The Pizza Oven in the Backyard


Photos by Joseph L. Nizza

For more photos of the backyard pizza-baking process, click here.

Tender chunks of lobster, crabmeat and shrimp drizzled with a champagne and blackberry brandy cream sauce, tomatoes and scallions, scattered above a layer of homemade fresh mozzarella cheese ... atop a cheese and coconut-infused 10-inch crust.

Only in Staten Island could a pizza like this be the next best thing to eating meat, a pie created in 2008 for the meatless Fridays of Lent. Only in Staten Island could that pizza be called "The Passion of the Crust," and come with a free T-shirt declaring, "IT'S ABOUT THE PASSION!!" Only in Staten Island could that very same pizza spark so much outrage, it was featured on the front page of the local paper.

If you haven't gotten the point, here it is straight from a native: in Staten Island, pizza is religion. (The passion pays off: The aforementioned pie was refined, renamed and entered into an international competition in Las Vegas in March. It earned the title of "world's best pizza.")

Despite all the first-rate joints on the Island, there is plenty of pizza being made at home as well. And I'm not talking about the child's play of Digiorno or Presto Pizzazz Pizza Ovens. For decades, Sylvia Prestia has been making pies in a makeshift coal-fired oven built in her backyard out of bricks and mortar.

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Most folks spend Independence Day near a barbecue grill, waiting for burgers and hot dogs. But Ms. Prestia's friends and family get slices straight out of a blisteringly hot oven. No one's forced to eat it before its cooled to a safe temperature, but most can't resist. We've all suffered pizza burn for less worthy dishes.

Feeding that many people means an extraordinarily long day for anyone, let alone an 84-year-old woman. After rising at 4 a.m. to begin the prep work, Sylvia was still stretching dough, swirling homemade sauce and sprinkling cheese at 11 p.m., when my parents bowed out of the binge.

Perhaps sensing the high burden of proof for convincing people that a Staten Island backyard is equipped with actual pizza oven, my father snapped a few photographs. "Aunt Sylvia made the pizza, her son Jimmy worked the oven and I shoveled the coal," he wrote in the e-mail, nonchalantly breaking news to me about yet another aunt on my mother's side of our unbelievably large family tree. "My only regret is that Mom waited this long to take me there." It might have been his first visit to the annual event, but it won't be his last.