I started Forno Bravo in 2003 while on an extended sabbatical in Florence, Italy. My wife is English and we had two kids in school whom we wanted to have a global cultural experience before going to high school. We had had the good fortune of working in Silicon Valley during the heady days of Internet 1.0, and our PR firm had worked with the biggies (Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Novell, Digital, 3Com), and we had helped a number of incredible startups make it from zero to blockbuster IPOs and mergers. Our clients created the hardware and software that made the Internet possible, and being involved in the first days of such a profound technology transformation was an amazing experience. All of which meant that I had some freedom, and I wanted to try something new.

As a hobby baker (curious, though not terribly gifted), I had experimented with sourdough, steam, bricks in the oven, bricks in the grill, cast iron pans, and dutch ovens for years, and in 2001 I built an Alan Scott oven. It was a revelation. The plans were a bit hazy and difficult to follow but I got there, and having a real brick oven was incredible.

By coincidence, a friend had installed a Mugnaini/Valoriani oven at the same time, and we started sharing ideas and experiences. By good luck, she dated a guy who owned a boutique bakery, and we both learned a huge amount. By the time we left for Italy, I was hooked.

After we had settled in life in Florence, I started contacting manufacturers and visiting DIY stores (Brico) across Tuscany and in Naples with the idea of setting up an oven import company. What fun. All the Italian hardware stores carry oven kits, insulation and chimney parts, and I quickly got to know the landscape. I installed an oven from a local company (Italfiori) at our first rental house in San Gimignano, and later, I would install an oven from Alfa Caminetti at our second rental house.

The Italian pizza oven market was geographically fragmented, in part because traditional refractory oven are very heavy and shipping costs can present a significant percentage of the overall cost, and second because many of the companies are family-owned businesses started by a grandparent without any clear expansion plans. The result was that there were many smaller, regional producers who had no interest in exporting, and only a handful of companies with enough capacity to support a serious US-based importer. Valoriani, based in Regello, was strong in Tuscany and they were working with Mugnaini in California. The largest producer was Alfa Caminetti (that’s fireplace in Italian). Their ovens were distributed throughout Italy, including by Leroy Merlin, Europe’s largest building supplies chain.

After a series of meetings at Alfa’s offices south of Rome (near where Frascati wine is produced), we agreed to move ahead with Forno Bravo as Alfa’s exclusive US dealer. The company operated under to brands at that time—Alfa Caminetti for their refractory fireplace kits and pizza oven kits, and Alfa Refrattari, for their refractory products, including firebricks and high temperature mortar. The current Alfa Forni branding, and their metal ovens, wouldn’t happen for many years.

We ordered a 40′ container of ovens, and we were off to the races. It was an exciting time. Of all the pieces of good fortune we had at Forno Bravo, Mugnaini’s decision to price a basic clay pizza ovens as if it was a luxury item quickly rises to the top. They were selling a 32″ hobby-grade oven, without insulation or a chimney for $2,750. That same oven was available in Italy for a few hundred dollars. And people were paying contractors $20,000 to install that little oven in an igloo enclosure, with sand as the floor insulation and vermiculite around the dome. Mugnaini successfully convinced the market that these ovens should cost significantly more than they are worth, and I will be forever grateful.

It’s called a price umbrella, and it gave us an enormous amount of space to sell a comparable oven from Alfa at a lower price than Mugnaini, all while making a reasonable profit margin. Word got out, and we started getting sales, and making our customers happy. We ordered another container, and then another, and another. We worked with Intertek to get UL listing for the ovens, started recruiting dealers, and sales continued to grow. And there was a lot more to come.