By Charlie Pogacar
Lisabet Summa came to pizza late in her career. And then she mastered it.
Summa grew up in Chicago, where her mother cooked a variety of cuisines from scratch. This early exposure to diverse foods laid the groundwork for Summa’s future as a celebrated chef and restaurateur.
With more than 40 years in the industry, Summa has spent around 30 of those as the executive culinary director and chef partner with Big Time Restaurant Group. The group operates eight distinct concepts in the Palm Beach, Florida, area, including Elisabetta’s, a highly successful restaurant, bar and pizzeria with two locations. The menu, crafted by Summa, features authentic Neapolitan pizza and has given the experienced chef a place to prove she’s one of the great pizza makers in the industry.
Summa’s restaurant career began at 19. While attending the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, she took a job as a line cook at a diner, sparking her passion for the culinary arts. This led her to leave acting and volunteer at the French restaurant Alouette, where she eventually earned a position and invaluable experience.
“It got me very interested in the intellectual side of food,” Summa said. “This was in the heyday of the Michelin three-star movement, and my chef, who was from France, had all of the latest three-star cookbooks. He had me take one home and I read it cover to cover. He ended up being a great mentor for me.”
Summa went on to work for noted chefs like Mario Batali and Norman Van Aken. When Van Aken was opening Sinclair’s American Grill in Jupiter Beach, Florida, Summa leapt at the opportunity to come check out another part of the world. She’s been in Florida practically ever since.
“Growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan, the tropics were pretty unusual and totally magnificent,” Summa said. “It was very different from where I grew up, and I was so ready for a different environment.”
In 1994, Summa joined Big Time Restaurant Group and quickly became the “culinary catalyst for [the group’s] extraordinary growth,” according to the conglomerate’s website. It’s where she’s made a home for 30 years now and has had the opportunity to mentor and grow the careers of countless young chefs, including future award-winning chefs Jessie Schenker and Michael Solomonov. The restaurant group estimates that Summa has served as a mentor for over 600 different young chefs—a staggering number. Summa also did a stint teaching at the Florida Culinary Institute, where students voted her “Best Teacher” in 1994.
The overwhelming success of Big Time Restaurant Group, where Summa partners with Todd Herbst and Bill Watson, has also allowed the veteran chef to flex a variety of different culinary muscles. A classically trained French chef, Summa was eager to more deeply explore Italian cuisine when the restaurant group began eyeing a concept built around Summa disciple and noted pizza chef Louie Bossi. That concept, Louie Bossi’s Ristorante, Bar & Pizzeria, led Summa to doing years of research and development to learn more about the pizza-making process. She took classes with Tony Gemignani and eventually became AVPN-certified. Always a lover of pizza, the foray into Neapolitan cooking only solidified her enthusiasm for the craft.
“I feel pizza, in a lot of ways, is the perfect food,” Summa said. “It’s a complete thing, with a perfect balance of ingredients.”
It’s fair to also say Neapolitan pizza was a great challenge for Summa. She remembers first eating Neopolitan pies at Zuní Cafe in San Francisco, where the spectacle of live-fire cooking both enthralled and intimidated her. As she mastered it herself, she found she especially loved the process of tinkering with recipes and always searching for ways to get better.
“Everything was so new and different then,” Summa said. “Pizza was not quite at its pinnacle heyday that it has celebrated recently since COVID hit and people have been getting really into the pizza-making process. For us, then, it was this fascinating mission in striving for consistency and excellence.”
At Elisabetta’s, the dough is fermented for a minimum of 24 hours, and there are all sorts of details that Summa still considers a work in progress. For example, within the past month she’s had discussions with her staff regarding how to have better control over the leoparding of the crust that they are outputting.
“There’s a member of my staff who has been getting into doing his own pizza pop-ups,” Summa said. “We were talking about the age in dough temperature and the temperature of the dough and which factor has the most control over that leoparding in the crust. You can read about the solution to that or the theory, but it doesn’t always make sense in practice in your own pizzeria. You have to be your own advocate and try out things until they work—I’m intensely interested in how other people are achieving their results and how we can always improve.”
The bestseller at Elisabetta’s is, of course, the Margherita pizza. Summa noted that she, like many pizza makers, believes a Neapolitan Margherita pie is the best way to get a sense for a restaurant’s ability to make pizza. The menu features a variety of other pizza options, a prodigious amount of pasta and other Italian-inspired entrees as well.
The fact that Summa is a woman who has risen to the heights that she has in the industry as a chef, restaurateur and pizza maker is notable—those are three areas often dominated by men. But Summa shrugs off any notion that what she’s doing should be considered exceptional just because she’s a woman. Yes, she said, she’s inspired by other female chefs and takes great pride in being a role model for others. But, first and foremost, she is proud of everything she and her team have achieved over the years at Big Time Restaurant Group.
“I think anybody that has been in hospitality for the number of years that I have, I think that’s a significant achievement,” Summa said. “That’s no false modesty—I’m intensely proud of the company we’ve created. We’ve opened 18 restaurants together and employed thousands of young people in South Florida between the front and back of house. We’re well known and highly regarded as an employer. The level of success we’ve seen in this industry is rare—a lot of restaurants can be a flash in the pan and I think we’ve done really well.”
Because of Big Time Restaurant Group’s track record, more concepts may be on the way. Specifically, Summa hopes, there may be more pizza in South Florida’s future.
“I dream of opening a pizzeria that’s a standalone,” Summa said. “So that we can really embellish the pizza experience and build on our knowledge of this operation and the mechanical components that we use. That’s the next thing that I’d like to do. I don’t know if it’s going to come to fruition, but I do know that I’m not done making pizza at the enterprise level.”