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,
Over the years, Mugnaini has become an ambassador for the increasingly
popular ovens, interpreting the Old World appliance for its New World
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