This week, the James Beard Foundation Awards released a list of category finalists. The list included three people in the pizza space who have, in the Foundation’s eyes, shown excellence in their field. 

For those unfamiliar, The James Beard Foundation has conducted the James Beard Foundation Awards since 1990. Categories have come and gone over the years, but the mission has always stayed the same, which is to recognize exceptional chefs, restaurateurs and others who contribute to the American dining landscape. The awards have come be known as the “Oscars of the food world.” 

Here is a look at three pizza people who are finalists. Winners of each category will be announced in early May. 

Related: This is The Only Pizzeria to Make the New York Times’ Best 100 Restaurants List

Best Chef (Overall)

Sarah Minnick, Lovely’s Fifty Fifty (Portland, OR)

Sarah Minnick’s ascension is a remarkable story, one that is familiar to those who have seen the Chef’s Table: Pizza episode about her and her decorated pizza restaurant, Lovely’s Fifty Fifty. Minnick opened a separate restaurant, Lovely Hula Hands, in 2004 in Portland, Oregon, with her boyfriend and sister. When her relationship with her ex came to an end, the restaurant hired a series of chefs, none of whom stayed for very long. 

In Minnick’s own words, the process of hiring chefs got tiresome and she ended up moving from the front of house to the kitchen, where she began honing her skills making ice cream, other desserts and starters. This would become the smartest move she ever made.

When Minnick opened Lovely’s Fifty Fifty—the name is a nod to her old restaurant and also a description of what they would serve: 50 percent ice cream, 50 percent pizza—she continued to make desserts and starters while a friend made pizza. When the friend left, she started making pizza out of necessity and discovered that she loved it. 

Minnick takes a true farm-to-table approach with her pizza and is one of the pioneers of that approach in the pizza industry. She forages for ingredients or purchases them at the local farmers market. Everything on the menu is seasonal, and she proudly touts unique Oregon-grown ingredients, like nettles that she finds in the woods. 

Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic

Tony Conte, Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana (Darnestown, MD)

Situated in a strip mall in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC, Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana seems an unlikely place to find some of the best pizza in the country. But don’t let the restaurant’s humble origins fool you, writes Washington Post food critic Tim Carman—Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana owner-operator Tony Conte’s pizza is as good as it gets. 

“The last time I sank my teeth into his rounds it was like eating pizza for the first time,” Carman wrote of Conte’s pizza. “The flavor, chew and char on his crusts are unlike anything out there, at once complex and ephemeral.”

Conte’s pizza making may be the fruit of his heritage. His family is from a small town outside of Naples, Italy, and, like so many Italian immigrants to the U.S., brought Old World culinary traditions with them when they moved to America. Conte grew up around authentic Neapolitan cuisine and brings those sensibilities to his pizza.

Before he got into pizza, Conte led a decorated career as a chef. He worked as executive sous chef at the acclaimed Jean Georges in New York City prior to becoming executive chef at Oval Room, a decorated restaurant in Washington, D.C. Riding that momentum, Conte opened Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana, a 40-ish seat full-service restaurant in Darnestown, Maryland, in 2015. 

His pizza has evolved since Inferno opened, his website notes. “Originally planning to abide by strict guidelines set forth by the ruling bodies of Neapolitan pizza in Italy, [Conte has] strayed in an effort to make a more modern product,” the website reads. “There is an updated style of pizza, called canotto, finding increasing favor from, amongst others, the younger generation of pizzaiolos in and around Naples.” 

Leadership Awards

Muhammad Abdul-Hadi, Founder/Owner, Down North Pizza and Down North Foundation

Down North Pizza has a dynamite pizza menu, with pies named after Philadelphia-born rap songs. Perhaps more notably, however, is the pizza’s unique mission: Down North Pizza, part of the non-profit Down North Foundation, exclusively hires formerly incarcerated individuals and helps get them back on their feet. 

There’s two ways that Down North Pizza accomplishes this. First, it gives them a job in the pizza place. Secondly, Down North promises employees a free space to live—in apartments located above the shop—for up to six months. 

Related: How One Pizza Shop Fights Recidivism With Philly-Style Pies

Founder Muhammad Abdul-Hadi is a serial entrepreneur who made some money in commercial real estate and decided to commit to doing something to revitalize inner city communities in his hometown of Philadelphia. Down North Pizza was part of that mission. To hear Abdul-Hadi tell it, nothing he offers his employees is exceptional.

“You look at companies that thrive, whether it’s Google or another big conglomerate like that, and they have a lot of support for their team,” Abdul-Hadi said. “Our formula is no different than that, I don’t think. There’s a unique set of needs for people who are formerly incarcerated, but I don’t know a thriving company that’s not supportive of their staff. Where companies are thriving, look at what they do for the people who are working for them.”

Abdul-Hadi’s first hire was executive chef Michael Carter, who has become a superstar in the pizza space. The two developed a menu together that would evoke the square pie Abdul-Hadi grew up eating in Philadelphia, with a Detroit-style twist. The pair decided to call it “Philly-style pizza.” 

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