Ordering a plain cheese pizza always seems like a cop-out to me. It’s cheese, dough and pizza sauce, which is about as exciting as a bowl of undercooked oatmeal. Give me wild mushrooms, goat cheese, fresh rosemary and maybe even a little peanut sauce on that dough!
Champion pizzaiola Leah Scurto of PizzaLeah in Windsor is far too polite to call out my amateur-hour thinking, but clearly it’s wrong-headed if you actually know your pies.
“When I try a pizza place I always do the plain cheese. The dough, sauce and cheese have to be right. There’s nowhere to hide, and throwing a bunch of stuff on it won’t improve it,” she says.
There’s not much to argue with there, and Scurto puts every bit of her soul into making those three things as perfect as possible. That means spending up to 72 hours on each batch of the long-fermented dough she uses for her thick, Roman-style (aka grandma-style) square pizzas. It’s why she won’t let her customers order eight toppings on a pizza. It’s why she refuses to use flavor-dominating bell peppers in her restaurant.
“It takes away from the integrity,” she says with the earnestness of someone who’s done a lifetime of thinking about such things.
And she has.
Scurto has spent her entire adult life slinging pizza, primarily for the Santa Cruz-based Pizza My Heart. Walking into the tiny beach shack at 18, she rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the executive chef and overseeing its expansion from two restaurants to 24 throughout the Bay Area.
She’s passionate about the art and science of pizza, rolling and tossing dough each day, responding to minute changes in the temperature or humidity, getting a literal feel of the dough’s unique personality.
“It should never be the same, because it’s a living thing. I make it every morning, and the end result is always different,” she says.
Like any obsessive bread baker, her proof is in the proofing.
Scurto is also a seven-year member of the United States Pizza Team and one of a tiny handful of women who compete.
She’s learned to hold her own, though she’s had more than a few awkward situations, like a customer demanding a man make his pizza instead of Scurto or being handed the camera to take a picture of the predominately male U.S. pizza team while she was part of it.
But Scurto mostly scoffs at the whole gender disparity thing. Frankly, she’s got more award-winning recipes than many of her male counterparts, cooler tattoos and better things to worry about, such as why anyone would want pineapple and Canadian bacon on a pizza.
“Look, there’s a lot of masculinity in restaurant kitchens in general, but I’m just gonna do my thing,” she says.
Don’t call PizzaLeah pies “California” pizza. Though the L-o-l-a and Po-Tay-To pizzas have smashed fingerling potatoes, most of her pies are classics with a twist. Think olive oil, mushrooms, roasted garlic, Italian sausage or meatballs and sweet, rich tomato sauce. She uses hot honey, pickled peppers, orange zest, caramelized onions or roasted fennel to flavor-boost her pies, not decorate them.
Pizzas come in two styles, thin-crust round pies that are 12 or 16 inches ($20/$28) or square-pan pies ($28) which are made in limited quantities. Pizza names are usually references to friends or family.
Old Grey Beard: Red sauce, mozzarella, fontina, Italian sausage, Calabrian peppers, hot honey and orange zest. The sauce is worth noticing, because it’s noticeably different and not overwhelmed by oregano or dried basil. There’s a sweet, tangy, long-simmered tomato flavor that doesn’t need to be covered with seasoning. I love a mix of sweet, salty and savory with light heat that tingles rather than burns.
Po-Tay-To: Mozzarella, smashed fingerling potatoes, green onions, applewood smoked bacon, garlic and cream. Potatoes are fairly common as a pizza topping in Italy and soak up the flavor of the bacon and garlic.
The thin crust has that perfect balance between chewy and crunchy. It’s not blackened on the bottom, but dark enough to show a keen mastery of temperature and dough.
Mush-a-Roni: Square pizzas use the same basic dough but become more like focaccia than a thick, bready crust. This is one of the most beautiful pizzas you will ever see in your life. It’s not a gloopy mess of cheese and dough but comforting grandma-style pan pizza with red sauce, pepperoni, cremini mushrooms, fresh basil and shaved Parmesan cheese.
You also can make your own pizza, and the menu includes gluten-free crusts. Several items on the menu aren’t available right now, like the meatballs and wedge salad or the watercress salad, but will make an appearance once things get back to normal.
Ordering is by phone only, 707-620-0551. Menu online at pizzaleah.com and contactless pickup in Windsor is available. 9240 Old Redwood Highway, Suite 116 (in the Oliver’s shopping center). Closed Mondays.