Updated: Aug 22, 2019
A Slice of Sedona
In the parking-lot corridor outside the restaurant, people are sitting on funky, salvaged, mid-century chairs, waiting to get in. But they don’t seem to mind. Pisa Lisa is a phenomenon. The restaurant has something for everyone, and everyone seems to want that something. “Mostly what it has is magic,” says Lisa Dahl, proprietor and Executive Chef. “When I am driving by, I can feel the energy bursting out of its seams. It’s everything I wanted it to be and more.” Without a doubt, Pisa Lisa is not your average pizza joint. It’s a fun and lively pizzeria, with a gourmet menu and an eclectic atmosphere.
Pisa Lisa is the Dahl Restaurant Group’s little darling—the smallest and most casual of its four restaurants, which also include the fine-dining establishments Dahl & DiLuca Ristorante Italiano, Cucina Rustica and Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill. “I think when you come into Pisa Lisa — even if you have had to wait a long time — you kind of forget everything because there is an energy that makes you happy,” says Dahl.
First, there is the fresh, high-quality food. The produce is certified organic, the meats are preservative free, the vinaigrettes have no binders and the seafood is sustainably
sourced. All this goodness finds its way onto signature red and white pizzas, hand-tossed salads, tapas plates, panini sandwiches and the specialty Tuscan Tomato Bisque. The desserts are homemade and the gelato case beckons right from the start. Pisa Lisa even offers a full bar, and the menu recommends wine pairings
Next, there is the relaxed, nostalgically eclectic atmosphere—filled with photographs, posters, chili-pepper Christmas lights, collectible memorabilia and music from the 1960s and the Swing era. (You can expect to hear the Rolling Stones and Beatles share the airwaves with Frank Sinatra.) Sport lovers enjoy watching games on flat screen TVs. Those wanting a quieter dining experience can be seated in the small, enclosed patio that has red rock views.
Finally, everyone smiles when they see Ann Rhinehart’s stylized tomatoes decorating the dark gray building, and they enjoy the whimsical logo: two toga-clad cherubs propping up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, each holding a pizza. The logo was inspired by a souvenir plate from Pisa, Italy, and brought to life by Sedona graphic artist Tony De Luz. It now hangs over the hearth of the restaurant’s wood oven.
I think when you come into Pisa Lisa — even if you have had to wait a long time — you kind of forget everything because there is an energy that makes you happy.” — says Dahl.
One hundred thousand people enjoyed Pisa Lisa’s conviviality and good eats in 2017. Nearly 70,000 pizzas made their way out of the oven that can only handle five, eight-slice pizzas at a time. This popularity encouraged Dahl to open up a second Pisa Lisa (Pisa Lisa II), which is in the planning stages for the Village of Oak Creek.
When it first opened in 2013, Dahl worried that Pisa Lisa might not make it. The pizzeria was not receiving the reception she anticipated—despite the fact that Dahl resuscitated and revitalized a blighted corner in a prominent location on Highway 89A in West Sedona, developed an inspired menu and a fun atmosphere and enjoyed acclaim for the other two restaurants she had at the time — Dahl & DiLuca and Cucina Rustica.
Dahl knew that there was a glitch in the system, and was determined to fix it. The first thing she noticed was that customers wanted table service. “They had always had table service in our fine-dining restaurants,” says Dahl. “And our restaurant wasn’t really big enough to do in the right way.” Dahl turned the service around, but there was still something missing. She realized Pisa Lisa needed a soul.
Dahl decided to tell the story of why she named the restaurant Pisa Lisa: It was a tribute to her father, Herbie. “When I was a kid,” Dahl recalls, “my dad would pinch me sometimes and say, ‘I wanna little piece of Lisa!’ That was his gesture of affection for me. He was a tough marine and that pinch was the most charming and sweet way he knew how to show me that he loved me. Although Herbie died in 2009, this name keeps him with me always.”
Dahl put the naming story on the menu, along with a photograph of herself as a small girl sitting on Herbie’s lap. After that, she recalls, “the place went off the charts.” Dahl believes it’s the little back stories that open the hearts of others as well as the personal mementos and shrines, which are tucked into her restaurants as places of remembrance and reflection — not only for herself but also for others. By having those shrines, Dahl feels her loved ones on the other side can look over her shoulder and see what is going on and be a part of it.
“ The way we do things embraces the quality of the organic produce that we have selected from our sources and the cast of ingredients in a particular style that I want diners to expect no matter where they go. — Dahl says
When the pizzeria was in its first year, Dahl worked there every day. It was a labor of love. Dahl would make the Napolitano-inspired pizzas in the way she learned from a master pizzaiola in Napa and in the way that she enjoyed in the colorful Trastevere section of Rome. “I am proud of our pizzas. The crust is exactly what I wanted it to be: ultra-thin and indescribably delicate. And our perfectly balanced, sweet and spicy marinara sauce is the base for all of our red pizzas. It’s our signature ‘mother sauce.’”
As she worked, Dahl enjoyed seeing the pizza orders come in, especially for the pizzas that were named after her family members. “Every time I would see Da Dorothys [named for her 93-year-old mother], Da Herbies, and Da Bambinis [in remembrance of her son Justin], I felt I was making them proud, and I was also selfishly able to have a happier spirit around the fact that dad and Justin didn’t actually get to eat the pizzas.”
The hand-tossed salads are also important to Dahl. “Nothing satisfies me more than to design new salads with exciting combinations around the dressings that I created for years and years. I am a fanatic about them being dressed right and using the freshest ingredients. The way we do things embraces the quality of the organic produce that we have selected from our sources and the cast of ingredients in a particular style that I want diners to expect no matter where they go.”
As she reflects upon Pisa Lisa, Dahl believes it’s the simplest things in life that we recall. “My dad loved jazz, and he loved food; he was very particular. I only wish he could have seen the restaurant. It’s his kind of hangout. I can almost hear him saying, ‘Great job, kid!’”
Story written by Sylvia Somerville Photos by Scott Yates
For more information, visit pisalisa.com