By Alexandra Mortati
Guest Editor and Founder of Women In Pizza

It’s been almost five years since I started Women in Pizza to amplify the voices and acknowledge the contributions of women in the pizza industry. What started off as a grassroots social movement has grown into a not-for-profit that celebrates the strength, resilience and impactful stories of extraordinary women who have played a pivotal role in shaping the pizza industry around them while providing opportunities to other women as they embark on their pizza journeys.

In a world where gender equality is a constant pursuit, these women stand out as beacons of inspiration, embodying the spirit of change. Through Women in Pizza, I have the privilege of delving into the heart of their narratives, exploring the challenges they faced, the barriers they broke, and the legacies they continue to build around the world. Each story is a testament to the power of determination and the profound impact that a woman can have. Their passion for pizza transcends boundaries and has left an indelible mark on the industry.

The women featured in this collection were carefully selected for the diversity of their experiences, backgrounds and accomplishments. Their stories traverse borders, disciplines and generations, offering a mosaic of perspectives that enrich our understanding of the collective strength of women. From expert pizzaiolas and innovative chefs to entrepreneurs who’ve carved a niche in the industry, these women exemplify the courage it takes to challenge the status quo and pave the way for future generations.

I’m profoundly grateful that I get to know these women and for the opportunity to further shine a spotlight on the journey of Women in Pizza, where every step forward becomes a stride toward a more inclusive and equitable world for all.

Sunny Sun

Sunnyside Pizzeria: Atlanta, GA

Coming from an Asian-raised family, Sunny Sun, owner of Sunnyside Pizzeria, never thought she’d end up in pizza. “I’m Chinese,” she says. “It’s believed, ‘If you spend the time and money to go college, why are you working in a restaurant?’ It was a little bit nerve-wracking in the beginning to tell my parents that I didn’t want to be a CPA anymore. It’s a good career, but I didn’t like it, and I was influenced by today’s culture, where people ask, ‘What are you passionate about?’ I found that after six years in finance, I was still asking that question. I knew I wasn’t in the right industry.”

Sun left her finance career around the same time she became pregnant with her son, Kaiden. “When we would gather with friends, running a pizza business was always a topic that came up. One day, a friend said they knew a pizza consultant who did Neapolitan pizza. My husband, David, and I were financially stable and realized we could do it if we wanted to.”

Sun and her husband signed the lease in July 2021 and opened Sunnyside Pizzeria in the summer of 2022. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” she says. “We had no restaurant experience and didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t have recipes. We got really lucky in the whole process with people willing to help us.”

Sun, who is Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN)-certified but largely focuses on operations and marketing, dreams of one day offering a traditional Neapolitan crust with Asian-fusion toppings and flavors. For now, though, Sunnyside Pizzeria sticks with more traditional offerings. Just give her time, though—the more innovative pies will come, she says.

This step-by-step approach goes back to Sunny’s days as a CPA, and she sees a similar mentality with her female friends. “They say, ‘I want to do this before I do that,’ but guys don’t care—’I’m just going to do it because I want to.’ Sometimes, it’s harder for women to start something, because there’s so much in our minds we are trying to take care of. We’re overthinkers. But I don’t want to look into being a woman too much, and I try not to look into being an Asian too much. I don’t want to let it affect me.”

Pizzeria management didn’t come naturally to the easygoing Sun. “It’s really hard for me to get my point across to other people,” she says. “I’m not confrontational, and I have to be extra-confrontational. As a woman, you’re expected to be nice but not too strong, but you need to be able to make people listen to you. I’m trying to push myself to be firmer with the things I say. It’s always been a weakness in my life, and that’s why I try not to make connections to it being because I’m a woman. It might just be my personality. In my mind, it’s harder for a woman in the restaurant industry to make a place for herself among all of these guys. The back of the house is majority male, and you have them talking the way they talk while you’re trying to blend into their environment.”

Sun’s advice for other women in pizza: Don’t be afraid. “Just start what you want to do,” she says. “As women, we like to figure everything out first, but sometimes the order is, you start something, and then you figure it out. In the beginning, I kept asking what permits I needed and in what order, and no one gave me a concrete answer. I never imagined we’d need a grease trap permit. To others, it was normal, so they didn’t think to mention it to me. We stretched this process out and could have done better, so learn from your mistakes. There are things you can be doing at the same time. For example, we didn’t do as much marketing as we should have early on.”

Her Asian background aside, Sun values the traditions of Italian cuisine. “I know I get customers thinking, ‘Why is an Asian girl opening an Italian restaurant?’ It’s an accident that I got into pizza, but I value tradition and authenticity. If I’m doing something, I want to do it the right way—the Italian way. Even if I’m trying to be innovative, I want to respect traditional and authentic elements. I want to build an environment where people walk in and feel like they are somewhere else and forget about their day jobs. A really good restaurant has good food, but it also is an experience.”

Read the full interview at

Dareen Akkad

What the Crust: Cairo, Egypt

Growing up in Canada, Dareen Akkad, co-owner of What the Crust, was groomed to be a scientist. But the arts were her true love. “Studying the arts was not a thing,” she says. “In an Arab family—as with most immigrant families—you had to be a doctor. A medical doctor is great; otherwise, you’re expected to be a doctor of something else. I got so depressed, even though I was doing well. Ultimately, I dropped out of pre-med and got a degree in the arts, but I had no support when I changed to a BA.”

Meanwhile, she worked in restaurants and catering, eventually moving up to restaurant supervisor. But, with her BA in hand, she found herself working for multinational advertising agencies as an account manager and copywriter. “I met my husband when I was working in Kuwait,” she recalls. “He was a planner and a strategist. He had helped a few start-up businesses, which planted the seed in my head. I realized you can have your own business. You can have your own thing. I was just in the rat race and hadn’t considered that I could do it, too.”

Upon returning to Montreal, she discovered Ken Forkish’s book, Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast. “I started trying to do what he does religiously. I became extra-obsessed and good at making bread. I was pregnant, and I was making a loaf every day and eating it. I gained like 60 pounds. I love bread!”

When her husband got a promising job offer in Cairo, they settled there permanently after the birth of their third child. But during her previous sojourn in Kuwait, she had become obsessed with Neapolitan pizza. “Bread, I could make at home, but good pizza was hard to find. The American-style pizza chains weren’t good, and the Italian-style pizzas just weren’t Italian. I started thinking about opening my own bakery or pizzeria, and a pizzeria seemed more manageable as my first experience of doing my own thing, because I’d only have to worry about perfecting and managing one dough.”

Akkad went to Naples to train with AVPN for a month in late 2019. Back home in Egypt, she settled on a location. “It was a dump,” she says, “but it was what we could afford.” After the necessary renovations, Akkad had a spot with 20 to 24 seats, to be called What the Crust (WTC).

Then COVID-19 hit in 2020. “On April 1, my husband and I looked at each other,” she remembers. “We had spent all of this money. My husband had a consulting contract with an airline company, and they were the first to go, so now we were in Egypt without an income and security, having spent all of our savings on this pizzeria. We weren’t 100% ready, but what else were we going to do? On April 4, we decided to just do it….It also coincided with our marriage anniversary, so we took it as a sign that maybe this was going to be OK.”

Once opened, WTC grew quickly through word-of-mouth and became the first AVPN affiliate in Africa, while Akkad herself became the first Arabic-speaking AVPN instructor and an AVPN ambassador. In 2021, 50 Top Pizza named WTC one of the world’s 10 best Neapolitan pizzerias outside of Italy and, in 2023, one of the world’s 100 best pizzerias, as well as the best pizza restaurant in Africa. Next came a WTC pizza truck, one of the world’s first AVPN-affiliated trucks. Since then, Akkad has opened four more locations and is working on a fifth.

That’s a lot of “world’s firsts” and “world’s bests” for one person. Meanwhile, the pizza scene in Cairo is now exploding, thanks at least in part to Akkad. “Some new pizzerias are making Neapolitan, while some Italian restaurants are introducing pizza to their menu,” she notes. “At least a dozen new Neapolitan pizzerias in Cairo are coming up on my Instagram, so it’s definitely changing.” Neapolitan pizza’s growing popularity has also landed Akkad some great press. “We were on satellite TV twice across Middle East and were featured on popular talk shows. Lots of people know What the Crust—the brand is kind of famous now. People who may have seen us on TV or on social will recognize us….We’ve been stopped on the street, in the mall and the airport.”

Even so, being a woman in the pizza industry brought its share of challenges. “It’s especially hard with hiring,” Akkad admits. “In the beginning, some would say, ‘I’m not taking orders from a woman,’ in the middle of the busiest shift, and I’d have to kick them out. It’s not my problem if he can’t handle that I’m a woman.” But her gender isn’t always a drawback. “In Egypt, it’s a big deal that I’m the owner, that I’m a woman, and that I’m working,” she says. “It’s actually one thing that helped us spread the word, because it’s a combination that, culturally, many Egyptians were not used to. Somehow, it worked to our advantage….I was of the mindset that ‘anything a man can do, I can do better.’ After a while, our hires saw that I worked harder than anyone. You have to lead by example. The guys that stuck around became just like me. Now, I’m able to hire more people, and they can train them. And when they see me, they don’t see that I’m a woman—in a good way.”

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Blair Pietrini

Pietrini Pizza Napoletana: Los Alamitos, CA

Opening Pietrini Pizza Napoletana wasn’t Blair Pietrini’s dream—it was Gene’s, her late husband. But she was a driving force in bringing it to reality. “I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that this is my life now,” she says. “My husband was so absolutely passionate about pizza. He grew up in Chicago, and his cousin and uncle owned a little pizza place in a strip mall with the quintessential red leather booths that did a huge takeout business. Gene loved any opportunity to head back into the kitchen and throw some dough and make a pizza. It was so obviously his happy place.”

Gene, a financial planner who later served as a pastor for more than 30 years, was the “meticulous planner,” Pietrini says, “and I was the risk-taker. Every now and again, I’d ask him, ‘Are you ever going do this?’ And he’d say, ‘Yes, I have to do this,’ but so many people who have dreams never pull the trigger. So I said, ‘OK, I’m going to keep nudging you.’ Being a risk-taker, I didn’t want to come to the end of our time saying, ‘We coulda, woulda, shoulda.’ I’m good with it if it doesn’t work, but I’m not good with us not trying.”

After years of making pies for friends, they finally opened Pietrini Pizza Napoletana in the middle of the pandemic. But Gene, a lifelong athlete, had developed serious back problems—the pain was so bad, he couldn’t stand up long enough to make pizzas. Then, two years ago, he passed away unexpectedly from a complication during back surgery.

“We were closed for a matter of weeks,” Pietrini recalls. “I was sort of hiding out in the kitchen, just making pizza and salads so I wouldn’t have to talk to people. But, little by little, I found myself going out and talking to people once again, and it was very healing. It got a bit easier as the days went by. You need to have a purpose to get back up again. If I didn’t have that, I would have had many more days in my bed. Showing up is half the battle.”

Their son, Landon, inherited Gene’s passion for pizza and even attended Tony Gemignani’s pizza school after his dad’s back pain kept him from following through on the course himself. “To be able to work with my son day in and day out also makes it easier,” Pietrini reflects. “My personal journey with grief has definitely broadened my awareness and sensitivity to people and what they are going through. For me, this is far more than just a restaurant or business. I always want our restaurant to be serving good food along with a huge helping of kindness and hospitality.”

Meanwhile, Pietrini can say that she has made a dream come true—one that started as her husband’s but became her own. “My dream was actually for him to see his dream come true. I’m thrilled that he did it. He took the risk and made it happen!”

As for the future? “For me, the focus is on sustaining the growth we are currently experiencing,” Pietrini says. “We’ve experienced over 100% growth in the last year. We have a racetrack within walking distance, a Costco across the street, and we’re attached to a Starbucks. New apartments, hotels and businesses are popping up all around us. The area is ripe. People ask us if we’re planning on opening for lunch anytime soon, but we’re making decisions that will help sustain that family balance. We’re only open five days a week…from 4 p.m. until 9 p.m….We have no desire to build a pizza empire. We desire to do what we do with excellence and not grow beyond our means—I don’t mean just financially, but in whatever ways would take us away from our core values.”

She adds, “Everything we’ve been through has really reinforced what matters most, and it’s definitely not the money or the job. It’s the people that we care about. I will do everything within my power to run this business with a family-first mindset. The long-term goal is to have something that is successful, stable and sustainable to pass on to my kids and, hopefully, even my grandkids.”

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Shannon Mangini

OTG Management: New York, NY

A former Wall Street investment banker and corporate finance executive at ESPN, Shannon Mangini is also a New Yorker, an Italian and a lover of food. “Lucky for me,” she says, “both of my parents are excellent cooks, so I always had the best lunches at school. While some kids had bologna sandwiches, I would have something like chicken cutlet with mozzarella, roasted red peppers and balsamic on semolina bread….My dad and I were always searching for the best pizzerias, well before there were lists telling you where to go, professional pizza tours or One Bite reviews. We would evaluate each slice and talk about where they ranked on our favorites.”

Di Fara was a family favorite. And when the legendary pizzeria opened a location in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Mangini happened to be looking for a new career after leaving her finance job. “While I had no previous experience in restaurants, I knew this was something I could do, and I was hungry to learn. I joined the team and did everything from washing dishes and making pizza to merchandising and planning private events and classes. I helped ownership with expansion efforts in the form of nationwide shipping, food trucks, festivals and ghost kitchens.”

After a few years at Di Fara, Mangini was ready to broaden her experience. She worked as a floor manager at a full-service restaurant in New York City but found herself unemployed eight months later due to the pandemic. “It didn’t take long before I got bored, so I turned to pizza. Once it was safe, my dad and I started a pop-up pizza business and a frozen pizza route. We popped up at wineries and breweries throughout Long Island and delivered frozen pies to our accounts in the boroughs and Long Island.”

Mangini says pizza “gave me purpose” at a time “when a lot of us were lost. Interacting with customers over my pizza was invigorating and brought a smile to my face. Getting to work with my family doing something I love was incredible and brought us all closer.”

During a stint as director of special projects and pizza concepts for Starr Restaurant Group, she helped reopen some of its fine-dining concepts as the pandemic waned. Now you can find her working for OTG Management as senior director of partnerships and brands. But she misses the culinary side of the business. “I recently bought an Ooni and have been scratching the itch that way,” she says. “For now, pizza is more of a side hustle, and I am hoping to start doing pop-ups again. Will I own my own pizzeria one day? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that pizza will always be a big part of my life.”

And she knows she won’t be held back by what others think her role should be. “When I said I was going to switch careers, everyone around me, except my wife, tried to convince me otherwise, and I think part of that was because I am a woman. I remember there was a little girl, maybe four or five, who always used to come to Di Fara with her father. One day, she said, ‘Girls don’t make pizza,’ and I went, ‘No, girls absolutely make pizza. Don’t ever let someone tell you girls can’t.’ Society tells us who we can and can’t be from such a young age. I’ve had plenty of experiences where I’m not taken seriously because I’m a woman. Working in finance, it was a male-dominated culture. Even when my dad and I would negotiate deals with the breweries for our pop-ups, the way they would interact with him would be starkly different from me. It’s frustrating, because I know my stuff, but some people just don’t want to take advice from a ‘young girl’ even when it was clear I had more experience. Laura Meyer, Audrey Kelly, Giorgia Caporuscio, Nicole Russell, Leah Scurto—they all inspired me. I hope I’ve served as inspiration to that little girl or someone else as a tiny piece of their pizza journey.”

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Nadia Minniti

Gusto Napoletano: Fayetteville, NC

Nadia Minniti, owner of Gusto Napoletana and a food historian, grew up in Naples, celebrating the tradition and purity of pizza. That purity, she says, “escapes most people. When I make pizza, I have history in my hands.” But it wasn’t until she moved to North Carolina with her husband, a U.S. marine, in 1993 that she found her true calling for it.

First, however, she found resistance. “There were no jobs available for immigrants with a thick accent,” she recalls. “The only jobs I was offered were as a maid cleaning hotel rooms or a fast-food worker.” The bias was jarring to Minniti. “I speak five languages: English, Italian, Spanish, French and my Neapolitan dialect. I arrived with a university degree.”

Living on a military base helped Minniti adjust to life in America. At Camp Lejeune, she befriended the wife of the commanding general, who loved Italy. “She invited me to partake in the Foreign Wives Club potlucks, so I started cooking authentic Italian food for those events. She asked if I would be interested in cooking for them as a personal chef. I would also cook for single lieutenants and captains and leave before their date arrived. I always said, ‘If you really like this girl, sooner or later she is going to find out you can’t cook!'”

Her biggest obstacle proved to be her own talent and drive to excel. “At every job I’ve had here, I’ve been told to stop being so efficient and so good at what I do, because I make other people look bad,” Minniti says. “I opened Gusto Napoletano on September 13, 2019, after I was forced out of my culinary arts job, where I was an instructor for 13 years. I had a narcissistic supervisor in an education system that frowns on women who are smart go-getters.”

Minniti knows Italian food, and she knows she knows it. But challenges abounded when she opened her restaurant. “When you hire contractors in North Carolina and you are a woman, they will take advantage of you. It took almost a year to finish the job, because the contractor would only work two or three hours a day, because he had other jobs. Meanwhile, I’m paying rent and utilities.” It was the loyalty of her students that helped her get up and running. “I was lucky that a lot of my culinary students liked and respected me. My first employees were my students. Other pizza venue owners weren’t too happy to see me open. The world of pizza is a male-dominated one, and we are impinging on their success and manhood.”

COVID-19 set in just three months after she opened Gusto Napoletano, and Minniti had to get resourceful. “The governor said, ‘No more dine-in.’ I thought, ‘What am I going to do? Everything I own is in this place.'” She called up US Foods and asked if she could sell her ingredients. “I already had a huge following on Facebook, so I made a list of things I had and how much they were. You could order your pizza and groceries and have them delivered. It’s how I kept the doors open.” 

Since then, her community has always been there for her. “I’ve been very lucky,” she reflects. “From the beginning, a small group of people have believed in me. When they didn’t need to, they bought food from me and kept our doors open. We now have over 5,000 followers on Facebook, and every morning I post something about Italy and things that pertain to the restaurant. People love it. I keep the engagement high, and I ask them what they think we should do if we’re having a problem. I’m open to suggestions, and people respond…I am moved by how much people care about the restaurant and me. I found that women are by far my largest supporters and cheerleaders.”

At 57, Minniti still works 80-hour weeks. “People ask me, ‘How do you do it?’ I just don’t think about it. I’m not a quitter….It’s hard to be on your feet 12 hours a day, but I keep at it. I hope that I can get enough employees so that I can focus on growing the business. I also want to focus on the cookbook I’ve always wanted to do. After 3½ years, people are finally realizing I’m here to stay.”

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Amanda Jones

Pizzeria Florian: East Aurora, NY

While earning her degree in international business, Amanda Jones, co-owner of Pizzeria Florian wasn’t even considering a career in the restaurant industry. But she needed a job, and she got one—making pizza and ice cream cakes. “I really enjoyed it, which should have been my first clue!” she says. After graduation, she worked in a pastry shop, then met Jay Langfelder, now her husband and business partner, who wanted to launch a food truck. “I jumped on the bandwagon and helped him start it. I started as a cashier and took orders. When other employees wouldn’t show, it was all hands on deck, so I’d jump in and start helping make pizza.” 

Jones’ background in pastry gave her a great foundation for pizza. “I knew how to work with dough and had that baker’s sense of timing,” she says. “I have a timer in my head that goes, ‘Oh, I have to turn it. Oh, I have to take it out.’ Anything I missed from pastry I found in pizza. I really enjoyed pastry because of the decorating aspect and creativity, but I saw the value in the fast-paced nature of pizza, and I can be creative in toppings.”

Jones finds restaurant management fulfilling now, but, initially, it wasn’t where she wanted to be. “I was slowly nudged into it over time. A lot of times, at restaurants, either women apply to front-of-house positions, or they’re put in those positions. I’d see other girls come work for us and be put in front-of-house positions, and I’d notice they were interested in pizza. I’d encourage them to make pizza when it was slow, then they’d start making pizza to bring home, then they started asking to do it more. I became passionate about encouraging them. Because it’s usually all guys making pizzas, it’s less comfortable for women to push their way back and get hands-on, too.”

In a previous job as general manager of Big Bon Bodega in Savannah, Georgia, she found herself mentoring college students on the staff. “I tried to make it as beginner-friendly as possible,” she says. “I’m super-big on teaching, because this was the first restaurant job for them, and I wanted them to feel well-trained and supported. I made checklists and tutorials and gave them points of contact through team leads and management, but you can’t totally idiot-proof it. There are ovens and equipment they’ve never seen before and a lot of different personalities. It can be overwhelming.”

At Big Bon, she fine-tuned her own skills, particularly with dough. “Baking came super-easily to me, but stretching the dough was hard,” she recounts. “When I was working with Jay, we would fight. If I wanted to try stretching a different way, he’d yell at me, and then I’d yell back at him. So, for a long time, I didn’t stretch at all. At Big Bon, I worked with Kay Heritage, the owner. Working with someone else gave me the freedom to figure it out on my own. I learn by doing. I don’t know what triggers it, but I find myself switching between different techniques, even on the same pizza.”

Now she and Jay are back in New York with a new pizzeria of their own: Pizzeria Florian, which opened in February in East Aurora. And to any woman who’s looking to break into the business, she offers this advice: “Force your way in. It’s easy to be brushed off as a woman in restaurants. So many guys are interested in working in pizza. Jay would have a lot of guys that wanted to learn how to make pizza from him. You’ll hear, ‘You’re great at making pizza, but I have these guys here to learn pizza from me, and you’re so good with customers—they can’t do front of house, but you can.’ With Kay, the difference was that anything was accessible. She had gone through it as well, so she said, ‘You can do whatever you want here. I do it, so of course you can do it.’ A female mentor is really helpful and offers a different way of relating to someone and working with someone. I’m hopeful that there will be more women in management and back of house to mentor younger women. It’s just different.”

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Javiera Contardo

Dou Pizza: Santiago, Chile

Javiera Contard may live in Chile, but she’s got pizza sauce flowing through her veins. “I have an Italian family,” she says. “My Nonna comes from Naples, and my Nonno comes from the north coast. And we’ve been making pasta and pizza forever. It was the reason we came together. All my cousins and family have studied things related to food and hotels, except for me. I’ve loved it since I was very young, but I thought I would go into the food industry when I was very old.”

It turned out that kismet brought her into the business earlier in life. But, first, she had a successful career as a TV producer—starting at just 18—for companies like Live Nation and Cirque du Soleil. “It was fun to work on concerts and be a producer,” she says. “My job was to make the talent’s life easy in Chile. I’d handle passports, dinners, hotels, documentation at the airport for their private flights, coordination, logistics, etc. I worked in TV for a lot of years, but, emotionally, it was a lot. When you begin very young, you get to a point where you want to change your life.”

In 2015, she started several companies of her own, each quite different: agriculture, real estate, logistics, healthy foods. “But, on the side, I always made bread and pizza for fun. I took a lot of courses just to prepare a good product at home. In 2020, when the pandemic hit and I had to close my companies, my family said to me, ‘You should do what you’ve always done for fun!'”

Contardo took their advice and studied with an AVPN instructor, taking a 10-day online class during the pandemic. Then, in 2022, she founded Dou (pronounced “dough”) Pizza in Santiago, a woman-owned company with women in the kitchen. “We make pizza, pasta—it really gives us no limit,” Contardo says. “I wanted to make it a brand and not use my name so that it doesn’t depend and center only on me. Now, we are six girls making pizza and running a catering service. We teach classes for fun to people and companies.” 

Pizza has always been popular in Chile, but the styles have evolved thanks to COVID-19. “The Santiago pizza scene is really big since the pandemic,” Contardo points out. “There was explosive growth. The pandemic helped the Neapolitan style a lot. Everyone has Oonis here, so they began to have their own little business, or their pizzeria changed to Neapolitan. Now, Neapolitan is the most popular style. And pizza in teglia is getting a little famous. People really like it, because it’s crunchy and different.”

Contardo has studied the craft under AVPN in Naples as well as with Tony Gemignani and competed at the International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas, where she took 15th place in Neapolitan/S.T.G.

“I want to have a lot of options,” she says. “I want to bring this Neapolitan culture in general to Chile—not just the pizza but the stories and information. The part that opens people’s eyes in class is when you talk about the history or some piece of information they didn’t know….I studied online with Massimiliano Saieva. More than the recipe, I asked him about the when and where of Roman-style pizza. It’s a story to tell, and what I’d really like is to bring that history here and get together with people who didn’t get together before.”

Teaching the craft—and its history and significance—to others is a passion for Contardo. And while Chile’s pizza industry isn’t currently collaborative in nature, she hopes to change that. High on her agenda: building a team of pizza making wizards, not unlike PMQ’s U.S. Pizza Team. “Making a really cool team is the most important part for me right now,” she says. “I’m trying to create a team that goes and competes in other places. We have had more than 500 students in Napoletana. I have a WhatsApp group where we talk a lot and help each other beyond the class. I’m making another type of class, where I help them learn how to make dough balls really fast and how to put pizzas in the oven fast, how to stretch in a more professional way, how to turn the pizza in the oven—all the critical parts of the pizza process, to make them better and prepare for a future Chilean team.”

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Nicole Russell

Last Dragon Pizza: Rockaway, NY

Born and raised in Rockaway, Russell got a certificate in multimedia design from NYU’s School of Professional Studies. But when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, she turned to pizza. It was a trying time—her home was affected by the hurricane, and her sister was diagnosed with cancer. She studied YouTube videos and began serving pizza to the construction workers on her block as a thank-you for the hard work they were doing to help rebuild the community. The construction workers loved her pizza and quickly turned into customers.

Emboldened, Russell started selling her pizzas from home in 2014. The Last Dragon Pizza concept pays homage to Nicole’s favorite movie, a 1985 martial arts comedy with a cult following. All of her pizzas are named after characters and memorable scenes from the film. “When I saw The Last Dragon and there was this Black family who owned a pizzeria and made pizza for the neighborhood, that just resonated with me,” Russell told Appetito magazine. “Pizza is so communal. Yeah, you break bread and get to know someone, no matter what kind of food, but the pizza industry is just different.”

Today, Last Dragon Pizza is a pickup operation that also ships frozen pizza nationwide. Despite that small footprint, Russell’s culinary talent, screen presence and charisma has made her one of the industry’s best-known media personalities. She’s the star of Pizza Wars on the First We Feast network and has been profiled in The New York Times, among other publications. For Pizza Wars, she has matched wits with stars like Ghostface Killah and Michael Imperioli, swapped slices with Frank Pinello of Best Pizza in Brooklyn, and tossed dough alongside Giovanni “Gio” Lanzo of Luigi’s Pizza, also in Brooklyn.

Essence magazine once wrote that Russell is “bringing Black girl magic to the white, male-dominated industry.” But, as she told Appetito, “It wasn’t my intention to be a Black woman in this world. I just wanted to make pizza. That said, as a Black woman, we want to be excellent in whatever we do….As a pizza maker with a certain level of success in a nontraditional world, I am Black excellence. That’s all.”


Anna Crucitt

Mercurio’s: Pittsburgh, PA

Anna Crucitt is a pizzaiola’s pizzaiola. She grew up working in her parents’ gelateria, then went on to earn her degree in marketing and Italian. That led her to open Mercurio’s, which specializes in Neapolitan pizza and gelato, in partnership with her brothers, Michael and Joe, in 2012. Both master trainers in Neapolitan, Michael and Joe schooled their sister in the craft, and she proved an apt pupil: In 2019, she won second place in the Gluten-Free division of the Caputo Cup.

Like many pizzaioli who delight in taking their pies to competitions, Crucitt is eager to innovate while respecting the Neapolitan tradition. “One of my favorite pies we make is called the Porchetta,” she told PMQ last year. “We use a savory and fatty porchetta roast that has a garlic, rosemary and slight fennel flavor. It’s a white pie, with the porchetta laid on the crust; then we lightly cover it with a homemade burrata cheese. We add a little mascarpone to make it creamy and sprinkle with oregano before it goes in the oven. Once the pizza is cooked, we add crushed peppercorn and a drizzle of olive oil.”

For pizzeria operators keeping an eye on their profit margin, Mercurio offers a key tip: “If you use a quality meat that has a lot of flavor, you don’t generally need a lot of it. Pairing a quality meat with a high-margin ingredient helps the overall profit margin. But people shouldn’t be afraid to charge what the ingredients are worth.”


Cristina Smith

State of Mind Public House and State of Mind Slice House: Los Altos, CA

While Cristina Smith’s first job was at the Bay area chain Pizza My Heart, she didn’t think pizza would become such a large part of her life. But it was there that she met her future husband and partner, Lars Smith, with whom she now co-owns State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria and State of Mind Slice House. She has worked for national chains, local restaurant groups, independently owned restaurants, and a Michelin starred restaurant. And she did it all—front of house, back of house and management. “Most of my experience has been behind the scenes, doing finances and everything that comes with running our own business,” she says.

Eventually, she got burned out and went to work in the accounting department for a strawberry export company. Working in agriculture gave Smith a new perspective on the food industry. “I spent a lot of time on location at the ranches, getting to know the farmers and witnessing the amount of work that goes into picking strawberries. Before, I was, like, ‘$8 a pint for strawberries is insane,’ but today I think it should be $20!”

Interestingly, that job opened her eyes to her love for paperwork. “It’s very stressful, but it’s something I’m very good at,” she says. “I don’t deal with a lot of the front-of-house stuff. I don’t manage or hire, but I do everything else: all the payroll, bookkeeping, all the behind-the-scenes stuff. The financial side of the business, for most people, is dull and boring. Restaurant owners want talk about their food, because that is what makes people’s mouth water.”

But Smith can make your mouth water, too. In recent years, she has competed at prestigious events like the Caputo Cup and even earned the top U.S. score in the Classica category at the World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy. “It’s a great opportunity to push myself,” she says. “In the U.S., there’s growth among women in the pizza industry as business owners and being at the forefront of the restaurant business. But around the world it’s still primarily a male-dominated industry. It’s important to showcase what women can do….There are some amazing badass women in this industry.”

At State of Mind, Smith believes that a positive culture helps employees thrive. To her, the entire team is a family. “One of the reasons why we became so successful and have very loyal employees is that we approach things with a family mindset and want to make sure every one of our staff can make a living. We want them to not have that be a constant stressor, to really enjoy working with us, and to also buy into what we do. If you have an employee who doesn’t believe in what you are doing, your customers will feel that, and it will provide a different experience. They are the ones who really have the interactions, and we owe a lot of our success to them!”

For other women finding their way in the pizza business, Smith advises, “Just keep trying. It’s really easy to give up on yourself, especially if you are trying to open your own business. No one is going to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself first. No one is going to give it to you. What you want, you have to work for, so don’t let your failures define you.”    

Read the full interview at

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