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October 22, 2019

Va Napoli!  Laura Meyer Wins Third World Title

by Joe Bonadio

In the restaurant world, Laura Meyer is a rarity indeed. As just a young pup of a pizzaiola, Laura won her first world pizza championship in Parma, Italy at just 23 years of age. Quick to follow up her feat, she nabbed another world title in Las Vegas just a year later. And if that’s somehow not enough to impress you, Laura was also the only woman competing in either contest.

In 2016, Laura landed on Forbes vaunted ’30 Under 30’ list for her accomplishments, and today she serves as Executive Chef for the Tony Gemignani Restaurant Group, overseeing 20+ restaurants from SF to Sacramento, Las Vegas and beyond. She still makes time to compete on the pizza circuit though, and just last month, Laura threw her hat into the ring at the Caputo Cup in Naples Italy.

She sat down with me this week to share a few stories from her experience; the interview is below.

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Joe Bonadio: You recently took a big leap forward. Can you tell us about what happened in Naples?

Laura Meyer: I won first place in the American division at the Caputo Cup in Naples, Italy.

JB: That’s amazing!

LM: Yeah, it was great. It IS great!

Laura Wins

An ecstatic Laura Meyer holds her 1st place trophy at the prestigious Caputo Cup in Naples, Italy, in September 2019. | Photo: Joe Leroux

JB: So tell me about the event.

LM: Every year in Naples, they hold a pizza festival in which 40 to 50 of the big pizzerias come down to the waterfront, and they just line ‘em up. Of course, Naples is a port town, so the waterfront on the Bay of Naples is a big center of activity in general.

They bring in the pizzerias, and set up tents and tables for everyone. It’s a week-long event at least. So every night at closing time, instead of going home, all of these pizzerias come down to cook for the thousands, and I mean thousands, of people that come out.

It’s an amazing sight to see, because the appreciation of pizza in that culture, how embedded it is—it’s like no other place.

Also, this was the 18th year of the event, and one of the big flour companies is Caputo. They are pretty much the main company for Neapolitan flour.

JB: They are the sponsor for the event.

LM: Yes, and each year they hold a cooking competition. Of course, being in Naples, the birthplace of pizza, the big competition is for Neapolitan-style pizza. There are also five or six categories that you might see in any competition.

But this year, they decided to inaugurate a competition for American-style pizza. So, for the past two or three years, they’ve brought what’s called the Caputo Cup to the United States. But this is the first year they decided to bring the American competition to Italy.

JB: So this was a big one.

LM: This was a giant competition. It was the first time in Naples that we’ve seen American-style pizza in the same arena as Neapolitan-style pizza. It’s a big deal.

JB: It’s almost a homecoming of sorts.

LM: Definitely. It’s showing the world, and especially the Neapolitan world, that American pizza has evolved. And that it’s great. That Americans do know how to make pizza, and that it’s worthy to be judged with the best.

JB: Was this an open competition?

LM: It was an invitation-style competition. They put it out to pretty much everyone they knew in the competition world. For those people who could figure out how to get there….

It was a very different experience from other competitions. But it was great!

JB: It was different in what way?

LM: It’s Naples. (Laughs)

Naples kind of operates in its own time, and by its own rules. When I think of Naples, I always think: There’s always tomorrow. Because if they get around to it, great—and if they don’t, cool.

Naples is chaotic, it’s loud, it’s messy. But it’s Naples. Those are just the attributes of Naples, and you’ve got to take it or leave it. It’s hotter than hell. It’s as humid as it could possibly be. And as a Bay Area girl, it’s very….unnerving to be that hot all of the time. (Laughs)

But having been in Naples once or twice before, I sort of knew what to expect in terms of the craziness.

JB: But you hadn’t competed there before.

LM: No, I’d never competed there. I just knew that traffic was horrendous, and that people were everywhere. They have guidelines on the street for traffic—but it’s really more like a recommendation, it’s not a necessity. (Laughs)

So remembering that, I kind of knew what to expect. The other competitions in Italy are a lot more structured. They’ve also been around for a lot longer, and they’re inside.

At this competition, the timing went out the window. A lot of the Americans there were used to American competitions, and probably other northern [Italian] competitions that are organized differently, and more punctual.

I think they originally said my competition time was going to be 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon—and I didn’t compete until almost 6:00. For someone who is competing, and has to take into account the temperature of their dough, and the longevity of that dough—three hours in 90º heat with maximum humidity is a very long time.

JB: So you had to be continually ready to cook?

LM: Yeah, they pretty much told us, you’ll go when you go. Everyone was freaking out left and right. People were prepared, and wanted to cook at their scheduled time—and that’s not how it works in Naples.

It doesn’t help that there’s nowhere to sit, and there is almost no shade. So we’re just getting more and more dehydrated, tired and grumpy, and sweating through our clothes.

It’s not an ideal environment.

JB: That sounds like an understatement.

LM: Well, everyone is already stressed out, because it’s a competition. Now consider the fact that you’re in a foreign place, no one around you speaks your language.

And again—it’s hotter than hell. It’s humid, and we’re relying on one refrigerator for about 400 people.

It’s a very stressful environment. But that’s a big part of competition. You have to be able to go with the flow, and make those decisions, and deal with little last-minute changes.

I think when you talk about that difference between the best pies of the day and those that aren’t, that’s often what it comes down to: the ability to improvise and adapt to conditions.

JB: Was there any point when you started to think: This is going well?

LM: Not really! (Laughs)

Just before leaving for Italy, I had just returned from a trip to see my brother in North Carolina, so I was already in a time crunch. I knew that from the time of touchdown in Naples to the start of the competition, I wasn’t going to have a lot of time—less time than I’d like for the age of my dough.

So I knew going in that I’d have to make my dough in San Francisco, and just bring it with me, and hope the TSA wouldn’t take it away from me. In the end, that made my life a lot easier, because as soon as I got there I was ready to go. I didn’t have to worry about equipment, or tracking down flour—everything was already done.

And I knew already that I was making a pepperoni pizza—and it’s probably the most simplistic pizza I’ve ever made in a competition. And there’s a beauty to that, because it’s less stress. You don’t have to track down ingredients, you don’t have to really do anything. It’s just: here’s my sauce, here’s my cheese, here’s my dough—I’m ready to go.

So that was one nice aspect of this competition. Every time I’ve competed before, it has been….a little frantic at times. Because you’re not sure where to find things, or how to track down a bowl, or whatever it is.

JB: How did you handle your dough, with the heat and the long wait?

LM: Well, I had found a place in the shade to sit. And I sat there for four hours, waiting for them to call my name. And I just never took my dough out of my cooler.

Italy really doesn’t do ice, so the cooler was never really that cold in the first place. So instead of my dough being in the refrigerator then getting really hot in the open air, I just left it in the cooler, and it just gradually came up to temperature. Which was kind of the ideal.

JB: Evidently. What were conditions like once it was time to bake?

LM: Once they finally started, the first group of people to go had a really hard time. Most people aren’t used to making pizza in such a humid environment. Humidity has a very big effect on dough and flour.
It pretty much turns it to paste—rather quickly. So if you aren’t used to working in that type of environment, and working quickly, then it can be seriously to your detriment.

Laura Wins Again

Laura poses with Tony for her 3rd place win the following week at Caputo Cup Atlantic City. | Photo: Laura Meyer

Meanwhile, there was someone from the competition coming out every few minutes, just to make sure the American competitors are all set, and that they know where they need to be. Because the whole thing’s in Italian, you know.

And the person who is coordinating this whole thing comes out and tells us: ‘The first person couldn’t get their pizza in the oven.’ Then again: ‘The second person couldn’t get their pizza into the oven.’

The first three people failed. Now, usually you get two tries. Most people bring two dough balls, and usually you get a second try. At that point, if you have to use your second try, you know you aren’t going to win—but at least they’ll score you. You’re going to get a major deduction because of that.

JB: Because you can’t land your first pizza.

LM: Yeah, it hurts. You already know you lost. And in some competitions they accommodate the American way of making pizza—which is different. A lot of the time in the states, people will build their pizza on top of a wooden peel, and then slide it into the oven. Instead of building it on top of a table, dragging it onto a peel, and then putting it in the oven.

JB: That’s the Italian way.

LM: Yes, that’s the Italian way. A lot of people aren’t used to using a perforated peel, and having to pick the pizza up off the table. It requires a little bit of technique, and you can easily rip a hole in the pizza and completely trash it if you don’t know what you’re doing.

But that’s competition: you kind of have to know all techniques.

JB: So you had to do it the Italian way—even though you were competing in the American category.

LM: Yes. But you’re in Naples! And you can’t go into a competition expecting them to accommodate you. It’s the other way around. The rules are the rules.

But a lot of people weren’t ready for that. They figured it’s an American competition, and that means I’ll be able to use all American tools, and do everything I do at home. And that wasn’t the case—so a lot of people struggled.

JB: Being in the American category, were you competing against only other Americans, or were there others you were up against?

LM: There were some other people, but I think there was a guy from France. I originally thought it would be just Americans, but I assume they opened it up somehow.

Buy you had to know to get into this thing. It wasn’t like they opened it up to the entire pizza community across the United States, and you could go if you worked at a Domino’s.

JB: How many people did you compete against?

LM: I want to say 30. But I’m not 100% sure. A lot of people were disqualified, so the pool of competitors had shrunk by the end.

JB: So when you presented your simple pepperoni pie, how did you feel about it?

LM: I already knew what was wrong with it as soon as i pulled it out of the oven (Laughs). At least in my eyes, I knew what I could have changed, and what I could have done better.

Not that I didn’t present a great pie, because I think it was great, and obviously they did too. But I already knew the little improvements I could have made.

JB: Already on to the next pie, huh?

LM: Yeah—and I already knew I had another competition in less than a week. And I don’t want to sound weird about this, but this was the first time I had ever used this type of dough recipe. So it was kind of my tester for the next competition. I was just hoping to do well with it, and see what kind of tweaks I needed to make for the next contest.

JB: In that mindset, you must have been shocked to win.

LM: Well, I knew I had done well.

JB: Why is that?

LM: Because I knew what they were looking for, in terms of that great pie. And with my experience and knowledge, I figured I would do well. Maybe not first place, but at least top ten.

And of course when I took it out of the oven, as soon as I saw it, I knew I had put too much sauce and cheese on it. Because it was starting to slide a little bit, and it’s not supposed to. When you pick up a slice, it should stick straight out. And I knew that as soon as I cut a slice, it was just going to flop over, because it was too wet, and the toppings were going to slide right off.

So going into it, especially with one judge in particular, I thought….aw, crap. I mean, I knew it was good. But I didn’t think it was “gonna win” good. But I was happy with the flavor of the dough, and the texture, and the bake. And I was excited, because I knew the changes I was going to make for the next one.

JB: I guess that’s the competitors mindset: in one part of your mind, you see the problems and the things you can improve. But in another, you can acknowledge that you’ve made a good, solid effort.

LM: Yes, because once it comes out of the oven, there’s nothing you can do.

JB: The pie you bake is the pie you eat.

LM: That’s right! And at that point, you’re really just thinking ‘How can I improve this?’ And you can make the best pie of the day. But depending upon who your judges are, and how they feel in that moment, what time of day it is, is judge one hungry, does judge two need to go to the restroom….you just never know.

That’s all part of competition. You just have to hope they are going to judge your work objectively for what it is—and they don’t critique you for who you are.

JB: So tell me about the moment when you realized you had won.

LM: Well, the area we were in was so tight. It was hotter than hell, and jam-packed with people. I had to go to the restroom, but where I was sitting, if I left, I would never be able to make it back inside the tent. So once you were in, you didn’t move. I was just hoping they wouldn’t save our category for last, because I had to pee so bad! (Laughs)

They also had warned us the awards ceremony could be as early as 10:00 PM, or as late as 3:00 AM. So we were just hoping to god it wouldn’t be that late.

I feel like they could have increased the size of the tent two or three times, and it still would have been tight. But it was kind of cool, because the vibe inside the tent was….everyone wants to win, everybody wants to hear their name.

JB: So, it’s all competitors in there at that point.

LM: Yeah, competitors and their families, mostly. And everyone is hoping they will hear their name. You could feel it—not to mention the fact that it’s hotter than hell, you’re sweating, and you’re tired.

I was up in the stands, and when they called my name….I wasn’t really expecting it. I thought maybe I had placed top five or top ten, but I was not really expecting to hear my name. And I think a lot of other people weren’t expecting it either.

There were a lot of serious people in this competition. A lot of really good competitors. And I’m also one of those good competitors. People don’t really count me out anymore. They know I’m someone to beat. I’m a contender, and I’m good at what I do.

But to hear my name was just great. And in that arena—it was a big accomplishment. It’s been five years since I last won, and I’ve learned so much in that period of time. I feel like this win was somehow more fully fledged, somehow—more mine.

Postscript: Laura competed three days later in the Traditional Division at the Caputo Cup in Atlantic City, New Jersey—and brought home the third place trophy. But in her words, “I thought I made a better pizza” the second time.