San Francisco

North Beach Pizzaiola Laura Meyer Talks Inspiration, History, And Her Forbes '30 Under 30' Prize

Each year, Forbes announces its 30 Under 30 honors, featuring 600 of "the brightest young entrepreneurs, breakout talents and change agents in 20 different sectors.” This year, one of the 30 Under 30 honorees in the food and drink category was North Beach resident Laura Meyer, of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana (1570 Stockton St.)

Though she's only 27, Meyer has already run the kitchen at Tony Gemignani's acclaimed restaurant for five years, serving as both head chef and head pizzaiola. She's also won two titles in international pizza competitions. 

Meyer, who grew up in Hayward, says she's always had an interest in cooking. Her parents, both chefs “in their prime,” encouraged her to learn culinary techniques, and her father taught her proper knife skills and how to work with a copper bowl, a staple in any professional kitchen for its even heating capabilities.

As with many teenagers, Meyer's first job in high school was at a pizzeria. But this wasn't just any slice joint: it was the megapopular Pyzano's Pizza in Castro Valley, owned by Frank Gemignani, the brother of Tony's Pizza founder Tony Gemignani.

Pyzano's was "much more sophisticated" than your average Round Table or Pizza Hut, Meyer says. "It was run like a family business, and because Tony was also learning at the same time with me, there was a lot of room for growth for the both of us."

"We learned a lot about each other during those early stages," she said, bonding not only over a passion for pizza, but for the Italian language, which Meyer was studying at the time. (Pyzano's closed in 2012.)

Despite her passion for food, Meyer had a tough choice to make after graduating from high school. Given the cost of a private culinary education (and the prospect of potentially low-paying kitchen jobs), she instead decided to enroll at California State University at San Francisco as a history major. “My father is a history buff,” she said. “He always had us reading about it, which is why I think I ended up majoring in it in college.”

Meyer became interested in cultural history, particularly the traditions around food in various cultures. She studied abroad in Italy during her time at Cal State, which furthered her understanding of that relationship—and inspired her pizza making as well. “It’s all about respecting the tradition,” she said.

After graduating from college, Meyer realized she wasn’t suited for a desk job, and reached out to her former boss Gemignani for advice. He offered her a job at his recently opened restaurant in North Beach. At the age of 22, she took over as head chef and head pizzaiola, and has since made North Beach her permanent home.

In addition to running the kitchen at Tony's, Meyer is an instructor and administrator at Gemignani’s International School of Pizza, which teaches the art of pizza-making to professional and home chefs. “I love the teaching aspect of the job," she said. "Chefs come from all over the world to learn from us.”

As part of the course, Meyer leads students through a service at the restaurant—with real customers. “It’s fun to watch them progress and to see them succeed down the line with their own openings and restaurants," she said. "We are actually helping the industry move along."

Tony's Pizza Napoletana's dining room.

Tony's has previously earned acclaim from Forbes: a writer for the magazine dubbed it "The Best Pizzeria In America" in July 2014. In addition to this year's honor, Meyer was also chosen as one of Zagat's "30 Under 30" for San Francisco in 2014. And like Gemignani, she's competed on the global pizza circuit, taking home the top prize in two international competitions: the World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy (in 2013), and the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas (in 2014). 

In the first competition, she entered the “pan-style” (a.k.a. Sicilian) division, creating a play on a classic diavola pizza with tomato sauce, soppressata picante, prosciutto di Parma, arugula, and Piave, Parmesan, and provolone cheeses. The winning pizza is available on the menu at Tony’s. It's called “La Regina,” Italian for "the queen," recognizing Meyer's accomplishment as the first American and the first woman to have won the award. (If you're feeling royally ambitious, here's a recipe to make it at home.) 

At the Vegas competition, Meyer entered the “non-traditional” category, “which is 'anything goes' as far as ingredients,” she told us. She often works by envisioning a dish and then trying to conceptualize it as a pizza, and in this case, her inspiration was a traditional Mediterranean lamb and tzatziki dish. She made a rosemary-infused dough and used braised lamb, arugula, pomegranate seeds, tzatziki-style yogurt, lemon zest, chili flakes, and—to offset the heat—a rosemary simple syrup. The winning pie isn't on the regular menu, but she tells us it sometimes appears as a special.

Meyer was unaware of her recent recognition from Forbes until it had already been published. “I found out two weeks ago, while working on the line," she said. "Someone interrupted me, and showed me their phone with an email saying that I had been selected." Even some of the restaurant's regulars found out before she did. "It’s nice to know that the neighborhood is rooting for you," she said. 

Meyer isn't resting on her laurels: she's gearing up for the restaurant's busy season, as well as the upcoming International Pizza Expo, to be held in Las Vegas in March. This year, she'll do several demonstrations for attendees, and act as Gemignani’s assistant during seminars. Unfortunately, that means she can't compete, as the Expo has recently changed its rules. “You're not allowed to compete if you are scheduled as a speaker,” she said.

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana (1570 Stockton St.) is open Mondays from 12-10pm and Wednesday-Sunday from 12-11pm (closed Tuesdays). Reservations are not accepted. 


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