It’s all about the oven, when it comes to making a truly traditional bread product; and for a good slice of pizza, the baking process is paramount. So says Nobile, master designer of wood- and gas-fired masonry kitchen ovens. “I’ve built custom ovens for major celebrity chefs around the country: John-Georges, Bobby Flay, Todd English. I did John Novi’s,” of DePuy Canal House fame in High Falls. “I still build ovens, but I never really advertise for that.”
The Italian immigrant – he arrived on American shores in 1982, just out of high school – admits that he didn’t bring his oven-designing skills with him from the old country. Even though masonry ovens were in use for generations in the small community where his mother lived, Nobile says, “I never learned from them, never thought this is something I would do. I regret, I should have paid attention to all that.” He learned by building ovens by hand, deciphering the technology of thermal mass and hearthstone heat and the atmospheric effects of burning wood in a chamber.
He prefers to use a combination of wood and gas as heat sources. “I like the gas because it presses the smoke towards the product. With just wood alone, the wood requires the air, the oxygen to burn; and then the air coming into the oven pushes the smoke high – away from the dough. So really, a true wood-fired oven does not give the flavor of a gas/wood combination. A lot of people don’t know that. I manipulate it my way.”
In three decades, Nobile has honed “his way” in the operation of five restaurants, two named La Parmigiana: one in Kingston that opened in 1985 and one in Rhinebeck that followed in 1988. His latest foray in the food business is Lucoli, a small pizzeria almost hiding behind a professional building on South Broadway in Red Hook. He says that he was inspired to open shop by Michael Uccellini, longtime fan of Nobile’s culinary efforts and proprietor at the Red Hook Natural Foods Market next door. “He kept telling me, ‘You should do it,’ even if I’m only open a few days a week to display my product – it’s actually a showroom for the oven.”
Nobile tells the story of taking his kids out for pizza here and there, “and every time you walk in, and they cut a slice for you and throw it in the oven. We always say, ‘No, we’ll wait for a piece of fresh pizza.’ One time at a pizza place I went to, it was 11 o’clock, and usually you’d get the first slice of the pizza that’s coming out now. I say, ‘Give me two slices of this pizza: the one that just came out of the oven.’ The guy bends down, takes a slice of another pizza to put back in the oven. I said, ‘No, no, we want from that one: the one that just came out.’ He said, ‘Can’t. You’ve got to talk to the boss.’”
This frustration was too much for him. “Why don’t I make a place where I can make a pizza to order? I have the technology, the oven that can do it. I’ll get dough ready; the customer will come in and say, ‘I want this and this and this;’ I’ll put it in the oven and give it to them fresh. I came up with the idea of the oval slice.” Additionally, Nobile makes what are simply called “pies” around the Mediterranean region. “You put spinach in it, fold it in layers – this is the ancient way.”
He has concocted eight distinctive combinations, reminiscent of the traditional pies found in Spain, Greece and Morocco – as well as Italy, of course. Mouthwatering ingredients such as spinach, ricotta, red onions, red cabbage, artichokes, tahini sauce, mozzarella, black and green olives, eggplant, oven-roasted tomatoes, sausage, mortadella, mushrooms, broccoli, feta and eggs are specially combined to make what he calls lucoli.
Thus the name of the toasty-warm shop dominated by a massive hammered steel-fronted oven where he preps and cooks everything, including cast-iron kettles of red lentil and caramelized onion soup. He purchases organically grown white and whole-wheat flour milled by a company called Giusto, and also offers a gluten-free crust. “Everything is made the same every day, even the sauce. And I refuse to open a can. I roast the tomatoes for an hour to an hour-and-a-half, take them out and blend them with the basil and olive oil. The only can we have in the place is the artichoke hearts; they come from Spain. Our olive oil comes from Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco, southern Italy – I get it from wherever I find a good deal. I use nothing but extra-virgin olive oil.”
Nobile produces fresh mozzarella daily, “because I could not find mozzarella that goes over the pizza the way I want it. Most mozzarella that they sell, it has a lot of water in it. So when you put it on the pizza… No, I have to make mozzarella to serve the right pizza.”
He explains that, because the mozzarella process involves such a precise atmosphere, a controlled environment, he buys already-prepped curds from a dairy farm in Connecticut. Then he proceeds from that point to make between 50 and 70 pounds a day. “It becomes a job by itself to add the right amount of salt, to boil the basil or rosemary and add a touch of white wine. All that stuff makes the mozzarella very different.”
Nobile still designs and engineers ovens to fit his customers’ unique needs. He has patented a grill that slides into the heart of a stone on which, he says, “You can do a pizza or a steak very quickly.” When asked if he lives and breathes pizza-making, he laughs and says, “What really makes me happy when I have a restaurant is when I can eat out! Definitely, food is my passion.”
Lucoli, 7476 South Broadway, Red Hook; (845) 758-5600, https://brickoven.com/brick-oven-home.html. Read more about local cuisine and learn about new restaurants on Ulster Publishing’s www.DineHudsonValley.com or www.HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com/category/columns/taste/.