March 25, 2024

Pizzeria Da Laura Marks One Year: A Talk With Our Own Laura Meyer

by Joe Bonadio

It was just over five years ago when I first interviewed Laura Meyer for the Seven Ovens blog, a project then less than eight months old. At the time, Laura was serving as Regional Chef for ten of Tony’s Pizza Rock restaurants around the country, following a long stint as Head Chef in the kitchen at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana.

Already a two-time World Pizza Champion, Laura had made quite the splash in the industry by winning first place in back-to-back contests in Las Vegas and Parma, Italy. Impressively, she had even been named to Forbes 30 Under 30 a couple of years earlier, an entry you don’t typically see on a pizzaiolas resumé.

Even then it was quite evident that Laura plays a bigger game, and given her unique path it only makes sense. Even back in the early days of Castro Valley’s Pyzano’s, Laura was already by Tony’s side. Beginning her career as his protegé and sidekick, she learned quickly, and no one in the industry is more closely tied to Tony Gemignani. As Tony built his restaurant group and rose through the ranks of the business, Laura was always right next to him, rowing in tandem.

With that kind of pedigree, you’d think opening a restaurant of her own would have been Laura’s first move. But as we discussed in our second interview, it wasn’t something the chef was about to rush into. If Laura was going to create her own restaurant, the timing would have to be just right—and finally in 2022, the stars began to align.

In March of last year, the chef returned to her East Bay roots to open Pizzeria da Laura in the center of Downtown Berkeley. It has been a year since she opened her doors, and we had the chance to talk at the restaurant last week. Edited for clarity and length, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So one year, and still here! Congratulations Laura.

Laura Meyer: Thank you. Yes, we’re still living—and thriving.

JB: So it seems like you’ve gotten a little more attention than you counted on.

LM: Yeah, it’s been an interesting first year. It seems, based on the first year, that Berkeley likes us. So hopefully we’re here to stay.

Laura Meyer in her spacious kitchen at Pizzeria da Laura

Just one year after opening in Downtown Berkeley, Laura Meyer seems perfectly at home in her spacious kitchen at Pizzeria da Laura. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Well, you certainly couldn’t have put yourself in a more central location.

LM: That really wasn’t my intention, I looked at a couple of locations further down. But when I found this place, and I did the walkthrough and whatnot, you couldn’t beat it. Corner location, literally right outside of BART, a couple of blocks from the university. We’re in the Theater District of the Downtown area…

JB: It checked all the boxes.

LM: Yeah. Every time you talk to someone with experience, when they tell you little things to look for in a location. Foot traffic, visibility, all that kind of stuff—it checked all the boxes.

JB: And it’s a beautiful spot.

LM: Yep!

JB: So when did you originally make the move over to the East Bay?

LM: I moved out of San Francisco right before the pandemic hit. It wasn’t because of the pandemic, it just kind of happened that way. I moved to Oakland right before the lockdown happened.

JB: Yeah, this weekend it’ll be four years to the day.

LM: So it’s four years. I moved out the week before the lockdown went into effect. I was originally supposed to move at the end of March, but when they told everyone what was happening, I called the mover and told them we have to do this now.

JB: Getting out while the getting was good!

LM: It just kind of worked out that way. But when I decided to open the restaurant, I knew I wanted it to be in the East Bay. So it all kind of came together.

Pizzeria da Laura is located on Shattuck Avenue in the center of downtown

Located on Shattuck Avenue in the center of downtown Berkeley, Pizzeria da Laura has been embraced by the locals, including the nearby Cal campus. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: So why the East Bay?

LM: Oh, many reasons. I felt like my time in San Francisco was done. This was my roots, being out here. I grew up in Hayward, went to school there. My best friend in high school lived in Berkeley, so I knew it very well.

It felt like this was where my home should be. Don’t get me wrong, I love San Francisco, and if the circumstances were right I could see myself moving back. But in terms of doing business, with my personality and my history, I just felt like the East Bay was where I wanted to start. It doesn’t mean that I won’t go to San Francisco one day. But for my first location, I wanted to be out here.

And of course, the logistics of doing business is definitely different here than in San Francisco. Getting permits is so different, and the cost of a liquor license here is a third if not a quarter of a license in San Francisco.

JB: That’s a lot of extra square footage.

LM: Exactly. There’s just all of these things that go into it. The right decision was to stay in the East Bay. There was also more room for me to grow. San Francisco is great, but it felt like I wasn’t going to be able to spread my wings the way I wanted to. Just because of the saturation of the pizza industry there—at least in the neighborhood I would have chosen.

I didn’t feel like I’d be able to grow the way I wanted to, without having the overshadowing of Tony in North Beach and all the other pizzerias in San Francisco. I felt like it was better for making a name for myself here.

JB: Bigger fish, smaller pond.

LM: Yeah. Exactly. (Laughter)

JB: Seems like the right choice. It’s just closer to home.

LM: Exactly. My parents are on this side, they’re getting older.

JB: Are they close to the restaurant?

LM: They’re in Hayward, so they are about 20-25 minutes away.

JB: Do they come in a lot?

LM: They do come in a lot. My mom is actually a cashier, she loves to work on Sundays.

JB: That’s awesome!

LM: Yeah, it’s just nice to be able to see them more frequently. If I were in the city, I’d probably rarely ever see them.

JB: Honestly, that’s the best argument for the East Bay that I’ve heard so far.

LM: Yes, especially since I’m the last of my siblings to live in this area. It means a lot to them to be able to come and see me whenever they want.

JB: So of anyone I know who was going to open a business, I’d say you’d be prepared for most contingencies.

LM: I’d like to think that I’m more informed than most.

JB: So my question is, what one thing has surprised you the most?

LM: I wouldn’t say I’ve been surprised by anything, it’s just….hard.

The menu at Pizzeria da Laura

The menu at Pizzeria da Laura is built to mix and match, with ten topping combinations that can be ordered atop Sicilian, Grandma, Detroit or New York style crust. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

When people tell you this is one of the hardest things that you can do, it really is. They’re not joking. It’s not that it’s physically hard per se, in terms of hours. It’s just mentally and emotionally exhausting. Business hours are only so long. We’re lunch and dinner only, and in this area dinner only lasts so long, because it’s more of a residential crowd.

But this is a business where things are happening all the time. It’s people calling out, people getting sick, vendors having issues, the alarm going off, you’re worried about money—it’s an all-consuming thing.

When you tack the physical on top of it, it really is one of the hardest things to do. And it’s such an unsure thing; there is no guarantee that you’re going to be successful, or that you’ll make it through the year. My hours aren’t any different than when I was working with Tony. It’s just that the responsibility….the weight is bigger.

When you take on the ownership role, you take on the responsibility of everyone’s livelihood. The first payroll, I had a moment where I was like, wow. The 30-some odd people that are employed here, they depend on me to pay their bills, and their families depend on them. It’s a big responsibility, and it’s daunting at times.

But the first year has been going well, so I’m hopeful.

JB: I think you’ve got a right to be.

LM: But you know, you get comfortable—but you can never be totally comfortable. Because as we learned in the pandemic, things can change at any moment. And you’ve got to learn to adapt.

JB: I’m going to guess you see a lot of people from the city.

LM: I do and I don’t. I’m always surprised when I do see people, just because it’s so hard to get people out of the city….especially out of North Beach, it’s hard to get people to leave that neighborhood.

JB: (Laughter)

LM: Don’t get me wrong, I love that neighborhood, it’s my second home.

JB: But it has a gravity to it.

LM: It does, it has its own pull. So anytime I see a North Beacher out here, I’m like doubly excited!

JB: So any changes coming up here at the restaurant?

LM: Well I’m always thinking about how we move the restaurant forward, how we increase revenue streams, grow the brand, things like that. Taking a page out of Tony’s book, you’ve always got to think about the next thing. I’ve definitely got a couple of things in….discussion, let’s say. I’m talking to Cal about their concessions and whatnot; just the proximity alone is huge for them. We get orders from all the different departments, all the time. So we’ll see what happens.

JB: A campus can make a brand.

LM: That’s one of the reasons I loved this location. I knew that being this close to a college campus, we’re always going to have an influx of the new generation. And not only do they eat a lot…

JB: (Laughter)

LM: But it helps you to stay with the times. How are they ordering to-go food, where are they going, how much are they looking to spend.

JB: They keep you current.

LM: They keep you current. And also a lot of the vitality of the restaurant comes from the customers. They come in and they’re excited and they’re chatty. And with the university, you’ve got a brand-new incoming class every year—that’s 10,000 people.

Because we don’t get hit with tourism like San Francisco does. But we do get hit with the new incoming classes, graduations, all that stuff.

JB: It’s kind of crucial for this spot.

LM: A hundred percent. Our seasonality is a little bit different; where most restaurants see an increase in sales during summer, because of the university we tend to see a little bit of a dip, because a lot of those students are gone. So our seasonality is almost flipped, but it’s not so drastic that it’s a problem for the restaurant.

JB: So let’s talk about food. Tell me something about your menu.

LM: The styles are going to be very familiar to anyone who has been to Tony’s, or to most modern pizza shops. So you do get a variety of styles: we’ve got the New York, the Sicilian, the Detroit and the Grandma. I knew going into this that I wanted to feature the pan styles. One, because it’s what I’m known for: the big award that I have is for Sicilian.

And it’s one of the styles that I always like to go back and tweak, and play with. It’s a little more forgiving because it’s in a pan, and you don’t get as beat up over the shape of it.

JB: And you did the focaccia thing…

LM: Exactly. I love pan styles, and I love the versatility of them, so I knew I wanted to feature them. But then on top of that, when I was looking for a location, nobody was doing pan styles in this area. There really wasn’t anything.

JB: And with the rise of pan styles, especially Detroit…

LM: Yeah. So I knew going into it that I wanted to offer something different to really set myself apart. And then of course the New York style….if I only offered square pies, I’m sure the neighborhood would love it. But it would exclude a certain demographic, because they’re looking for what’s familiar—like kids. And it’s such an easy thing to incorporate, it was just a no-brainer.

So I knew those were the four styles that I wanted to do. And I know that for some people, starting right out of the gate with four styles might seem like a lot. But coming from Tony’s

JB: (Laughter)

LM: By the end of my tenure there, we were doing what, fourteen styles? I was like, four styles is a piece of cake. Don’t worry about it, I got it!

But the biggest difference in my menu is that you can get any of the combination pizzas on any style. Unlike other restaurants where there is usually a preset number of pizzas for each style, and you can’t mix and match. Our menu is built to mix and match.

So you actually get four times the variety, without having to have four times the toppings, essentially. The way the menu is built, there are ten topping combinations, but you can put them on any of the four crust styles. It gives you more variety, without having to overproduce in the kitchen.

And it makes people want to come back more, because they want to try their favorite toppings on the other crusts. So we tend to see a lot more repeat customers. And I didn’t think people were going to be as into the Sicilian as they are. It actually sells out almost every day.

JB: Who makes a better Sicilian pizza than you?!

LM: (Laughter) But I wasn’t sure about the fluffiness, and if people were going to be into the thick crust. But they are.

JB: There’s nothing quite like a nice, puffy slice of Sicilian.

LM: Well when people see it, it’s definitely a wow. But then when they eat it, they realize it’s not as dense as they thought it would be.

JB: So what have been your most popular styles so far?

LM: Definitely the Regina, obviously that’s the pizza that I won with, so it sells a lot.

JB: And you probably hand-sell that one a little bit.

The Ray J pizzas has tomato sauce, mozzarella, thin and thick cup-and-char pepperoni, burrata, basil, fermented honey and parmigiano reggiano

Named for Laura’s brother, the Ray J has tomato sauce, mozzarella, thin and thick cup-and-char pepperoni, burrata, basil, fermented honey and parmigiano reggiano. I had the Grandma style—and it was spectacular. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

LM: And the one that we call the Ray J, it’s named after my brother. It’s double pepperoni, thin and thick, with burrata, basil, parmigiana and fermented honey. It’s really nice—you get a little bit of spice from the honey, but you also get the sweet which offsets the spice of the pepperoni. And the burrata kind of ties it all together, and the basil….it’s a great pie all around.

So those are the two that are the top sellers. But the beauty of having a smaller menu is that it all sells. There isn’t a pizza on the menu that doesn’t sell.

JB: Have you curated the menu a little bit since opening?

LM: Yeah, we’ve added a couple of things, and we’ve changed some things. It was nice to see in the beginning what people were going to tend towards, and what they were going to like. We do get a fair amount of create-your-own pizzas, but a lot more people just order off the menu.

It’s funny, owning a restaurant was not something I grew up dreaming about, like a lot of restaurateurs. It’s not something that I knew that I wanted to do. Honestly, right after the focaccia popup, I just decided “Okay, I’m going to do this.” And then the next thing you know, I had a restaurant.

So it was a very quick decision in a way, but it also wasn’t, in the sense that I knew the steps I needed to take. I feel like I learned a lot from Tony, and from watching other people, about avoiding certain pitfalls.

JB: You learned what not to do.

LM: Yeah, and that served me most of all. And I feel like those things will allow me to grow with more ease. When it comes to the back-end work, I definitely took the harder route in terms of building it and finding investment. The things that will benefit me in the long run, and insure that it can grow at a rate that is good for the business.

Finding good management has honestly been the hardest thing, because the restaurant industry has changed a lot. A lot. At the same time, I feel like the crew that we’ve grown here is great. Most of the people have been here since day one, and it’s a tight-knit group.

You don’t really hear about people putting that much time in before they become an owner. I put in almost twenty years before I decided to do it. Most people don’t do it that way anymore. A lot of people want to get into it because they’ve seen the glamorous side of it, and the ooh and aah of celebrity chefs and things like that, and they don’t know the hard side of it.

And on the flipside, I feel like a lot of people don’t have the heart that you need to make a successful restaurant. One of the reasons Tony has been so successful—and I’d like to think this restaurant—is because you can tell that the heart is there. That the owner really loves it, and has a passion for it. That’s a connection that the community feels, and people are drawn to it.

Community is so important. You can’t just plop down and open. I’ve seen beautiful branding and marketing from certain companies, but if you don’t get in with the community….I love the fact that the fire department will bring their giant truck and park it outside just to get a pizza. Same with the police department. I love that they all want to come in, and that they all love being here. They feel like they’re visiting friends.

I’ve always loved that about Tony’s. Anyone that walks in, they feel like they’re among friends.

Pizzeria da Laura
2049 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA  94704
(510) 985-0409