California’s Leah Scurto has drawn widespread acclaim for her culinary creativity, though she’s a bit too humble to relish in the glory. In fact, she’s not even comfortable with the title of “chef.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily call myself that,” Leah told The Sauce. “I’m just an American pizza maker.”
We respectfully disagree – Leah has been pressing delicious dough and pushing boundaries for years. After helping to position Pizza My Heart as one of the Bay Area’s most beloved shops, she struck out on her own with PizzaLeah, which opened its doors in Downtown Windsor this week. She’s also dazzled as a leading member of the United States Pizza Team, performing her patriotic pizza duties in national and international competitions.
We caught up with Leah to learn more about her journey, what drives her, and what’s next on the horizon:
Zach Links: What led you to strike out from Pizza My Heart?
Leah Scurto: When I left Pizza My Heart, I had no idea what I was going to do or what my future would be in pizza. I wasn’t sure if I was gonna start a mobile thing – a truck or a pop-up with a wood-fire oven – or just completely leave the industry altogether.
I quickly realized that pizza was in my heart – literally. I wanted to keep doing what I was doing, so I started reaching out to local wineries, cooking at events, and still kind of debating, “Well, do I need a mobile unit?”
Most of the wineries here in Sonoma County actually have wood-fired ovens, so I didn’t have to go that route. The Mugnaini company that makes those ovens is actually based in Healdsburg, CA, and I even got to do some private backyard events for people that had them. Turns out, it was pretty easy to keep working and keep making pizza.
ZL: What have been the biggest differences and challenges in going from a leading figure at Pizza My Heart to opening PizzaLeah?
LS: The hardest part is just doing most of it all by yourself. I’ve got a business partner, and family, and friends, but with Pizza My Heart there was a team already in place. Fortunately, when it came time to open my new restaurant, everyone knew their roles – we’ve done it so many times together. It was a well-oiled machine. Still, the workload has been the biggest challenge and I’m just trying to navigate through all of that.
ZL: What can we expect at PizzaLeah?
LS: A focus on phenomenal pizza. I have some shared plates and some salads, but what I really want to do is to let the pizza shine.
ZL: Women have been underrepresented on the whole in the restaurant industry. Do you feel like that’s finally changing?
LS: I do. It’s weird because we’ve been underrepresented, even though the traditional 1950s view was that women were always in the kitchen. In the restaurant industry, meanwhile, we’ve been undervalued and underrated. And paid less, too.
I see it changing. I see women becoming more prominent in the business, as they should be. Women are saying, “Hey, we want to be recognized,” and they’re finally getting the attention they deserve. There are more women in restaurant kitchens and more in the competitions – we’re out there winning the acrobatic stuff as well. It’s really great to see.
ZL: What are the biggest differences between pizza competitions and day-to-day pizza baking in a restaurant kitchen?
LS: Normally, you get 20 minutes and you can make eight pizzas or something like that. Maybe 20 pizzas in 20 minutes, depending on the style you’re making.
At the competitions, you get 20 minutes and you make one or two pizzas and they have to be perfect. You place each individual ingredient on your pizza and it has to look just right. It’s about bringing your A-game and showcasing your best pizza ever.
It’s an opportunity to be creative, develop your menu, and get inspired for new dishes. It’s also an opportunity for marketing – if you win, you can get into the local news. It’s also about meeting new people, building camaraderie, and sharing ideas with each other.
ZL: You’ve been competing for years – is it old hat at this point or do you still get nervous?
LS: I’m always a little nervous! The adrenaline is always going.
ZL: I read somewhere that you don’t like raw tomatoes. Is that true? How is that possible?
LS: It’s a texture thing, but I love the flavor. When you get a peak tomato off the vine, it’s delicious. I just don’t like that burst when you bite into it and I don’t like the seeds. I still love tomato sauce and everything with cooked tomatoes, I just can’t get my head around biting into a raw one.
ZL: Does that mean less raw tomatoes in your dishes?
LS: Not at all! Just because it’s not my thing, that doesn’t mean everyone else shouldn’t enjoy them.
ZL: Nice. More tomatoes for the rest of us.