Women Pizza Makers Are Taking Center Stage

October is National Pizza Month and these women are grabbing their spots at the oven.

women pizza makers
Shardell Dues, Hilary Sterling, Miriam Weiskind, and Laura Meyer | Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Shardell Dues, Hilary Sterling, Miriam Weiskind, and Laura Meyer | Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Nicole Russell, who lives in Rockaway, lost her home and job to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In 2013, her sister was diagnosed with cancer. She started baking bread for family and friends to cope. One night, after ordering a lackluster pizza, she realized she could probably make a much better tasting one herself. Through Last Dragon Pizza, Russell ships her frozen pies across the country and sells fresh pizza out of her home kitchen—trekking out to Last Dragon Pizza has become a pilgrimage for pizza connoisseurs. Russell didn’t know anyone else making pizza, so she started going to pizza conventions to connect with other pizza makers.
“My first year I went to Pizza Expo in Atlantic City, I didn’t see one Black person. And I didn’t see one Black woman. And then, if I did see a black person, they weren’t competing, they didn’t have their own shop,” remembers Russell. 

But she did discover a group of women making pizza at the booth by Orlando Foods, a New Jersey-based importer of Italian ingredients. Turns out, it was the women’s power hour, a popular Expo event that birthed Women in Pizza at the end of 2019, a group founded by Alexandra Mortati and Casey Derk, who both work for Orlando Foods. They created a website and social media to feature women-owned and run pizzerias, and brought respected women in the industry into the fold. They were able to hold one event this March in NYC, just before COVID hit.

“We took the women who have been with us from day one and have a long standing history in the pizza industry, and made them ambassadors.” says Derk. “We want to give women a platform to display their talents and connect with one another,” adds Mortati. “It’s really valuable to share stories with other women who have gone through the ranks alongside you.”

Many women pizzaiolas have had an uphill battle to get to where they are today. And all they want to do now is open the door for more women to make pizza. Russell became a Women in Pizza ambassador alongside the likes of multi-award-winning Laura Meyer, the head pizzaiola and manager for San Francisco’s Tony Gemignani’s pizza restaurant empire and a teacher at his International School of Pizza, and Giorgia Caporuscio, the award-winning Italian owner and head pizzaiola of Don Antonio in Manhattan.

Women in Pizza provides resources and camaraderie for women in the pizza industry, and gives female pizzaiolas a voice. Russell remembers another Black woman approaching her at Pizza Expo last year. “She said she was thinking about opening a pizzeria and she was in awe that I already knew people,” says Russell. “That shows you that representation matters.”

Several years ago, Miriam Weiskind left her position as an art director to pursue her love of pizza. She became a tour guide for Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City and then learned to make pizza while working at Brooklyn’s Paulie Gee’s. When the pandemic hit, she lost both jobs. All she wanted to do was bake pizza though, so she gave away pies to her neighbors. She donated them to whomever had lost their job, was a frontline worker, or just had a bad day. Over the summer, she did pop-ups and collaborations, and now she’s on the hunt for her very own restaurant space.

“I had one guy tell me, ‘It’s gonna be too difficult.’ And I'm like, Are you serious?” says Weiskind. “I’m 1000% about supporting and empowering women and teaching young girls that they can bake pizza if they want.”

Although there are hundreds of women pizza makers across the country, they’re still not seen very often at pizza-making competitions. While it’s true that the number of female competitors at the annual USA Caputo’s Cup has increased from 4.6% in 2016 to 8.9% in 2019, it’s still pretty dismal.
“You go and watch the competitions, and out of 30 men, there might be one or two women that are competing,” says Anna Curcitt, co-owner of Mercurio’s in Pittsburgh. “It wasn’t a true representation of what really was happening in the industry. Women make pizza all the time.”
Curcitt owns Mercurio’s with two of her brothers and has often felt overshadowed by them. “Always it was Michael and Joe, they know how to make the pizza. And I was just kind of on the side.” In 2019, she pushed herself to enter competition and won second place in the USA Caputo Cup in the gluten-free category. “My brother Michael won the Caputo Cup in 2018 in the Neapolitan division and my brother Joe got second place for gluten free the year prior. I was like, I want to show myself that I’m just as good as that,” she says.
Caparuscio was also in the shadow of a man for a long time, that of her father, legendary Italian master pizzaiolo Roberto Caparuscio. When she was 19 she came to the United States to learn under her father and in 2012, she opened Don Antonio with him, becoming the general manager. In 2013, she was the youngest of only two women to win first place in the classic pizza category at the Caputo Cup in Naples. She won it making fried pizza, or pizza montanera, the same pizza that Sophia Loren makes in the 1954 classic L’ Oro di Napoli, she says proudly. In February of this year, she took over complete ownership of all of her father’s NYC restaurants.

“The past 11 years, I was always the only female pizza maker. I would always go with my father to the Las Vegas Pizza Expo, and I was the only woman inside,” says Giorgia. “I need to work three times harder to show men that I’m on the same level as them.”
Representation of women in the pizza world is also important to Meyer, who won the American division of the Italian Caputo Cup in 2019, the first time they invited Americans to compete. She was the first woman to win the World Pizza Championship for pan pizza in Parma in 2013.
“The competitions that I’ve won have helped me because then you can’t deny that I’m good at what I do,” says Meyer.
On the other hand, Shardell Dues, the owner of Red Sauce Pizza in Portland, Oregon, never felt like competing was necessary. It was enough for her to own her own pizza shop, after working for other bosses for years.
“I remember initially when I was applying to work at Apizza Scholls [where she worked for several years], one of the owners said that I was too short to run the ovens,” says Dues. “I just wasn’t taken seriously, I was talked down to, there were weird, sexual innuendos everywhere. And it was just like, I don’t want to be around this. I want to do my own thing.”
Still, diversity in the pizza industry matters to Dues, who identifies as queer. “It takes learning and trial and error, but anybody can make pizza and I do hope that there’s more representation—and not just women but women of color and queer people—and that other people get to be on the cover of Pizza Today and PMQ Magazine besides a straight white male,” she says.
Women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC pizza makers have been underrepresented in the pizza world for a long time. But although pizza is often depicted as a macho man tossing the dough, the old school Italian recipes usually came from a woman—even though she had nothing to do with the business.

Caparuscio, who grew up in Terracina, Italy, between Rome and Naples, says “My grandmother from my father’s side, she made pizza. It was something special, to eat her pizza on Sunday.”
“It all stems from Italian grandmothers,” agrees Hillary Sterling, executive chef at Vic’s in Manhattan. “We do a Sicilian slice now and we call it the Nona, because that’s it. It’s total Nona food.” 

When Martina Rossi Kenworthy decided she wanted to start a frozen and refrigerated pizza business after co-founding Italian foods importer Gustiamo and working for Slow Food New York, she knew she had to involve her daughters. La Rossi, which launches mid-October, is a family affair, with Kenworthy’s daughter Bianca signing on as a partner and creative director and another daughter helping out with the design. 
“Our Italian family has this thread of really strong matriarchs and I think that a piece of that has come with us into the business,” says Bianca.
Mortati and Derk firmly believe in the power of women seeing other women at the oven. Mortati says, “It’s women showing each other, and showing young girls, that we’re here to stay.”

More Women Pizza Makers in the U.S. To Keep An Eye On:

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Devorah Lev-Tov is a Thrillist contributor.