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Tracking the Smoky Rise of Charred, Wood-Fired Food in NYC

From a cozy Brooklyn neighborhood hangout in Gowanus to glitzy Manhattan West restaurants, wood-fired ovens and grills have taken over the city

A brick-lined oven with pigs on a spit roast.
The wood-fired oven at Peasant.
Michael Condran/Peasant

Peasant, the charming restaurant with exposed-brick walls on Elizabeth Street, has been perennially packed since Frank DeCarlo opened it in 1999. One of its major draws is the massive, wood-fired oven in the kitchen, which churns out everything from char-speckled, fluffy bread to whole suckling pigs. The oven is also the primary reason that acclaimed chef Marc Forgione jumped at the chance to take over the Nolita space two years ago when DeCarlo retired. “My entire life I’ve always enjoyed cooking with live fire,” Forgione says. “There’s something very primal and very human about lighting a fire and cooking meat, fish, vegetables, or things from the earth over it.”

While Peasant has been around for more than two decades, Forgione’s new menus highlighting its wood-fired cuisine is just one of at least a dozen NYC restaurants fanning the flames. Restaurants specializing in the cooking technique are proliferating all over the city. In fact, three buzzy openings in 2021 — Ci Siamo, Zou Zou’s, and Sweetbriar — all base their menus around live-fire cooking, although each restaurant’s interpretation is rooted in a different type of cuisine.

New York City’s recent boom in live-fire restaurants is also timely: Who doesn’t want to be close to a hearth during the coldest months of the year?

Since taking over the flames, Forgione has stayed true to Peasant’s rustic Italian menu, but added meat dishes that benefit from time spent in the wood-fired oven or grill. Aside from the suckling pig, he also serves a meltingly tender oxtail served with a wood-fired pizza “pillow” and a lamb rosette that is slow-cooked on the rotisserie.

At Ci Siamo, a Danny Meyer restaurant inside the Manhattan West development, wood-fired cooking is central to the restaurant’s identity. Chef Hilary Sterling and her team worked with Next Step Design to create a hearth that was as much an architectural element of the space as a cooking tool. Sterling uses the oven to add depth of flavor to everything from smoked swordfish to a roasted-half chicken, but for her, the rewards of the oven are not limited to just taste. “As chefs, we’re able to have an added connection with the ingredients and renewed appreciation for the cooking process,” she says of cooking with live fire. “And for our guests, every sense is activated as a result of the wood-fired oven; they can smell, see, feel, and taste the fire at Ci Siamo. It’s transporting and comforting all at once.”

The interactive experience of live-fire cooking is one not easily replicated via other means. And, as new restaurants struggle in this COVID world to find their footing, perhaps it’s not surprising that they’re turning to a technique that not only offers compelling flavors in food, but is also physically comforting as well. “Guests love seeing a roaring fire, and the smells of the wood and food cooking; it creates a cozy atmosphere,” says Ryan Angulo, co-owner of Mediterranean spot Victor in Gowanus, which opened in June 2021. “We have an open kitchen and that’s where most guests want to dine, with a nice view of the fire.”

Sweetbriar, a new upscale American comfort restaurant helmed by chef Bryce Shuman, also uses a char technique in one of its signature dishes, a kohlrabi served with a black garlic vinaigrette. Shuman buries heads of the vegetable under hickory logs until the flesh becomes juicy and sweet. “The flavor is unique and confusing, because you’re eating something truly burnt, but it tastes so good,” Shuman says.

A whole branzino on a metal platter is ready to roast in a brick oven at Jack & Charlie’s No. 118.
A whole branzino is ready to roast in the oven at Jack & Charlie’s No. 118.
Dillon Burke/Jack & Charlie’s No. 118

Live-fire cooking can be both finicky and time consuming. Ed Cotton, the executive chef at newly opened, new-American restaurant Jack & Charlie’s No. 118, inherited an oven in his restaurant space in the West Village. He decided to build his menu to accommodate the hearth, even if it presented challenges. “It takes time to figure out how to do the dance,” Cotton says of working with live fire. “It takes a skilled cook to maneuver items being cooked in the wood-fired oven; there’s a lot of moving things around and ensuring that they are cooked properly without burning them. There’s a difference between charred and burnt.”

In addition to the skill needed to cook with wood fire, solid fuel, especially quality wood, is also very costly. At Victor, the kitchen uses at least a half cord of wood — a stack that measures 4 feet in width, height, and depth — per week, which costs a minimum of $250, according to Angulo. He also points out that restaurants are only allowed to store a day’s worth of wood on site. “So, where do you store the wood? There are operational challenges,” Angulo says.

The additional depth of flavor the technique produces, as well as its ability to comfort both chefs and diners alike, seem to make it worth the hurdles. “There’s nothing better than lighting a fire every morning and cooking,” says Forgione. “In this tech-driven world, where everything has a screen, button, or dial, I think there’s something very wholesome and soothing about doing something so simple.”