Award-winning pizza chef Leah Scurto and Clarence Wainer opened their restaurant PizzaLeah right at the eve of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, and while Scurto had to quickly pivot to take-out, her business is still thriving and about to celebrate its one-year anniversary.
“Crazy madness is exactly how it’s been,” Scurto said when asked what it’s been like having a new business in the midst of a pandemic. “But I tell you what, I am so grateful and so thankful to the Windsor community and kind of all Sonoma County because I’m getting a lot of people coming in from Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Healdsburg coming over to support me.”
Scurto, who’s won multiple awards for cooking pizza and even came in second at the 2019 West Coast Pizza Cup, opened her pizzeria in Windsor in the first week of March 2020.
“It was March 9 or March 10, so we’re coming up on a year. This was the longest, fastest year in my life,” Scurto said.
While being a new business amid a pandemic did present its challenges, Scurto said she believes they had a better turnaround than they would’ve in a normal year since people wanted to support the new eatery, plus in the same year they were named as one of the top pizzas in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Chronicle.
“When we first opened I feel like we got people in the door faster than we may have, had things been normal, because people heard ‘Oh my god there’s a restaurant just opened up, what a horrible time, let’s go support them,’” Scurto said.
She said she couldn’t be more thankful to the community for their support. “I feel very lucky and very grateful.”
When PizzaLeah first opened they pivoted quickly to take-out only on March 18, just a few weeks after they first opened. Intermittently throughout the pandemic they’ve been able to open an outdoor patio for seating when the weather cooperates.
“It’s still kind of makeshift. We had signed the lease over, and we talked about putting a patio out front and they said ‘Yeah, we have to talk with our architect’ and so we said we’ll get open and work on the patio once we open. We opened and then everything shut down. And then a couple months in … they said go ahead, do what you can to try to succeed. So, we roped off an area and got six tables out front that we’re able to use,” Scurto said.
She said they’re working with state ABC licensing and the building department to try and make a more permanent patio for outdoor dining.
For those not familiar with PizzaLeah, the restaurant concept revolves around making good and clean pizza with locally-sourced ingredients.
“My original thought, my original concept was totally out the door five days in, but ultimately we just want to make really great pizza that’s thoughtful and not fast food and try to buy local and support local businesses along the way,” Scurto said. “I was always looking to have a neighborhood pizzeria. I love making pizza and I wanted to share that passion for pizza and different styles of pizza.”
She said she’s also aimed to get the fermentation in the pizza dough just right in order to get the best flavors.
As with baking bread, pizza makers will mix a sourdough starter with a precise amount of water, flour and salt for the dough. The dough is left to ferment for a few hours and is then divided into pizza dough balls and left to ferment again for a certain period of time. Some pizzerias will ferment their dough for a few hours or for a day or two.
Because sourdough contains both yeast and bacteria — agents in the fermentation process — sourdough pizza dough becomes imbued with complex flavors produced by the yeast and microorganisms.
“The extended fermentation makes it lighter and easier,” Scurto explained.
Scurto makes two different types of pizza, thin crust pizza and pan pizza. She said people often confuse pan pizza with deep-dish, Chicago style pizza, but pan pizza is more similar to focaccia.
“I make two different styles of pizza at the restaurant. I do a thin crust pizza which is east coast-inspired, and then I do a pan pizza that is somewhat of a cross between a Sicilian and a grandma style. I took what I love about both of those styles of pizza and melded them into one pan pizza,” Scurto said.
She said they make a limited amount of pan pizzas daily since they can be labor intensive.
“We just don’t have the room and the time to make a ton of them,” she said. “We usually do about 15 a day and we sell out almost every day.”
Tuesdays and Wednesdays have been slow days, but she said they sell out of the pan pizza almost every day.
“I’m all for people eating whatever they like, whatever makes them happy. I have pineapple at the restaurant, but I don’t have every ingredient that you may find at a chain pizzeria. I try to keep it simple,” Scurto said when asked about pizza toppings, specifically her thoughts on having Hawaiian pizza. “My pizza is not geared towards putting five to eight toppings on top of it because the crust wouldn’t hold up, but in terms of pineapple, go right ahead!”
She said she has a pineapple specialty pizza on the menu that has pineapple, pepperoni and pickled peppers, a nod to her love of sweet and spicy flavor profiles.
Scurto’s family was in the restaurant business before her and, even though her dad advised her not to go into the business, she did so anyways.
“I kind of grew up in the restaurant business and my dad has owned restaurants. When I was young my dad would say, ‘don’t go into the restaurant business,’ and of course my brother and I went into the restaurant business. My first job was cooking burgers and pies out of a little corner shop when I was 17 and I started working in the pizza industry when I was 18 and I’ve been doing it my whole life,” she said.