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Photo: Ryan Spencer/ryanspencerphoto.com

No one expected a 29-year-old American woman to win at the pizza world championship. Joke’s on them

This month, A Beautiful Perspective is exploring touch in all its forms and contexts. Click here to read more stories from the TOUCH Issue.

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“People were expecting me to be great because I came from Tony. There was a feeling of ‘I need to impress,’” says Laura Meyer.

The 29-year-old pizza maker from San Francisco has shattered those expectations, but unless you’re deep into the pizza game, you can’t understand how high Meyer was expected to climb. The “Tony” she’s referring to is Tony Gemignani, a culinary superstar who has an empire of restaurants, a plethora of world champion titles (yes, there is a pizza championship) and television appearances galore. Sometimes referred to as the “G.O.A.T.” of crust and topping, Gemignani is the biggest American character in the world of pizza since the Noid had his run trying to fuck up Dominoes deliveries orders in the 1980s.

Meyer says their relationship is more than just boss/protégé. “Tony is my mentor, but he’s also like my older brother. As he was growing up in the pizza business and learning the science and mechanics, learning how to make not just great pizza but all the different kinds of pizza, he taught me what he knew. As he was learning, I was learning, and to this day, as he learns, I learn and vice versa. We look out for each other.”

The intricacies and techniques involved with making world class pizza, Meyer believes, are elusive even for professionals. “Sometimes people don’t grasp that touch and feel concept. They want that miracle recipe. [T]hey don’t realize that no matter how amazing your recipe might be, you have to learn touch and feel.”

That’s because the environment is always changing. Humidity, climate, dough temperature—these all play a part in your pie. “When you make a well-done pizza, you try and control as many factors as possible in regards to fermentation, temperature from start to finish, from before you make your dough to your final product. But your dough is going to evolve and change throughout dinner service—as it heats up, as it gets busy, maybe you forget to take your dough out. Is it cold? Is it not? How old is your dough? You have to pay attention to a lot of factors. Depending on all those things is going to determine how you treat your dough.”

When Meyer is angry, she loves getting her hands on New York-style pizza because “you can be a lot rougher on it. It’s a durable dough. It’s got a lot more flour, a lot more strength to it.”

But at a moment’s notice, she might have to utilize more restraint. “If I get called to the Neapolitan line, I have to forget that muscle memory and be gentle and precise. I have to be able to switch between those muscle memories very quickly. Touch and feel, for me to execute so many styles at the same time, is vital.”

Then there are the times when she can utilize a mix of her skills. “Sometimes I’m feeling more creative, and I’ll want to do kind of a mix of the two. Sometimes I’m more relaxed and I have more time on my hands and I’ll want to do the Sicilian style. The rise takes more attention to detail and more time. There’s a finesse to all the different styles, but it’s a different type of finesse.”

When Meyer is frustrated, she loves getting her hands on New York-style pizza because “you can be a lot rougher on it." Ryan Spencer/ryanspencerphoto.com

Emerging from Gemignani’s shadow, Meyer has quickly made a name for herself in the community of serious pizzaiolos. Her first appearance at the World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy in 2013 was shocking for a number of reasons:

  1. “I was a woman and I was very young,” says Meyer. “Most of the people that compete in these competitions have been doing it all their lives and most are men. Women that you see are their assistants. They’re not the ones front and center competing.”
  2. She’s an American. While the competition has become fashionable for foreigners lately, it’s still dominated by Italians.
  3. She won! Meyer took the title for “pizza in teglia” or pan-style pizza. She was such an afterthought as a competitor that when the head judge announced the winner, he used the male possessive before reading her name. He quickly apologized as Meyer claimed her prize.

With all that she’s already proven, many wonder if the pizzaiola will step up onto her own or continue to be the woman, not behind but next to, the guy. “Right now, I’m okay where I stand,” Meyer reflects. “I’m still learning a lot. As long as I’m learning, I’m doing okay.

"As long as I'm learning, I'm doing okay." Ryan Spencer/ryanspencerphoto.com