood fire oven which adds a different tasting element than a traditional oven.
Still, it would be nice to have this widely accessible, thankfully the trend is only going to grow in Little Rock. There are at least two upcoming restaurants focusing on wood fire oven cooking, Mylo’s new spot in the old Afterthought space and the new rooftop bar and restaurant atop the Hilton Garden Inn. Both menus are set to focus on cooking various items around the wood fire oven. It is something I would love to see continue as customer demand moves beyond just pizza.