Can use propane (with the optional gas burner add-on) or wood
Steep learning curve to get pizza from the peel into the oven (and back out again)
Expensive for an "entry-level" product
As an enthusiastic owner of a Solo Stove fire pit, I was excited to try out the company's Pi Pizza Oven. Sold for $625, but often discounted (it's currently $470), the Pi is supposed to stand in as a portable, "entry-level" alternative to one of those custom backyard pizza oven setups you see in magazines.
Solo Stove refers to the Pi as "the pizza oven for everyone." I need to pause here to add that I have an on-again, off-again relationship with cooking. I love food, but I'm not particularly patient in the kitchen -- or backyard kitchen in this case. That's especially true if the recipe is complicated or if I don't feel I have the right tools to confidently try something new. So, a pizza oven "for everyone" spoke to me directly.
There was a bit of a learning curve in terms of getting the pizza in and out of the oven, but after reading the user manual cover to cover, exploring countless online pizza forums and making many attempts, I did indeed end up with tasty pizza. I recommend the Pi Pizza Oven to anyone looking for a portable alternative to custom outdoor pizza ovens. You probably won't make a perfect pie the first time (I certainly didn't), but Solo Stove's Pi makes it as painless as possible.
The Pi Pizza Oven basics
Made of stainless steel, the Pi is decidedly not a brick oven. Still, Solo says it can cook a pie similarly fast -- in just 2 minutes -- with either propane or wood. To use propane, you have to buy the optional gas burner for an additional $270 (currently $175).
I received the Pi Essential Bundle for wood and gas ($1,105; currently $795). This comprehensive kit includes the oven and the gas burner accessory, as well as a pizza stone, an infrared thermometer, a paddle (called a peel) to get your pie in and out of the oven, a second peel for turning the pizza while it's cooking, a pizza cutter and a cover for the oven when it isn't in use.
The user manual even gives suggestions for homemade dough and some complete recipes, should you want additional help. In short, the Essential Bundle provides everything you need to make a pizza without the ingredients.
Setting the oven up was also easy. It comes fully assembled, with components you can add or remove depending on whether you're using wood or propane. The default option is wood, but I didn't have any on hand for my first day of testing, so I started with propane via the gas burner accessory. The gas burner screws seamlessly into the back of the oven with a hose that connects to your propane tank.
The wood option features a rear door that opens for venting, an ash pan, a fuel grate for the wood and a couple tools since you don't want to touch the door directly while it's hot. Solo Stove suggests using 5- by 2-inch pieces of kiln-dried wood.
Next, add the pizza stone, which comes in two parts fitted perfectly to the inside of the oven, and start preheating. Solo Stove says it takes about 15 minutes for the oven to get to the desired range of 650 to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. While it's heating up, prep your pizza. The Pi can accommodate up to a 12-inch pizza, which is typically a medium pizza in restaurants, or a couple smaller ones.
I'll note here that I had to use a lighter to get the gas going initially, which Solo Stove says shouldn't be the case. (The oven has an igniter, just like a regular propane grill.) I'm not sure what happened there, but no matter what I tried, I ended up having to resort to a lighter. Then, magically, I tried again and it worked beautifully. I'm willing to chalk this one up to user error, but it's worth keeping in mind if you experience similar issues.
You can use either store-bought or homemade dough to make your pizza. Solo Stove even says you can cook a frozen pizza in the oven, but you should let it thaw first, as a frozen pizza placed on the pizza stone can cause it to crack.
Use the infrared thermometer to check your progress. Getting the right temperature range is a critical step to achieving that delicious bubbly cheese and toasty crust, according to Solo Stove. I found this part somewhat unreliable, since pointing the thermometer just an inch or so off from the last location resulted in significant temperature variability, sometimes as much as 50 degrees. To try to ensure the best possible results, I waited until every reading hit within the 650- to 800-degree range, even if there was some variability in temperature.
Once the Pi is set up and preheated, it's time for the best part: pizza.
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I made eight pizzas using this oven, trying different combinations of store-bought and homemade dough (as well as a couple of frozen pizzas) and switching between propane and wood. My first attempt was comical. I read through the user manual several times before setting up the propane tank, preheating the oven and prepping two pizzas, one for me and one for my husband. I followed the instructions to flour the surface of the peel and the dough to mitigate sticking and started with just one of the pizzas to simplify things.
Once the oven reached temperature, I confidently stepped outside with the peel holding the uncooked pizza and the smaller peel to turn the pizza once it was in the oven to ensure a more even bake. Solo Stove says the pizzas cook in 2 minutes, so you have to work fast, which might have been the start of my problems.
The pizza wouldn't budge. We tried several things to no avail. Ultimately, we had to use the smaller peel to "roll" the pizza into a very makeshift calzone shape to get it in the oven at all. We also couldn't get it out of the oven. So once again, we employed both the large and small peel to get it out. My husband ate the "calzone," but it was a fail overall.
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For my pizza, I tried more flour, more evenly coated on the bottom of the pizza and on the stainless steel peel. Same result. What started as a lovely uncooked pizza turned into a messy lump of dough, sauce and cheese every time we tried to move it either into -- or out of -- the oven. Mine didn't even pass the test for edibility because whatever pile of ingredients we managed to get into the oven cooked so unevenly that it couldn't be salvaged.
Fortunately, it got progressively better after each attempt. Pizzas three and four, also made using the same store-bought dough as the first two, worked much better. But instead of unrolling the dough from the fridge, adding some flour to it and the peel and tossing on the ingredients, I worked the dough a little more with flour on my hands and essentially reshaped it, getting rid of some of the stickiness while I worked.
I quickly learned that if the pizza isn't budging while you're prepping it on the peel, it isn't going to budge when you try to get it into the oven, no matter what technique you use.
Next up, I tried out two medium thawed (remember, don't put a frozen pizza directly on the pizza stone or it could break) store-bought frozen pizzas, one thin crust and one regular crust. These worked extremely well and moved easily from the peel into the oven and back out again. They were also easy to turn in the oven with the smaller peel.
For my last round of tests, I used this pizza crust recipe to try out a couple smaller homemade pizzas. I was intimidated by this test, but it ended up turning out really well. The dough was easy to work and yielded a nicely toasted crust with a crusty exterior and softer middle. This dough also transferred from the peel in and out of the oven much easier than the store-bought dough.
Whether you use wood or propane is a matter of preference. Propane is simpler, because you don't have to tend to the fire as much. But the wood-fueled oven was more satisfying, both in terms of creating a more enjoyable campfire-like cooking experience and a better overall taste. The final pizza I cooked using the homemade dough and wood (photo above) was definitely the best overall. That's due in part to getting more familiar with the oven over time, but also because homemade pizza and a wood oven make a great combo.
The Pi Pizza Oven is easy to set up and there are a ton of accessories available to help you make a great pizza. There was a definite learning curve to keep each pizza from sticking to the peel and in some cases, getting it out of the oven. But it got easier. I'm certain that pizza-making enthusiasts have various personal tips and tricks to make this learning curve a bit smoother. (Please share them if you do!) Until then, the Pi Pizza Oven is a well-designed and mostly easy-to-use product that makes good pizza in your backyard.
If you're a pizza enthusiast, but don't have the budget for a full-on brick oven installation in your yard, Solo Stove's pizza oven is a great alternative.