Although Laura Meyer was raised in San Francisco by parents employed in the food business, ate pizza regularly like any American kid, and worked at the tender age of 15 at Pyzano’s Pizzeria—the first venture from famed pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani—she didn’t realize pizza-making was her calling until her college years at San Francisco State University.
It was then, during a study-abroad year in Italy, that things started to click. “Most Americans have a fast-food mentality about pizza, so it’s not viewed as a craft,” Meyer says. “In Italy, pizza makers are respected, even revered, because the craft is ingrained in tradition. Their attention to detail is amazing. You have to really touch the dough and be hands on. I couldn’t help but fall in love with it.”
Today, at the age of 27, Meyer is one of the people credited with changing the way Americans think about pizza. She’s the head chef and pizzaiola at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, a lines-out-the-door spot. There she whips up every style of pizza under the sun, from the Detroit—a pie that’s baked in a gas-powered brick oven in special pans and marked by a crispy, cheese-laced crust—to the Romana, a long, rectangular, thin-crusted pie fired in a 700-degree electric oven.
In 2013, she returned to Italy—but this time to compete in the World Pizza Championships in Parma, where she claimed the coveted title of World Pizza Champion in the teglia (translation: “in a pan”) division, making her both the first American and woman to do so. Despite her success, she doesn’t always feel the love in the male-dominated world of pizza competitions, even now. “I’ve gotten plenty of looks from male judges that say ‘that’s cute, she’s trying, or she’s humoring me,’ ” Meyer says. “It’s hard and stressful, but I love it. I actually find it motivating.”
Her unwavering passion has earned her a spot as the only pizzaiola among this year’s Eater Young Guns semifinalists and on the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Food & Drink, proving that pizza is finally (and rightfully) being recognized as a culinary craft in the United States.
And if you think being surrounded by pizza around the clock has affected her appetite, think again: Meyer confesses to eating it almost every day. While she appreciates every distinct style she’s capable of making—“Pizza is a very personal and many-splendored thing,” she says—Meyer still counts that Italian classic, the Neapolitan, as her favorite. “There’s a lot of technique involved in making it, yet the pizza is simple.”
(Writer’s note of praise: One of my favorite pizzas in the world is the New Yorker at Tony’s. In addition to cheese and sauce, the New Yorker comes with two types of house-made sausage, pepperoni, and dots of whipped ricotta. But because the pie is finished in a 1,000-degree coal-fired oven, the crust becomes light and crispy, yet remains just sturdy enough to stand up to the weight of the toppings. The pie crams many different flavors and textures—salty, tangy, sweet, crispy, chewy, and soft—into each bite. It is so, so dreamy.)