On a brilliant summer afternoon, my party of four left Fort Worth to meander up to St. Jo, the oldest town in Montague County, about 90 miles — to the Red River Valley — and to what some call the North Texas Hill Country. Traffic soon became sparse and the color greener as our winding two-lane road provided idyllic views near small towns, such as Alvord and Forestburg. Our destination? Ancient Ovens, to enjoy wood-fired pizza and artisan bread under the stars.
Denis and Susan Moody did not plan to own a restaurant where they would serve up to 120 customers, two, sometimes three nights a week. Denis is a hometown boy, who grew up in Benbrook and attended Western Hills High School in the 1970s. Joining the U.S. Navy in 1977, he served around the world for 30 years.
“I enjoyed living in other countries, but one place was always more special than the others — Sigonella, Sicily. It was there where I became fascinated with the art of wood-fired oven cooking,” says Denis.
The couple moved to St. Jo in 2005, where they built a house on 55 acres of land. Denis retired from the military the following year and, like others, contemplated what he wanted to do. After attending a course in Minnesota on “how to build wood-fired ovens,” he, together with a friend, built the oven that is still used today at Ancient Ovens. His original goal was to build and sell the ovens to upscale homebuilders, but this was not to be. The housing market tumbled about this time.
“Just as one door closed, another opened. Susan and I began using our new oven — first serving family, then friends, and then members of our church in nearby Muenster. Soon strangers began calling, saying they had heard about the oven cooking and asked if they could come.”
In 2009, Ancient Ovens officially opened. Commute time is short — the cooking and dining areas are only a few feet from the couple’s home. Word of mouth is its chief marketing tool, increasing patrons from a few diners each weekend to a reservation list with standbys accommodated if possible.
“We’ve had guests from all over the United States and as far as the Galapagos Islands,” Susan adds.
Ancient Ovens does not just serve pizza. The evening embodies a four-course meal presented slowly with time to relish each. The first course is an artisan sourdough bread coupled with a piquant spinach artichoke dip (there was much talk about this dip around our table, mostly that we wanted more); the second is what Denis calls his Italian teardrop appetizer, consisting of a garlic butter-basted pastry filled with chopped green olives and cream cheese; the third, a Neapolitan-style pizza (in order to accommodate the high heat of 700 degrees, not as heavily laden with meat and vegetables as traditional American style) — and finally, a dark chocolate hazelnut dessert pizza, very thin. These are all prepared in the oven by what the Moodys refer to as their “dream team,” one of whom is Eryn, their daughter. Most of the courses are delivered to the tables, but the pizza is served next to the oven where guests stand in line to choose from 30 combinations of toppings. This is an eclectic part of the evening where diners mingle. We visited with members of a Wichita Falls law firm, a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary (they come to Ancient Ovens each year) and another celebrating a birthday.
“From couples to parties of 40, we take care of ‘em. We serve one time per night; your table is yours for the entire evening,” Denis says.
The dining is mostly open-aired, but the oven resides under a covered patio with tables named Hippy Hollow (where we sat), Goat Locker, Main Street, Semper Fi, and E – Spot, named after Eryn and another member of the dream team.
The peaceful countryside, the tranquil setting, the ambient lighting, and the four-course meal all result in a night to remember. Denis is constantly roaming through the seating area, chatting with his patrons, learning their names, and ensuring they are happy. This is one of the reasons diners return time after time.
Primary dining nights are Friday and Saturday by reservation only. Guests bring their own libation. Two wineries are close by, Arche and Blue Ostrich. Denis has not abandoned Fort Worth. He and Susan come back to Fort Worth often to enjoy their favorite “city” restaurants.
“Turnabout is fair play,” he said.
Ancient Ovens is open most of the year except the last part of August and shortly before Christmas until the end of January. For those who might want to make an overnight trip, a turn-of-the-century hotel (1900, that is) sits on the square in St. Jo.