Claudia Mahon rolled a ball of dough, then hand-stretched it to form a crust.

“Never use a rolling pin for Neapolitan pizza,” she said, shaping the dough to hold the toppings.

Under a blue sky and a canopy of trees, she and her husband, Steve, were hosting one of their regular pizza parties on their back-yard patio in Hudson, Wis.

Their outdoor space is bigger than the kitchen in their house, with plenty of room for guests to spread out. In addition to a wood-fired pizza oven, the outdoor kitchen boasts a built-in grill, meal prep countertop and two-tiered bar. The floor is made of polished granite tile, salvaged from the Minneapolis Crowne Plaza Hotel, and an old farm table surrounded by vintage chairs is the dining area.

“It’s become my favorite room, by far,” Claudia said. “Blue sky, great weather, great friends. These are magical nights.”

The great outdoors

It seems like just about every Twin Cities restaurant has carved out an area — from sidewalks to rooftops — to meet the demand for outdoor eating and socializing.

And outdoor rooms are just as popular at home, said Jackie Wulf, designer for JK Interiors in Minnetonka. “We’re tired of being cooped up inside — people are willing to spend money on creating outside spaces that feel like they are lounging in a living room.”

Today’s outdoor spaces have evolved from just a simple patio with a table to fancy outdoor kitchens outfitted with elaborate cooking islands, sinks, refrigerators and pizza ovens. On chilly evenings, guests can sit around propane fire pits and wood-burning fireplaces that kick out the heat. And for added comfort, homeowners can choose thick-cushioned loveseats and sectionals instead of patio furniture that’s hard on the back and rear. Many of today’s outdoor rooms mimic indoor rooms with area rugs, sound systems and ambient lighting.

“More people are dividing decks and patios into separate defined areas — one for gathering in front of a fire pit and another for eating and cooking in an outdoor kitchen,” said interior designer Traci Dokken.

“Outdoor living” is a growing lifestyle trend, said Rebecca Kolls, consumer strategist for CEB Iconoculture and a friend of Claudia’s who attended the recent pizza party. “During the recession, people stayed home more, and that fueled more interest in expanding living spaces to the outdoors.”

Outdoor living industry players, from Gabberts to Gertens, agree that there’s greater demand for products, materials and hardscapes related to creating an outdoor oasis.

“We’re seeing a real quest to return to nature and connect with the outdoors,” said Christine Sutphen, a Gabberts interior designer.

The recent focus on outdoor cooking on food-related cable shows also is an influence, said Kristina Hicks, a Gertens outdoor living buyer. “The whole outdoor kitchen, eating, dining and entertaining market is really strong.”

Homeowners are spending more money to enhance outdoor areas because it can increase the value of their homes, according to the Census Bureau. More than $50 billion of the $172 billion that U.S. consumers spent on remodeling last year was allocated to the outside of the home.

In new construction, “these spaces and amenities have become part of the architectural plan,” Wulf said.

Weatherproof furnishings

Homeowner Laura Berghoff wanted to turn the courtyard of her Shorewood townhouse into an inviting space in which to savor the outdoors — like the California bungalows she’s seen in magazines.

“This courtyard serves as our yard,” said Berghoff, who enlisted designer Wulf for the makeover. “We can open sliding glass doors on three sides and use it late in the fall because it’s protected from the elements.”

Wulf’s design includes a sleek bluestone patio that matches the interior kitchen floor to “continue the flow from inside to outside,” she said.

The courtyard is decorated with a water feature — basalt columns with flowing water — and resin pots filled with tropical plants to create a tranquil setting. For a conversation area, she arranged pieces of wicker-look furniture made from recycled plastic.

Smartly designed new outdoor furniture has played a role in the ultra-comfort of these new spaces, said Sutphen. The weatherproof synthetic wicker, teak and cast-aluminum frames are easy to maintain and designed to hold thick cushions.

“In outdoor rooms, you can use more playful colors in the cushions and pillows,” said Lisa Peck of Lilu Interiors, who recently designed a vibrant-colored seating area on a deck above a garage near Lake of the Isles. “And there’s so many more choices in outdoor fabrics.”

How you design your outdoor room depends on which features you want, how you plan to use it, your available space and, lastly, your budget.

The Mahons’ outdoor great room serves as a comfortable multi-use space, but it also represents their sweat and dedication to getting it done.

When the couple exceeded their budget for the foundation and framing, they spent many nights and weekends laying the Old World look fieldstone — most of it from their prop erty — surrounding the pizza oven. Steve pointed out some of the imperfections in the stonework, but added that it didn’t matter.

“We just wanted something that was real and authentic,” he said, “a communal place to share bread with family and friends.”