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posted on October 04, 2008

Fired Up: A community oven rises in Braddock

Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette photos
Josh Tonies, a painter and
artisan baker in Braddock, prepares dough
for baking in Braddock's new community
bread oven during a test run last week.
The oven is on a former vacant lot on
Braddock Avenue. Garlic, spinach and
olive pizza.

By: Marlene Parrish
Published: October 02, 2008
Source: Post-Gazette

The first community oven in the Pittsburgh area is on a parking lot directly across the street from U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson plant, the only working blast furnace remaining from Pittsburgh's steel-making days.

The oven is one more piece in the puzzle that is the re-purposing of Braddock as an artist's destination and once-again-vibrant community.

"The steel furnaces built Braddock," says Mayor John Fetterman. "It might take another kind of furnace, an oven, to help rebuild it."

Last December, Ray Werner, bread baker, community activist and godfather of the oven project, explained to Mr. Fetterman why a wood-fired community baking oven -- one that the public shares -- would be a good fit for Braddock. The mayor had an immediate reaction. "We'll do it," he said. "How much? How can I help?"

Nine months later, the oven is up and baking beside the former convent at St. Michael's on Braddock Avenue. With Edgar Thomson's billowing stacks in the background, the oven's first burn was in mid-September. "The first pizzas had a bit of char," Mr. Werner says.

"But by the end of the baking session, the crew was making really good pizza. When they get the hang of the heat and what the oven can do, bread bakers will follow."

Mr. Fetterman says, "The building of the oven is the result of three serendipitous facts. Ray proposed the idea and had the working plans for the oven. Then I met Joe Bonifate, a local stone mason from North Braddock, who was enthusiastic about building it. And because so many old, deteriorating buildings have been razed in Braddock, I have access to materials.

"The oven is made from recycled brick from houses, cinder block reclaimed from an abandoned garage and surplus stones from one of Joe's projects. If we hadn't reclaimed and recycled, everything you see would have gone into a landfill."

Every year Americans demolish some 250,000 homes and bury the debris. What if all those floors, bricks and beams were reused?

"And because we didn't have to fit the building into a schedule, costs were kept to a minimum," says Mr. Fetterman. "We built it for a song."

That's a song Mr. Werner wants to be sung all over the Pittsburgh area.

Mr. Werner's goal is to see Pittsburgh become a community of community ovens, the first in the country.

"An oven is like a campfire. People are drawn to the fire, where good conversation and socialization are certain. I see a need for community ovens in neighborhoods similar to Braddock such as Larimer, Hazelwood, Garfield, Homewood and Manchester -- communities that need an assist in bringing the neighborhood together."

The Braddock oven has its public coming out this Saturday at a literary reading where attendees can taste bread and pizza. Mr. Fetterman is still learning how it works and figuring out how to make it available to people, but, "We want to make it as open and accessible as possible" to bakers who know enough to not hurt themselves, the oven or adjacent property. By next summer, he hopes to develop the site further with a fire pit and landscaping. He's already hatching ideas for guest bakers, special events, family gatherings, pizza parties and cooking classes. Interested parties can contact him (

"Braddock is a community of pioneers," Mr. Werner says. "I'm so glad the first community oven was built here in this historic community." Marlene Parrish can be reached at or 412-481-1620. First published on October 2, 2008 at 12:00 am


How to build a community oven

If your community is interested in building an oven, contact Ray Werner. He has a how-to book and building specs. He will consult free of charge, but asks that $100 for the plans be sent to Alan Scott of Ovencrafter Inc. This deal is not for individuals or for any profit-making enterprise. E-mail or call 412-443-5064. For background information, read about the community ovens in Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto. The experiences of park volunteers and employees and suggestions to others are compiled in a booklet, "Cooking With Fire in Public Space." You can download the text and see a step-by-step photo gallery of how the ovens were built at Meet the oven You can meet Braddock's community oven this weekend, when the town collaborates with the Gist Street Reading Series to present "Wood-Fired Words." The event, starting at 7 p.m. Saturday, features readings (starting at 8) by four fiction writers and a poet, and is the "christening" of the oven, which will be fired up and turning out breads and pizzas you can try. Admission is $2 and you can bring your own beverages. The readers (10 minutes each) are John McNally, Amy Knox Brown, Sherrie Flick and Nancy Krygowski. Look for the smoke beside the former convent at St. Michael, 1137 Braddock Ave., across from the U.S. Steel offices. For more information and directions, visit or call 412-488-1751 or 412-654-4041. -- Bob Batz Jr.


The Bread Bakers Guild of America

The goal of The Bread Bakers Guild of America is to shape the knowledge and skills of the artisan baking community. Founded in 1993 by Tom McMahon in Pittsburgh, the guild is a nonprofit alliance of professional bakers, farmers, millers, suppliers, educators, students, home bakers, technical experts and bakery owners and managers. Its headquarters remained in Pittsburgh until June, when it moved to Sonoma, Calif. The guild today has more than 1,300 members around the world -- famous artisan bakers as well as the next generation. Bread Bakers Guild Team USA 2008 competed at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in March. More than 200 members traveled to Paris to experience the Coupe and Europain, one of the world's largest baking trade shows. The guild's national three-day conference, Camp Bread, was last held in May 2007 at the San Francisco Baking Institute. Visit for more information. -- Marlene Parrish

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