Although he is not of Italian dissent, Jonathan Cowan, owner and founder of Wooden Paddle has dedicated his career to artisan pizza. He opened his Lemont, Ill. restaurant at the ripe old age of 25 with his wife Brianna.
When the carry out restaurant first opened in 2013, the menu consisted of “96 percent pizza,” Jonathan Cowan says. The artisan pies were cooked in a stone conveyor oven at high temperatures.
It was a year after opening that the Cowans were introduced to the Marra Forni team at the Pizza Expo in Vegas. At the National Restaurant Association Show in 2015, the couple brought 500 of their pizzas to bake in Marra Forni’s gas and wood-burning rotating deck oven. This was the first time they baked their pizzas using the wood and gas combination.
“We didn’t know it was possible to use a wood-fired oven, as our pizza is not Neapolitan,” Cowan says. “We were supremely impressed with the quality.”
Marra Forni’s Original Brick Neapolitan pizza ovens are available in a variety of sizes and custom configurations, including free-standing models as well as mobile solutions for trailers and food trucks. The ovens feature a static (stationary) cooking deck and are designed to produce a high volume of artisan pizzas. In addition to wood-fired models, the oven is available in electric and gas versions.
In 2016, the Cowans switched out Wooden Paddle’s ovens to Marra Forni. The following year, the carryout location was closed, and an investment was made in a sit-down restaurant with a revamped menu.
Although the focus remained on pizza, culinary director and chef Patrick Cassata, winner of Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen and a contestant on Hell’s Kitchen, was able to expand the menu to include noodle, meat and seafood dishes.
Because catering is a big part of the business, with Wooden Paddle providing food for 82 weddings in the last two years, the Cowan’s incorporated Marra Forni’s mobile Neapolitan oven into their arsenal. “We now own two of these ovens and will most likely add another in the next year,” Cowan says.
With its brick and mortar and catering businesses booming, Wooden Paddle is currently in the process of expanding its business. The kitchen will include both a Marra Forni “Rotator” rotating deck oven for cooking pizza and a Neapolitan static oven for proteins, vegetables and other assorted menu items.
“Having stable equipment to cook everything on site is very important to us,” Cowan says. “The Marra Forni ovens have been solid performers. We haven’t had to deal with the common problem of floors and surface cracking as we did with other oven brands in the past, and the mobile ovens have withstood being driven all around Chicagoland with our catering business.”
Cowan adds that the attention and assistance of Marra Forni and co-founder and CEO Francesco Marra have been invaluable in his success.
“Francesco has been so kind and willing to answer business questions; he treats us like family, which meant a lot to me as a young entrepreneur,” Cowan says. “It is stressful opening a restaurant, but was comforting to go into a location knowing this equipment will work as it should. It gave me peace of mind.”