At Pizzeria Paradiso, Ruth Gresser ’80 puts women, community at forefront

Aug. 23, 2019 — In the Baltimore home where Ruth Gresser ’80 grew up, food always played a pivotal role.

Gresser’s dad owned a grocery store, and her mom, who ran a catering business, taught Ruth how to cook. Those business and cooking lessons stayed with her and today Gresser is the chef/founder of Washington, D.C.-based Pizzeria Paradiso, a group of five critically acclaimed restaurants where women’s leadership and community service are at the forefront.

“Ours was the first Neapolitan-style pizza place in the D.C. area when we opened in 1991,” explains Gresser, who has 170 full- and part-time employees, some who’ve been with her for decades. “The pizza is cooked in a wood burning oven, in the Italian style, where the dough is the most important part and the toppings are a little bit sparser than American pizza.”

Gresser’s dedication to community and creating a collaborative organization over the past 28 years resulted in her being nominated as a semifinalist for the 2019 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur. A longtime proponent of women in her industry, Gresser sat on the Board of Directors of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs from 2010-17, and in 2010 she was one of a small group of local business owners invited by President Obama to talk about job growth.

President Barack Obama with Ruth Gresser '80
President Barack Obama greets Ruth Gresser '80.

Gresser has a long history in pizza. While a student at Grinnell, she worked at the Pizza Hut downtown. She began her Grinnell studies as a chemistry major. It lasted about one year. “I walked into the organic chemistry lab my sophomore year and it didn’t smell very good,” says Gresser, who ended up majoring in economics. From that point on, she knew she was going to be a chef. As her mother said, “There’s a lot of chemistry in cooking.”

“I cooked for friends at Grinnell, and my good friend Elizabeth Wiley ’79 and I cooked together a lot.” (Wiley co-owns Meadowlark Restaurant and Wheat Penny Oven & Bar). When Gresser participated in Grinnell-in-London, she and Amy Sheriff Abern ’80 shopped at the local market and cooked lunch for their class as part of their work-study program.

Post-graduation, Gresser worked in several San Francisco kitchens, then studied for a year in New Hampshire, graduating from Madeleine Kamman’s Classical and Modern French Cooking School in 1987. Gresser ended up in D.C., working at an Italian restaurant where she made bread and breadsticks.

“I’ve always liked working with dough,” she says. “We made pizza for staff meals and that grew into a business opportunity.”

In 1991, she opened the first Pizzeria Paradiso on the second floor of a Dupont Circle townhouse. Since then she’s opened locations in Georgetown (2002), Old Town Alexandria, Virginia (2010), Hyattsville, Maryland (2017), and Spring Valley (2018). She’s also the author of Kitchen Workshop-Pizza: Hands-on Cooking Lessons for Making Amazing Pizza at Home.

Leading up to the elections last year, Pizzeria Paradiso ran a United States of Pizza campaign, focusing on women running for office. Today their Women’s Slice of the Pie campaign focuses on women who are in office.

“I just turned 60 and have lived through a few ‘Year of the Woman’ campaigns, and I still find myself discouraged at the status of women, long after I became a feminist at Grinnell,” Gresser says. “But so many women won in 2018, so each week we focus on a state, highlight the women in national leadership from there, and create a pizza based on ingredients from that state.”

Gresser and her company are also supportive of gay and lesbian issues, and art. The Hyattsville location shares space with Art Works Now – a nonprofit run by her longtime partner/spouse Barbara Johnson – that focuses on creativity and social justice. Gresser also has participated in a number of initiatives and organizations ranging from the National Network to End Domestic Violence, to Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance, to the League of Women Voters, to She Should Run.

As for her favorite type of Pizzeria Paradiso pizza, Gresser likes it simple. “I like our pizza topped with a mix of tomatoes that cook in the oven, buffalo mozzarella and fresh oregano, topped by prosciutto di Parma after it comes out of the oven,” Gresser says. Though she only cooks for special events these days, she spends time going from restaurant to restaurant, supporting the culture, talking to employees, and of course, tasting the food. Each restaurant has a particular personality and at this point, Gresser says, she’s the vision behind what happens next.

She recently returned to Grinnell for her 40th reunion, an experience that rekindled a familial connection, much like the one she’s created at her restaurants. “I spent a lot of time developing thought at Grinnell and I’ve carried that through my life,” she says. “It’s important for me to be involved on a thoughtful level in this world.”

—by Anne Stein '84

For your information:

Learn more about the Pizzeria Paradiso restaurants and the organization’s Gresser supports on the Pizzeria Paradiso website.

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