Following Mount Vesuvius’ violent eruption that smothered Pompeii on August 24, 79 A.D., evidence was found of a flat flour cake that was baked and eaten. The delicious treat was named pizza, which is believed to be from an Italian word meaning “a point,” which in turn became the Italian word “pizzicare,” which means “to pinch” or “pluck.”
Pizza was later sold on the streets in Naples for centuries and found its way to America when the first pizzaiolo, Gennaro Lombardi, opened a pizzeria in New York. Pizza popped up across America and my father, Jasper Mirabile, opened one of the first pizzerias in Kansas City back in the 1950s. Now, more than 60 years later, there is a new pizzaiolo in town that I have discovered on the Locavore Trail.
Prairie Fire Oven is on the road producing genuine Neapolitan pizza on wheels. That’s right, a mobile Italian pizzeria. The owner, David White, has the metro’s first mobile wood-fired oven using top-quality ingredients sourced locally. White and his wife, Nancy, provide an experience of old-world country cooking using an Italian-inspired pizza oven. The couple even takes care to use local oak and cherry wood to fire the oven. Now thatsa nice!
I recently caught up with the pizzaiolo himself and over a fire-kissed pizza; we discussed his life, philosophy and pizza making.
Jasper Mirabile: Where did you come up with the idea and why pizza?
David White: The idea has been in the works for some time. First, Nancy and I met while working in a restaurant and worked together for a number of years in another family business. We have not worked together for the last seven years and wanted to do so again.
Second, I have family in Portland, Oregon and love the street food scene there and wanted to bring that experience to Kansas City.
Third, both my wife and I were psychology majors. In psychology and social work there is an evaluation method described as P.I.E.S. that we think adapts well to our framework for the business and the focus of our work. Physical—work of building the fire, prepping food, crafting pizza; Intellectual—managing the business, creating recipes, marketing, problem solving; Emotional—putting our heart into the process and our product; and Social/Spiritual—the goal is in serving our customers, we serve ourselves.
JM: Why pizza?
DW: Pizza is familiar to people and an excellent platform for showcasing simple foods that can take on new and tasteful characteristics in a high-heat cooking environment. At the heart of it all is the oven—it can do much more than pizza and we look forward to expanding our creativity in our menu such as offering roasted meats, seafood, bread, breakfasts or just focusing on a themed dinner.
JM: Now, the real star of Prairie Fire Oven. Tell us about your gorgeous Neapolitan oven.
DW: It’s a commercial-grade wood-fired oven built by hand and engineered to sit on a custom trailer. Though the oven can reach temperatures in excess of 900 degrees it really shines in its ability to absorb and release heat through conduction (heated floor), radiant heat (dome soaks and reflects heat) and convection (heated air circulating the chamber). Simply, all of this combines for old-world cooking used for thousands of years paired with current engineering.
JM: In your estimation, what does it take to make a great pizza?
DW: Top-shelf ingredients, a well-tended fire, a fun social setting and the love of making good food. As one of my wood-fired teachers told me, “Love is the best ingredient.”
JM: Does Prairie Fire Oven have any signature dishes?
DW: They can change depending on the season. In the spring one of our favorites is roasted asparagus, goat or sheep cheese, garlic and fresh mushrooms. In the fall we love Yukon gold potatoes sliced thin, tossed with lemon/olive oil/rosemary, mozzarella/provolone, Gorgonzola, bacon, and caramelized onions. A simple favorite is the Margherita, with our signature red sauce, fresh mozzarella, garden basil, olive oil and a dash of sea salt.
JM: Tell me about the ingredients you are using.
DW: We strive to use top-quality ingredients and source as locally as we can. During our Farmers’ Market we utilize produce from the vendors so we get food fresher than the local grocery store. Our tomato sauce is made with vine-ripened tomatoes, without added preservatives, and to set the right tone, we flavor it with our own custom spice blend.
JM: How much of an adjustment is there in cooking with a wood fired oven versus a mobile kitchen?
DW: There is a huge adjustment in so many aspects; it really forces you to engage all of your senses. Weather can affect the setting and how the oven performs and the food reacts. Time of year may change how you bring the oven up to temperature. Managing the quality of the wood and the moisture content it holds. Cooking with fire is a constant dance and evaluation that just happens to be in a mobile setting. It engages you but also your customer can experience the process as it happens. Few restaurants have their customer almost in their kitchen.
JM: Are there flavors, techniques and ingredients you have an attachment to?
DW: We love simple food elevated to a new level using our oven. For example, a tomato has its own taste fresh but when exposed to high heat it changes to a sweet flavor that is slightly caramelized. A fresh sauce becomes cooked once out of the oven. We love evaluating flavors based on the season and looking for combinations that pair well together.
JM: What’s on the horizon for Prairie Fire?
DW: We plan to go where our customers take us so the joy will be in the journey.
JM: Do you and Nancy have a favorite night-off dinner?
DW: Any excuse to eat at Bluestem. The Garrelts have an excellent collaboration of savory and sweet.
JM: Do you have a favorite music to cook by?
DW: Most often I listen to streaming music by Somafm.org. Favorite stream, appropriately, is Groove Salad.
JM: If you were to pitch a show for the Food Network, what would it be?
DW: A show about showcasing the food rather than the on-air talent. Teach people where food comes from, how to cook and engage them in learning. In my opinion, the Food Network has gone the way of MTV. MTV used to show videos. The Food Network used to have shows about food. I think we have seen enough contrived competition and overblown personalities.
JM: OK, what is your late-night indulgence or guilty pleasure and what’s in your fridge at home?
DW: Late night if at home would have to be nachos. Combinations like pizza but on chips! Our fridge has condiments galore, homegrown produce, wild yeast starter from Italy and one starter used on the wagon trips across the Oregon Trail, pickled onions.
Are you hungry for pizza? Call Prairie Fire Oven at (913) 583-0290 or visit www.prairiefireoven.com