Story by Rick Hynum | Photos by Rory Doyle
Now and then, big-city pizza snobs need to be reminded that you can find amazing artisan pies in the unlikeliest places. And Marisol Doyle, who co-owns Leña in Cleveland, Mississippi, is only too happy to oblige. Deep in the heart of the largely rural, notoriously impoverished Mississippi Delta, Doyle, a native of Mexico who has studied with top pizzaioli in Naples, is making locals weaned on Domino’s rethink the possibilities of pizza.
Leña is an elegant but cozy little spot situated in Cleveland’s historic Cotton Row, surrounded by boutique shops, a small but renowned bookstore and other restaurants. Further out of town, however, it’s all cotton and soybean fields crawling with John Deere harvesters and combines, crop dusters zooming overhead and the acrid scent of pesticides.
But the region is no culinary desert by any stretch. If southern-style soul food’s your thing, it’s the place to be. The same goes for fried catfish, steaks and tasty tamales. The Delta even has a thriving Italian-American community, particularly descendants of Old-World Sicilians. And Cleveland itself is a college town—it’s the home of Delta State University—that has been undergoing a cultural boom in recent years.
Even so, by and large, this is—and always has been—chain pizza country. Until now. And Marisol, in partnership with her husband, Rory, isn’t just firing up delicious pizzas. She’s making it Neapolitan-style, a craft she learned at two different pizza schools: the AVPN (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana) and the Scuola di Pizzaiolo. It’s safe to say there’s nothing else like it in the entire Delta region—or even most of the state.
Discovering True Artisan Pizza
Growing up in Mexico, not far from the Arizona border, Marisol learned early on that she preferred pizza to her extended family’s favorite dish for large gatherings: fish soup. Sadly, the pizzas in Ciudad Obregón were, in her words, “not so good. But it’s the pizza I grew up with. Back then, I thought they were good.”
After moving with her family north to Arizona, she found herself standing in line one day with a group of friends at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. There, legendary pizzaiolo Chris Bianco gave her taste buds an abrupt but welcome jolt.
“I think it was my first time going to a pizzeria that was not your typical Pizza Hut or Chuck E. Cheese dining experience,” Marisol recalls. “You had to be in line at a certain time, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get in. You had to put your name on the list. And we waited for two or three hours until they opened. I have that memory of sitting down and getting this beautiful pizza for the first time. It was just delicious.”
After she met and married Rory, a professional photographer originally from Maine, they moved to Cleveland so the latter could work on his master’s degree at Delta State. At the time, Rory, by his own admission, couldn’t cook worth a flip. “I made my way through college—and before meeting Marisol—eating Ramen noodle packets and frozen pizza,” he says.
Fortunately, Marisol grew up in a family of cooks. As in Italy, food and family are central to Mexico’s culture. “Rory was back in school, so we were on a budget, and I had to cook for both of us,” she remembers. “So I would look for recipes, and that’s how I started being a little more adventurous [in the kitchen].”
She soon found work in Cleveland’s local restaurants and quickly rose to the managerial level at a popular burger joint called Hey Joe. From there, she helped open Mosquito Burrito, a hometown version of Chipotle, and managed it for several years. But, eventually, she’d had enough of that lifestyle. “I swore I’d never work in the restaurant business again, but here I am,” she says, with a shrug and a smile. “I missed the customer interactions. I missed creating things myself. So now we’re back.”
Taking a Risk
But first there was another detour into largely unexplored culinary territory, at least for the Mississippi Delta: Marisol and a close friend started Big River Bagels, first as a pop-up in Cleveland and then as a brick-and-mortar operation in nearby Clarksdale. The bagel shop was a collaboration with Meraki Roasting Company, a social enterprise that pours “coffee with soul” for locals while providing career training in a town where jobs are scarce. For the Doyles, it was an opportunity to make a difference in the community while honing their baking skills. “Meraki was training soon-to-be high school graduates and high school graduates who were not sure about whether they were going to college,” Rory says. “So it was like workforce development, serving the underprivileged community of Clarksdale. A lot of local youth end up in one way or another in that program. And it has a pretty big impact.”
Like Neapolitan-style pizza, fresh bagels are virtually impossible to find in the Delta, and Big River Bagels quickly took off, garnering local and even statewide media coverage. Then, Marisol’s business partner had to move away, and Big River Bagels closed down. Marisol took an office job, but she missed the bagel biz. “I wanted to bring bagels back, but I realized that bagels alone wouldn’t be sustainable, especially just working by myself,” she says. “The process is so time-consuming in the traditional way we were doing it, with all the boiling and baking.”
But she’d been bit by the baking bug. She was born to it, says Rory, who is Marisol’s No. 1 fan. “She’s so natural with her hands and working and shaping the dough. We thought, let’s see if we can learn about something that will sell a little more easily—like pizza—particularly here, which is not a traditional bagel place. Everyone likes pizza. It kind of sells itself.”
And the one type of pizza they couldn’t find anywhere in the Delta was Neapolitan. But that style is, in many respects, a far cry from Domino’s—a bit wetter, conservative with the toppings, a pillowy, chewy crust. It’s certainly not cheap to make. Would it fly in a mostly rural market?
The Doyles decided to risk it. Together, they enrolled in Scuola di Pizzaiolo in Naples in July 2020. “It was intensive, and I fell in love with dough-making, the simplicity of the ingredients and how passionate the teacher was,” Marisol says.
The pizza school was also a working pizzeria, Rory notes, giving the Doyles a sort of baptism by wood fire. “We had two ovens, one where the pizzaiolo was making pizzas for customers and the other where he was teaching his students. So it was a really good way to learn. However, he was also distracted by a busy line of customers, and different students spoke different languages. He was Italian, while one of the students was Polish, one was Argentine. Some of them spoke Spanish.”
That course lasted five days. Afterwards, Marisol said, “I felt like I could do it. We came back to the U.S. and started practicing at home, making dough, having friends over to test the pizzas, taking notes about which doughs worked and which ones didn’t. And that’s what made us decide we had a good product and gave us the confidence that we could open a small restaurant in Cleveland.”
Even so, she felt there was more to learn—she wanted to take a private course through the AVPN. That course was more structured, more expensive and even more intensive, so this time Marisol went back to Naples alone. It was December 2022. A few months later, Leña (which means “firewood” in Spanish) sprung to life.
Educating the Customers
On a warm Thursday night in late September, Leña is doing brisk business. Rory perches in his favorite corner spot near the large windows facing the street, chatting with friends. He knows many of his customers, and they know him. They often stop by to chat with him—he calls them all by name—then proceed to the counter, where a young woman, likely a Delta State student, takes their orders with a bright smile. Marisol, meanwhile, works tirelessly at the prep station directly behind the counter, making each pizza herself before passing it on to the ever-vigilant oven tender. She’s a warm and welcoming presence, never too busy to say hello.
Friday night will be even busier, and long lines will form. Marisol puts her famous bagels on the menu for breakfast and brunch on Saturdays only. Leña is closed on Sunday through Wednesday, but Marisol doesn’t get much of a break; between the laborious process of making bagel dough and gearing up for a weekend-long pizza rush, she’s always swamped—and she’s always still learning, she says, because there’s no end to that in this business.
There’s a learning curve for her customers, too. Many have never had Neapolitan-style pizza before. And, although the Doyles don’t follow all of those strict AVPN rules to a T—certain ingredients are difficult to source in Mississippi, and local tastes must be accommodated—some guests need a little schooling of their own.
“When I got back from Naples,” Marisol says, “people would ask me, ‘So what kind of pizza are you going to do?’ And I would say, ‘Well, it’s Neapolitan-style pizza.’ And they would just look at me and be, like, ‘So what is that?’ I was taken aback a little bit. After the time I’d spent in Naples, I thought surely everyone would know [about this style]. So I had to educate myself on how to educate the customers about this type of pizza. People would think that it wasn’t fully cooked, that it was raw, because of the high-moisture cheese. We had to learn how to respond to that.”
A simple answer usually suffices: “This is how they do pizza in Italy.” And more and more Clevelanders—and people who drive in from surrounding counties—are acquiring a taste for it, as Leña’s small yet bustling dining room attests. “I’ve had customers tell me, ‘I used to get Domino’s every week, and now it’s maybe once a month, and that’s because of my kids,’” Marisol says. “So I think, for some people here, their expectations of pizza have changed. We also offer a different specialty pizza every week, so I know that Thursdays are going to be very, very big because of that new type of pizza. People will order it that night, then come back the next day for the regular pizza.”
As Rory points out, “There really is no brick-oven, woodfired pizzeria in the Delta. So this is also a selling point. It’s something new. We’ve brought something here that didn’t exist before, because of our own love for pizza. Now we don’t have to travel two hours to get this style. And, hopefully, other people feel that way, too, as they learn about Leña.”
So far, so good. It’s safe to say that few entrepreneurs ever once thought about opening a Neapolitan-style pizzeria in Dixie’s land of cotton. But the success of Leña—and the widespread media coverage the Doyles have earned—might change that, too. “From the beginning, it’s been go, go, go,” Marisol says. “It’s, like, nonstop, which is crazy and great at the same time.”
Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor in chief.