Story by Rick Hynum | Photos by Rory Doyle
In a small Mississippi Delta town where Domino’s has reigned supreme for decades, Marisol Doyle has been on a mission to change how Cleveland’s locals perceive and experience pizza. Open for less than a year, her Neapolitan-inspired pizzeria, Leña, has earned widespread media coverage, not just because it’s different, but because the food is genuinely delicious (we know, we’ve eaten there).
PMQ spotlighted Marisol on the cover of our November 2023 issue, with images provided by her talented husband, professional freelance photographer Rory Doyle. In this Q&A, we cover some of the topics from our September 2023 interview that didn’t make it into print due to limited space. Here, Marisol talks more about her experience at the Scuola di Pizzaiolo and AVPN in Naples, her background in bagel-making, and being a woman in the male-dominated pizza industry. Meanwhile, Rory, who handles Leña’s social media, also explains how he manages to nail every pizza photo so beautifully, making Leña stand out on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook.
PMQ: Marisol, how did you get into cooking and baking? I know Rory says he has “zero cooking skills” himself!
Marisol: Growing up, I remember my mom and my grandmother cooking for us. At all of our family gatherings, there’s always been food. So I have really fond memories of that and of the food that brings me comfort. But I started cooking out of necessity after getting married. We were on a budget, and I had to cook for the both of us. So I would look for recipes, and that’s how I started being a little bit more adventurous…When we moved to Cleveland, we started doing bagels. I didn’t really know much about bagels except from New York and some of our travels. But I got together with a friend, who eventually turned into my business partner, and we started a bagels company. I just really enjoyed following a recipe and then having something come out with a taste that was just delicious and also seeing the looks on the faces of people who were trying something new.
PMQ: Why bagels in particular?
Marisol: Well, my friend is from New England, and we were going to the local farmers market and realized there was nothing related to breakfast here in the Delta, except, like, biscuits at the gas station or donuts. Nothing like bagels. And we just decided to give it a try. And, in the beginning, they were terrible. We thought they were amazing, but, looking back now, they were not that great. But it was something new, and people liked them and tried them. Eventually, we perfected our recipe and kept growing our business a little bit.
We started out doing the farmers market, and then we decided to rent a space and do our own brick-and-mortar, Big River Bagels. We went to Clarksdale (a larger town near Cleveland) and rented a space out of this coffee shop called Meraki….We were in Meraki for, like, a year, and then my business partner had to move away when [a family member] passed away and she wanted to be close to family. So I closed that shop and went back to work for [a former employer]. But I was missing that business. I wanted to bring bagels back, but I realized that bagels alone wouldn’t be sustainable, especially just working by myself. [Bagel-making] is so time-consuming, the way we were doing it. And then Rory came up with the idea of pizza. I thought he was a little crazy because that’s a different type of dough-making art.
PMQ: And how did you settle on Neapolitan pizza?
Marisol: We were testing out dough at home, and we were, like, OK, what kind of pizza do we want to do? What kind of style? We didn’t know much about Neapolitan-style pizza, but we liked the taste. We’d been to Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, and that was one of our inspirations. So we were, like, OK, we want to do this. But if we’re serious about it, why don’t we take a class? Let’s go to Naples. So Rory and I took a class at the Scuola di Pizzaiolo.
Rory: I’ve always loved pizza and would make jokes, like, if I ever own a restaurant, it will be a pizzeria. But neither of us ever thought that it would become our own thing. But she’s so natural with her hands, making bagels. I thought, let’s see if we can learn something that sells a little bit more easily, like pizza—particularly here. This is not a traditional bagel place, but everyone loves pizza. It kind of sells itself.
So we were in Naples in July of 2022 for the first course. Then Marisol went back in late 2022 to take a one-week AVPN course. It was very intense for her, with a private one-on-one instructor and a translator. And the tuition was quite expensive, so we knew if only one of us was going to do it, it should be her because she’s the natural. That training was so intensive, but it made it possible for us to open so quickly…By the end of March 2023, we were already doing pop-ups.
PMQ: So, Marisol, you did not actually earn AVPN certification, right?
Marisol: No, it was a private class for one week. I would like to get certified, just to have that.
PMQ: Regardless, I think a lot of our readers have that dream—to study with a real pizza chef in Naples—but they don’t ever do it.
Marisol: Well, I probably would have been one of those people who didn’t do it if it wasn’t for Rory. He was so encouraging and pushed me to do this. And I’m really grateful because, I mean, I realized, now is the time to do it. And I just love the culture, I love the food, I love going to classes. I was really, really inspired by the passion that this teacher had. And they were very, very open and generous with their knowledge. I’m pretty self-critical, and I didn’t know if I could do it. But even if I would make a mistake, they were super-generous and would help correct me. So I was able to relax a little bit and just take all the information in and even learn from fellow students.
For me, it’s just inspiring that you can make this beautiful pizza out of just a few ingredients. It’s just very, very basic, but at the same time, it’s not. And I don’t think you ever stop learning. You’re learning every day.
PMQ: There are some strict rules for Neapolitan pizza. Do you prefer working under those restrictions, as compared to those people who, you know, kind of want to fly their freak flag?
Marisol: Yeah. I like the tradition, and I try to follow it as much as possible. But we’re in Mississippi, so there are certain ingredients I can’t get. But I try to get as close as I can with the flour, the hydration of the dough, the fermentation, and even the way you form the pizza. Over time, I’ve adapted and changed the way I stretch the pizza; it’s a little bit different from what I learned, but it’s been more comfortable for me. But I still hear my teacher’s voice in my head, saying, “Don’t do it like that, do it like this.” That comes back from time to time. I feel like I have a structure to follow, but at the end of the day, what I’ve noticed is that everybody adapts to what works for them.
PMQ: Are you able to import key ingredients from Italy to Cleveland?
Marisol: I get Caputo flour from a distributor, so that’s good. And then I use Bianco Tomatoes. When I came back from Naples, I wanted to use the San Marzano tomatoes from Italy, but I ended up liking the Bianco tomatoes.
PMQ: I find it very interesting that you’re a Mexican woman making Italian pizza in the Mississippi Delta—and in a very male-dominated industry, too. What has that been like for you?
Marisol: It was very interesting going to Naples and realizing that I was the only woman at the school. The other women were translators. Being in the restaurant business for years here in Cleveland, I didn’t think much about [the industry being male-dominated] until I was there. It was all men. In all the restaurants that we would go to, the women were either hostesses or working in the back. So coming back to Cleveland was like coming back to my bubble, my community. They have been very welcoming. They cheer me on. So before going to Naples, I didn’t see the industry as being male-dominated because I’d been here in Cleveland and doing my thing. I knew I could do it. Going there [to Naples], it made me a little hesitant, but after I came back….It just makes me feel a little more proud that I’ve been able to do this. And having the support of the community, it just blows my mind and makes me a little emotional.
PMQ: I’ve been impressed with the kind of media coverage, statewide and regional, that Leña has been getting. Is that something you pursued, or have they been coming to you?
Rory: They’ve been coming to us. I think social media has increased our visibility. And my career as an independent freelance photographer, working for a lot of publications, has helped make sure that some of the same people who hire me actually see what we’re up to at Leña. But we haven’t really been pushing for that. When we first opened, we were more worried about having a system in place so customers wouldn’t have to sit and wait a long time. And now we get comments like, “Wow, that was fast!” because the system has a good flow. But we haven’t done a marketing campaign of any kind or pitched stories to the media. They’ve found us. We feel pretty fortunate.
PMQ: Like you said, Rory, one way they’re finding you is through social media, and I think your fantastic photography has a lot to do with that. And, you know, I’m someone who sits and looks at a lot of pizza pictures all day long. I’m always surprised at how, well, not so good some of them are. The pizzas may taste delicious, but the pictures aren’t good. Can you tell us how you approach the photography for Marisol’s pizzas?
Rory: There’s a few things that I like to keep in mind because our main form of marketing is our social media. Any time that I’m photographing food, like the new salad that we’re going to introduce this week, I photograph it horizontally, vertically, from different angles, directly overhead. So I might be able to do a very fast shoot of this one particular product in five to 10 minutes or less, but, all of a sudden, we have, like, six versions of that same dish that we can incorporate on different social media platforms or in a magazine article.
And in terms of lighting, we’re lucky that we have like these giant glass windows right here, looking out at one of the two main streets of downtown Cleveland on Cotton Row. And so I typically try and photograph every product by those big windows. Looking at other pizza photos from the industry at large, a lot of people don’t do that. Or maybe they don’t have the luxury of beautiful natural light or they may not have somebody on staff that has photo experience. So that’s been really helpful for us in promoting our business because photography is what I do every day. It’s quite natural for me, just like it is for Marisol to cook.
I’m always thinking about the composition, the light, the colors—that’s how we work. And we offer a new special every week. So one of the biggest challenges for me, photographically, is that we’re working in a small space. I don’t want to use the same background or the same tabletop or the same angle every time. So that’s why I’m doing those rapid-fire different versions.
Marisol: I’ve been incredibly blessed that Rory is such a wonderful photographer. I couldn’t imagine having to run the restaurant and having to do social media, too. I’ve just been very, very lucky.
PMQ: What’s your long-term plan for Leña?
Marisol: I don’t have a long-term plan. I still can’t believe I’ve been open for six months. It’s all just been going so fast. I think my main goal would to be to open a few more days a week.
Rory: We started this ourselves, and we don’t have a general manager or any kind of manager. We handle payroll, ordering, operations, scheduling—you name it. We don’t have anyone doing the prep work except for one or two employees that shift in for that. Marisol is the nucleus right now. Part of the formula [for growth] will be to add someone else so that, literally, not every pizza has to go through her hands.