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ANDREA MUGNAINI

What: Founder/owner of Mugnaini Imports, with exclusive rights to

distribute the Valoriani family's ovens in North America

Age: 54

Homes: Healdsburg and Watsonville

Personal: Married to Ed Smith, a retired oral surgeon

Cooking classes: Go to mugnaini.com for a schedule of wood-fired

classes open to the public. Go to lambertbridge.com for information

on wood-fired classes at the winery.

When Andrea Mugnaini approached the Valoriani family about distributing

their wood-fired ovens in the U.S. 20 years ago, the Italians shook their

heads in disbelief.

Who would want such an old-fashioned cooking appliance? The Old World ovens

were considered passe, an aging dinosaur teetering on the edge of extinction.

``They were ready to throw it all in at that point,'' Mugnaini recalled,

while sitting outdoors at her ranch in the Alexander Valley. ``They thought I

was a nut from California.''

In her 20s, Mugnaini had fallen in love with the wood-fired ovens while

traveling in Europe as a wine distributor. Everything about them, from the

lifestyle to the versatility, appealed to her.

``I love the socially interactive style of cooking, with the whole family

gathered around the oven,'' Mugnaini explained. ``Meats, fish desserts --

everything could be cooked there.''

So Mugnaini cajoled the Italian company into making her 10 ovens, for a

test. Before she knew it, she had sold her wine business and launched a new

career as the founder and owner of Mugnaini Imports.

For the past 20 years, the visionary entrepreneur has imported the Italian

oven components to Watsonville, where her company has exclusive rights to

distribute them in North America.

Today, Mugnaini ovens can be found everywhere from the Culinary Institute

of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., to Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Here in Sonoma

County, they are the secret to the crisp, tasty pizza crust at Rosso Pizzeria

in Santa Rosa and Diavola in Geyserville.

``The cooking floor is the most crucial part of the oven,'' she said. ``It

needs to hold heat. ... We use an Italian firebrick that's machine pressed.''

Because the oven's crown is made of lighter material, the heat is pulled

downward toward the floor, where the firebricks can reach up to 750 degrees.

That makes the Mugnaini ovens not only quicker to start but more efficient,

she said.

Over the years, Mugnaini has become an ambassador for the increasingly

popular ovens, interpreting the Old World appliance for its New World

customers.

Along the way, she's also carved out a niche as a wood-fired oven cooking

instructor, providing classes at cooking schools and wineries all over the

world, including her own ranch in Healdsburg, known as Cucina Mugnaini.

``It's really becoming more of a standard cooking appliance,'' she said.

``There isn't another appliance that you can bake, grill and braise in, and it

also allows for overnight cooking.''

Gracious and elegant, the 54-year-old businesswoman has taken to her

educational role like dried herbs to the skin of a roast chicken.

``I had no intention of teaching, but once we had the ovens out there

nationwide, we started doing cooking classes,'' she said. ``Most Americans did

not grow up with a wood-fired oven.''

Mugnaini boasts deep-set eyes, a broad smile and a gracious manner that is

welcoming and warm without being showy or pretentious.

``She's extraordinarily engaging with the crowd,'' said Greg Wilcox,

managing partner with Lambert Bridge Winery, where Mugnaini teaches monthly

classes at the winery's three wood-fired ovens. ``And she does it all in a

quiet, subtle way.''

Mugnaini's understated manner and passion for food grew naturally from her

European roots. Her French father, now deceased, was a urologist. Her mother,

who hails from Lucca in Italy, is an inspiring homemaker and talented pianist.

Born and raised on the Central Coast of California, Mugnaini is the oldest

daughter in a large family of six boys and three girls. That meant she learned

to cook at an early age.

``The table was always where we connected,'' she said. ``I'm sure that had

a lot to do with this life I lead now.''

Mugnaini lives about half-time at her Healdsburg ranch, where her husband

Ed Smith, a retired oral surgeon and skilled hunter, tends the vegetable

garden and 30 acres of chardonnay and barbera grapes.

The couple, who have their primary residence in Watsonville, considered

buying a second home in Tuscany but settled on the Alexander Valley because it

was closer. The region offers many of the same amenities as Tuscany -- the

seafood, the produce, the cheeses, the lamb. Even the vistas are similar, with

the rolling hills and olive trees.

An avid bicyclist, Mugnaini loves nothing better than to wheel out her

ranch's driveway for a morning ride. And when she returns, she's content to

putter in her own paradise.

``I like to ride at 7 a.m., before the winds start, then come back and

indulge in the property,'' she said. ``Sometimes I'm here for five days

without going into town. I garden, I prune, I swim and I cook in my wood-fired

ovens.''

During harvest season, Mugnaini can be found cooking up vegetables from her

garden into simple casseroles and dips, much like her ancestors in Italy.

``In the summer, my diet is vegetable-based, with dishes like sweet red

onions and sliced zucchini with gruyere,'' she said. ``I love to char the

peppers for a red pepper coulis and make a fresh tomato sauce from roasted

tomatoes, then smear it on toasted bread.''

The history of Mugnaini's imported ovens reaches back more than a century.

In 1890, the Valoriani family of Tuscany started fabricating bricks for the

large, communal ovens commonly shared by entire villages in Italy.

After World War II, the Italian government asked the family to design

smaller, fuel-efficient wood-fired ovens for use in individual Italian homes.

Today, the ovens are still made by the Refrattari Valoriani company,

located in Reggello just outside of Florence, from a special type of

refractory clay quarried from the surrounding hills.

At her headquarters in Watsonville, Mugnaini's employees assemble the

imported components of the prefab ovens and ship them out to homes and

restaurants from Canada to Mexico.

She started her first cooking school in 1998 at her Watsonville facility,

after being inundated with calls from clueless consumers.

``I wanted to show homeowners how to use it,'' she said. ``I teach them the

basics: how to light a fire, how to bring it up to temperature, how to manage

the heat.''

In 2002, she started giving weeklong classes at the Fattoria Degli

Usignoli, a four-star resort and working farm in Tuscany.

Then in 2005, she asked her brother to remodel the small farmhouse on her

Healdsburg ranch into a cooking school, complete with one indoor and two

outdoor wood-fired ovens.

There, she gives one- and three-day cooking classes throughout the year,

from a wild-game class in January to a roast-turkey class in November.

Come spring, Mugnaini will have a new tool for teaching: Her first

cookbook, ``The Art of Wood-Fired Cooking,'' (Gibbs Smith, 2010), featuring

how-to illustrations by Santa Rosa artist Sheryl Chapman.

In the cooking classes at Cucina Mugnaini, Mugnaini uses only the most

pristine ingredients, bought fresh that day, while showcasing local, artisanal

products such as Dry Creek Olive Oil and Bellwether Farms ricotta.

``The menus develop from what we've got going on seasonally,'' she said.

``I couldn't be located in a more perfect environment.''

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or

diane.peterson@pressdemocrat

.com

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