By Alexandra Mortati, Women In Pizza

Shannon Mangini, known as @thepizzaiola on Instagram, was born for the world of business, but, when she was growing up, she never thought she’d end up working in food.

“My dad had owned a sporting goods store that was mostly focused on tennis,” she recalls. “I loved to go to work with him. Watching my dad in his element made me realize I wanted to be my own boss. I had an entrepreneurial mind, and I was interested in business. The natural path led to finance, so after attending the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business with a major in entrepreneurship, I went directly to Wall Street as an investment banker and later landed a corporate finance role at ESPN. While those two experiences were invaluable, I knew in my gut that finance was not for me, and I needed to find something I was passionate about. The thought of working the rest of my life in a career I disliked was terrifying.”

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As an Italian and a New Yorker, food had always been a part of Shannon’s life. “Food is just what I think about,” she says. “I grew up in a very Italian household where meals were always at the forefront. Lucky for me, 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.”

“Today, most of what I read and listen to is related to food and travel—especially when it comes to pizza,” Shannon adds. “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. My dad knew his stuff, so I was introduced to some of the best pizza in the country, such as Totonno’s, Louie & Ernie’s, King Umberto, John’s, Lucali, L&B and Di Fara.”

It was kismet that brought Shannon to work for the legendary Dom DeMarco. “I have these amazing memories of my dad bringing home Di Fara,” she says. “Instead of going to Brooklyn, he would call Margaret, who lived a town over, and ask her to bring a pie home. Whenever my parents visited me in college, I always wanted them to bring a Di Fara pie so I could get that taste of home.”

This photo shows Shannon holding a wooden pizza peel and bending over to be photographed with the legendary pizza maker Dom DeMarco.

Shannon with Dom DeMarco (Courtesy of Shannon Mangini)

After leaving her finance job and planning her next move, “my mind kept coming back to food and what a career in that industry could look like,” she recalls. “My dad heard Di Fara was opening a new location in Williamsburg and, 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. We even got to go to Australia to be part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, where we teamed up with a local pizzeria for a collaboration. It was challenging, and we hit some roadblocks, but we executed the three-day event and had a blast doing it.”

There’s always a learning curve when changing industries, but the finance and business world had provided Shannon with some preparation. “The most glaring part of the banking industry is that it comes with insane hours and unrealistic expectations. There was a point where I didn’t see family or friends for a month at a time. It’s similar to the hours you work in restaurants and prepared me for the grit you need in this industry. It’s long hours and a lot physically. You can have the best product in the world, but if you can’t manage a business, it’s not going to work. While it’s tough, it’s also invigorating. It reminds me of being on sports teams. Between front of house and back of house, it’s this beautiful dance that goes on between them. Sometimes people have to be utility players so they can fit in if someone can’t come in or pick up slack across all facets of the job. So, at DiFara I wore every hat possible.”

“A big difference between the finance world and the restaurant industry is structure,” she continues. “In this industry, hours aren’t always set in stone. It’s more like breakable bounds. I’m getting more comfortable without having that structure. At my previous jobs I was told exactly what I was going to do. Within restaurants and pizzerias, you can have a little bit more say as you go in terms of how you’re going about your day and interacting with guests. There’s more flexibility in what you can bring to the table. You can be more creative and have fun. There was such strict structure at Morgan Stanley and ESPN that I find it very freeing to be in restaurants. I like having a voice. At Morgan Stanley and ESPN, I had felt like a cog in the wheel and just a number, but in restaurants I can participate in the vision of where the company is going and connect with people on a daily basis.”

But it can be a scary loss of identity when you suddenly step away from what you’ve dedicated all your time and energy to. “In college, I played lacrosse, but in my senior year, I blew my knee out and had to get five surgeries. For a long time, my identity had been that I was an athlete, and now that was taken away, and I didn’t know who I was anymore. I went to the working world and wasn’t passionate about banking or corporate finance, and it definitely showed. It’s hard to be all in when you’re not enjoying something. Getting into the food world, I felt that passion again. It filled a gaping hole to be good at something in an industry that I was and continue to be excited about.”

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After a few years at Di Fara, Shannon was ready to broaden her experience. “I went on to work at a full-service restaurant in New York City as a floor manager. I learned a lot and, while it was a tough job physically and the hours were long, it was rewarding and challenging. Unfortunately, after eight months, Covid hit and, like many others in our industry, I was suddenly out of a job. It didn’t take long before I got bored, so I turned to pizza.”

Shannon and her dad went on to start 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. At some point most of the people in my family had worked these pop-ups with us in some capacity. My dad and I were the main crew, but my brother, mom, cousins, uncles and aunts contributed and saved the day many times. During this time when a lot of us were lost, pizza gave me purpose. 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. At the end of the day, working with family has its challenges and, even though it was hard, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world.”

This photo shows Shannon and Giorgia Caporuscio side by side and smiling at the Bronx Pizza Fest.

Shannon with one of her inspirations, Giorgia Caporuscio (left)

As the world opened back up after the pandemic, Shannon went on to work for Starr Restaurant Group as their director of special projects and pizza concepts. “I was ecstatic and couldn’t believe I landed a role working for one of the top restaurant groups in the country. It was a dream come true as I had also frequented Starr Restaurants when I was a student in Philly. I worked there for a little over two years and learned so much about the industry and everything it takes to open a restaurant from concept ideation to the grand opening. I helped reopen some of their fine dining concepts in New York that had closed due to Covid. Their attention to detail is unbelievable. When you have business acumen and you take that fine attention to detail and apply it to a pizzeria, it’s a lot better off. The main reason I went to Starr was to help open pizzerias and develop pizza recipes. It was very dynamic. Some days I’d be in a blazer, and other days I’d be head to toe in flour and an apron.”

Now you can find Shannon working for OTG Management as the director of partnerships and brands. “OTG is an airport concessionaire, but what attracted me to them is that they are game changers. They are truly trying to elevate the food offerings at airports throughout the U.S. with local brand partnerships to bring in more diversity. In this role I not only incorporate what I have learned in business and finance, but I also get to utilize my knowledge of food and restaurants. I can talk on the culinary side and on the business side and analyze deals and licensing agreements. I do miss the culinary side, but I recently bought an Ooni oven and have been scratching the itch that way. 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.”

Working in so many different facets of the industry has impacted Shannon’s understanding of pizza. “Everyone thinks pizza is simple, and it’s not,” she notes. “Dough is a scientific experiment every time you make it. There are chemical reactions happening. But pizza is so subjective. What people love and what they favorite is that corner shop they grew up with. It’s all tied to nostalgia. When people ask me my opinion, they think I’m being too critical, but I’m so much more educated now than when I started in 2018.”

Shannon has faced her own share of criticism. “When I said I was going to switch careers, everyone around me, besides my fiancée, 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 4 or 5, 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 [do something].’”

“Society tells us who we can and can’t be from such a young age,” Shannon adds. “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 is 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. For me, 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.”

For other women out there, Shannon’s advice is tried and true. “Go for it. Be confident that if you put your mind to something, you can do it. If you don’t see yourself represented, don’t let that be a deterrent. Life is short, so take it from me and other people who have followed a passion: Your life becomes so fulfilling. I’ve always listened to my gut, so forget about what you ‘should’ do and all these expectations and have the confidence to do what you want.”

Following her passion didn’t come without sacrifices, but for Shannon, it was all worth it. “It was jarring going from a big salary to minimum wage, but I knew I had to start at the bottom. There are days where my job is a job, but, on average, I wouldn’t trade this. I have friends who have also switched careers and industries because they saw what I did and now they are on their path. Knowing I influenced them in a positive way is so meaningful. The outside noise can be pretty overwhelming, and it probably held me from this industry for a little bit of time. Every day I think about how lucky I am, and I can’t wait to see where the journey takes me. Everyone, besides my fiancée, thought I was crazy. To me, ‘crazy’ would be staying in something you know isn’t for you. ‘Crazy’ is not following your dreams.”

Shannon is generous, honest, brave and extremely hard working. She makes hard decisions but leans into them, wholly trusting herself and her judgment. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and is happy to share her knowledge with anyone who may be looking for help. She named a list of remarkable women who inspire her, and her own name belongs alongside theirs.

Alexandra Mortati is the marketing director for Orlando Foods and founder of Women In Pizza, a not-for-profit organization that empowers women in the pizza industry to share their stories, display their talents, inspire innovations, and connect with one another and the world. This article originally appeared on the Instagram account for Women In Pizza. Click here to learn more about the organization.

Marketing, Pizzerias