Sedona-based Pisa Lisa is the brainchild of Chef Lisa Dahl. Dahl moved to Sedona for a fresh start and opened several other restaurant concepts before launching her fast-casual pizza brand.
Chef Lisa Dahl is no stranger to the restaurant game. The Sedona, Arizona, resident heads up Dahl Restaurant Group, parent company to several concepts, including Cucina Rustica Rustic Italian Grill, Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill and Butterfly Burger Lounge. So when the self-taught chef decided to open a pizzeria, she had the foundation to make Pisa Lisa’s a success.
After tragically losing her son in San Francisco, she became determined to leave the Bay area and start over. She was guided to Sedona, and the opportunity to open her own restaurant popped up. Dahl & Diluca Ristorante Italiano became her first offering.
“Once I started cooking for my first restaurant … we became very, very popular,” Dahl said. “It still is. Even after all these years, you still can’t get in the place.”
After launching several other concepts, Dahl began to consider a pizzeria. After all, she had several Italian concepts under her belt. She named it after her father’s nickname for her — Pisa Lisa — and she had the opportunity to turn a former Pizza Hut close to Dahl & Diluca into an independent pizza brand in 2013. A second location opened in June 2022.
“It’s just a rockstar restaurant,” Dahl said. “There’s just a line out the door every day.”
Dahl considered pizza a viable option for a new restaurant concept as her other Italian offerings weren’t big enough to add a wood-fired oven.
“I always thought that making pizza was just an art,” Dahl explained. “You have such an opportunity for your own individualistic creative expression. I call my pizza a canvas, and to me its an extension of what I already did with pastas and other things that it would just seem like a natural evolution.”
Dahl said it didn’t occur to her that there were a number of other new pizzerias taking shape in the area, and that meant competition. Sedona is a small city with a well-traveled uptown area and tons of tourism. Pisa Lisa was in a lesser-known area and Dahl wasn’t aware of the competition.
“I think I got an education really fast that its your style that will make or break you,” Dahl said. It took a year for Pisa Lisa to take off. Dahl knew fine dining, but running a fast-casual pizzeria was a different business altogether.
“We still had the same graciousness that had made us famous in other restaurants,” Dahl said, “but I don’t think we’d had enough practice in the beginning.”
Word of mouth led the company to become popular, and it took off. On the brand’s first anniversary, it hit $1 million in sales.
The wood-fired oven can bake five to six pizzas at a time. “We are always challenging ourselves to perfect our pizzas,” Dahl said. “That little restaurant is such a jewel. People line up for it … but every day you work on your pizza. You’re never not working on your pizza.”
Chef Lisa Dahl uses her proprietary dough as a canvas for her pizzas. Provided.
One of the most critical steps towards success was getting the timing right. At first, the team couldn’t figure out how to get salads on the table before pizzas. Now it is a “high-volume, small, charming, cutest little pizzeria,” Dahl said. “We have outrageous rock-and-roll music and art on the walls. It’s fun and its happy and everybody loves the energy to the point that it’s just a powerhouse.”
The second Pisa Lisa location has a larger kitchen and is slowly gaining traction. Dahl is looking to recreate the magic of the first location. She said the second location has the same vibe and pizza recipes as the first, but they’ve got two pizza ovens to help with volume. The second oven is usually only fired when the brand gets busy on the weekends or when it is hosting doing parties.
“We do foresee a time when its as popular as the original,” Dahl said. “It just has to catch up.”
Like many restaurants, Pisa Lisa struggles with hiring and retention. Hiring and training pizzaiolos has been critical to the restaurants success. “A pizzaiolo has to have the passion to want to (make pizzas), and if they’re not going to take the pizza crafting seriously then I would rather struggle to find the right combination of a person that understands that we just don’t throw things on our dough….
“My pizzas are different in their own respect because I treat my toppings equally as seriously as I treat the canvas — the dough, the crust. If a pizza is not developed properly in the oven, and I happen to see it …. I stop what I’m doing, I’ll get on the pizza line and if my head pizzaiolo is there at the time I would tell her what they’re not paying enough attention to.”
That could be the distribution of the toppings or not rotating the dough in the oven in a way that the pizzas are evenly baked at all sides. The pizzas are truly artisan, and they’re not manufactured-looking. Each one is different. Training is hands on, and pizzaiolos learn how mushrooms are roasted, sausage is cooked in-house, etc. so they have a better understanding of the ingredients that make up Pisa Lisa’s toppings.
“I don’t want anybody to have a less-than-great pizza,” Dahl said. “It can happen, but it doesn’t happen often.”
In the Kitchen
The dough is a thin crust but isn’t considered Neapolitan. The goal is to avoid making the 13-inch pizzas cracked or so wet they can’t be lifted to be eaten. Dough is made in house, as are roasting vegetables, sauce, salads, tapas plates and more.
“There’s nothing that we don’t do in house,” Dahl said. Much is organic, sourced from a local farm. “Everything we do is natural. … I’ve been an organic chef since I opened my restaurants. That’s why probably a half a million people come back year after year because they know what they’re going to get. … We’re seeking the best, and we charge what we need to. We only use the finest ingredients, and that’s just who I am.”
Pizza accounts for 70% of sales. Topping the list of bestsellers is Da Bambini, made with mother sauce, provolone, mozzarella and pepperoni. The Margherita, topped with a mother sauce, fior di latte, mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil and basil, is also popular, as is Da Dorothy. That pizza has a mother sauce, provolone-mozzarella, Calabrese sausage, picante peppers and parmesan-reggiano.
Now that Pisa Lisa has a second unit, maintaining consistency across the brand has become important. It’s not easy, Dahl admits. “I think about expansion into other markets, but pizza is a very tricky commodity,” she said, “because if you’re an artisan pizza, you have to live by your unique qualities. So you’re going to have fluctuation depending on different elevations and many other things. And it’s not as easy as I might have thought when I first started. I’m still fanatical about trying to master what we have in two locations, and I’ll know more in probably six more months when the second location turns its first birthday. Right now, with the labor challenges that we’ve had, I’m just trying to achieve the same consistency and popularity as the original.”
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is the managing editor at Networld Media Group and the site editor for PizzaMarketplace.com and QSRweb.com. She has more than 20 years’ experience covering food, people and places.
An award-winning print journalist, Mandy brings more than 20 years’ experience to Networld Media Group. She has spent nearly two decades covering the pizza industry, from independent pizzerias to multi-unit chains and every size business in between. Mandy has been featured on the Food Network and has won numerous awards for her coverage of the restaurant industry. She has an insatiable appetite for learning, and can tell you where to find the best slices in the country after spending 15 years traveling and eating pizza for a living.