Before visiting Mugnaini Imports, Inc. in Watsonville, the only thing I knew about wood-fired ovens was that pizzas baked in them seem to taste extra special. The atmosphere in restaurants using wood-fired ovens seems somehow warmer, more hospitable. Is it just the notion of a meal cooked over a fire that makes the food seem more delectable? Or is there something about wood-fire cooking that actually improves the taste of food?
I learned that the answer is “both” during my visit to the Mugaini kitchen and showroom. Upon entering, my senses were impressed by the savory aroma of a holiday luncheon—filet mignon, grilled vegetables (cauliflower, green beans, red potatoes), and dessert, possibly a crostata—being prepared for staff. I was also attracted by the warmth and sight of a fire flickering in one of the four ovens. Visions of wood-fired oven meals and gatherings around warm hearths began dancing in my head.
Reese Corgiat, Mugnaini’s in-house licensed general contractor, introduced me to the president and founder, Andrea Mugnaini. Originally a wine importer, Mugnaini loved the wood fire oven cooking of Italy—her family’s ancestral home—and decided to start importing the ovens to the U.S. over 20 years ago. This traditional, social—yet personal—style of cooking has become very popular since then, and she now has many customers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
While the modular cooking elements for the ovens are made and designed by the Valoriani family in Tuscany, Italy, all the ovens are constructed and shipped out of Watsonville, where Mugnaini has lived since 1982.
“Watsonville is a great community,” Mugnaini said, and a wonderful location for the business. “It’s easily accessible from the highway, lots of people travel through the area, and the business is staffed by experienced and knowledgeable locals” from the Watsonville area.
She found it necessary, however, to develop an educational culinary program. While wood-fire cooking is traditional in Europe, customers in the U.S. didn’t know how to use the ovens. Five years ago she opened a wood-fired oven cooking school in Healdsburg (in Wine Country), and now also teaches in Watsonville and Tuscany.
What sets the wood-fired oven apart from other stoves? According to Mugnaini, they have great flexibility and versatility, but each chef adds a personal touch through decisions made in heating and banking the fire, choice of hardwood for burning, and preparation of food. The ovens are not limited to pizzas.
“You can cook meat, eggs, pasta, rice…everything, even dessert,” Mugnaini said.
World class chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters, Mario Batali and Guy Fieri have purchased Mugnaini ovens. But Rico Felice, a third-generation Watsonville local who does the company’s chef training and sales, informed me that many of their ovens are used locally. Their clients include Café Ella, El Alteño, and Shadowbrook restaurants, Driscolls Strawberries, Jean and Ed Kelly of Colleen Strawberries, and Monterey Mason & Garden.
You don’t have to own a wood-fired oven to enjoy Mugnaini’s classes; check out the 2012 schedule which begins with a one-day demonstration class in Watsonville on February 10. You can take a three-day class in Healdsburg in the spring, or a week-long class in Italy in September. Visit Mugnaini Imports at 11 Hangar Way in Watsonville and learn more: pick up a copy of Andrea Mugnaini’s book, The Art of Wood Fired Cooking, purchase cooking implements and food (the salt-cured capers looked delicious), and examine the beautiful ovens—you’ll discover a whole new world of sociable cooking and delicious food in the process.
11 Hangar Way, Watsonville. 831-761-1767. Toll-free: 1-888-887-7206. firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's note: This is one in a series about unique Watsonville businesses.