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Community pizza: A Q&A with the co-founder of ‘Ladies Who Pizza’

Frame > Frame Stories > Feb. 2022: The Pizza Issue > Community pizza: A Q&A with the co-founder of ‘Ladies Who Pizza’
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“Ladies Who Pizza” co-founder Candice Fortman, left, and a few of the social group’s members at the original Buddy’s Pizza at 6 Mile and Conant, where their first meeting was held.

It started as a Detroit public radio joke.

In 2016, Candice Fortman, then marketing manager for WDET 101.9-FM, was chatting with producer Laura Weber Davis and in-studio guest Rachel Lutz, proprietor of the Peacock Room boutique.

“Someone said how we wished there was a social club, like a tea club, but for women who didn’t want to sit around and drink tea and be that bourgeois,” Fortman recalls. “What if there was a social club for women who wanted to eat pizza?”

As a lark, she created a Facebook group, called it “Ladies Who Pizza,” and put up a sign that said “Coming Soon”.

To her surprise, people started asking to join, and eventually, the in-joke had grown into a 300-strong community of diverse women gathering quarterly at pizza joints around town.

“We always jokingly say that Ladies Who Pizza is a social group for women to gather and eat pizza outside of the male gaze,” explains Fortman, now the executive director of non-profit service journalism outfit Outlier Media.

She hopes to soon revive the group’s in-person meetings, on hold since December 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even without their physical gatherings, Ladies Who Pizza provides community, connection, and much-needed comfort for its members, who turned to sharing pizza memes, photos, recipes, advice, and general words of support in the Facebook group.

We caught up with Fortman by phone to chat about the remarkably unifying power of pizza.

This conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Frame Stories: Is pizza the focus of Ladies Who Pizza or just more of the sustenance for other conversations?

Candice Fortman: Oh, no. These women are serious. Like if you meet up with your friends who are really into wine. They take this very seriously. It’s social and fun and we’re joking and talking about life and work and those things. But we’re also talking about flavors and favorite kinds of pizza toppings. There are real conversations about the food. But at the heart of it is a chance for women of very different backgrounds to build community.

FS: What has surprised you most about this group?

CF: The diversity of women who have joined this group is unreal to me. And I mean that in every possible way. Race is certainly diverse, but also backgrounds and lifestyles. We have moms, judges, lawyers, doctors, construction workers. We have the full gamut of humanity in this group. We have vegans, meat eaters. And they’re all able to come together over this thing. That’s what I love about pizza. You can pretty much satisfy everyone with pizza.

FS: What is it about pizza that makes it such a unifying force?

CF: I think the ease of it, in particular with women, who are working really hard in their communities and their workspaces and homes. Pizza has always meant a break in your house. Imagine that day where mom was stressed out and maybe your father said, “Okay, we’re having pizza tonight.” It has always been a break.

So when I think about the conversations we’ve had over pizza, they’ve been about some of the best parts of people’s lives and the hardest parts.

FS: And it almost doesn’t matter what your economic or cultural background is, Americans all seem to have some sort of familiar association with pizza.

CF: It’s the amount you can play with the flavoring and the amount of culture you can bring into it. You can have a pizza with Indian or Middle Eastern profiles. I’ve had pizza with mac ‘n’ cheese and fried chicken on it. Think of the coney dog pizza. The way that pizza can be molded and transformed to pretty much fit anybody is really lovely. It’s kind of what we need more of in life.

FS: At what point does it stop being pizza though? Do you consider pizza fries or Chicago-style pizza still pizza?

CF: Chicago-style pizza is pizza. Is it a casserole to me? Absolutely. But also I respect the fact that they believe that it’s pizza, just like people respect the fact that our pizza is pizza. It’s very different from what you would get in New York or any other place. Pizza is what you make it.

FS: What is your preferred style?

CF: I like all the styles. But I am very particular about who I like to do each style of pizza. I love pizza from Crispelli’s, but I also love Buddy’s. Those are very different pizzas. But I also like the same toppings on both of those pizzas: spinach, feta, mushrooms, Italian sausage, and sometimes pepperoni if I’m feeling saucy.

FS: Are Buddy’s and Crispelli’s your favorites?

CF: Buddy’s and Crispelli’s are the ones I go to on the hard days, where pizza is filling an emotional gap of some sort. That’s where I’m going because I know what I’m getting and that I won’t be disappointed. The consistency is there and it makes me happy. I experiment on the other days.

FS: What was your neighborhood pizza joint growing up?

CF: I grew up not far from Dearborn, so we would go to Cottage Inn or we would go to a place I think was called Biondi’s. I don’t remember. It was one of those pizzas that was so heavy on toppings that, when you lift it up, things are falling off. There are still days when I crave that kind of pizza.

Now when you talk about neighborhood pizza, you have the battle between Gregg’s and Bob’s. And when I want that kind of pizza where we’re dumping toppings, I have to go straight to Gregg’s.

FS: What is the importance of a place like Gregg’s to its neighborhood?

CF: Growing up in Detroit there weren’t a lot of places you could walk to and grab a meal. If it wasn’t a coney island, it was going to be a pizza spot. Pizza is accessible to everyone. So as a restaurateur, if you’re going to open something in a community where there might be some challenging socioeconomic things happening, pizza is a good way to go. When I think about the restaurants in our neighborhood, those are the only two things that I could call out immediately: the pizza spot up the street on Livernois and coney island. And that’s about who is willing to invest in your community, which is a real conversation.

FS: A lot of cultures have some kind of bread with toppings on it, but what’s unique about pizza is that it’s served in slices meant for sharing. It truly is this communal experience.

CF: You could also eat a whole pizza, and I shame no one who would. Who among us would not? But it really is a community meal. Think about all the community meetings you’ve been to. How often was pizza the meal du jour? Always!

But the other thing is it’s so tied to nostalgia. I think of Pizza Hut’s Book It! program and how important it was to me as a kid to read to get that pizza. There’s a real throughline of my thoughts like, “If I read enough books, I can get this pan pizza, and my mom is going to be proud of me.” It starts there.

Book It! had a place and then it moves up and your first outing as a teenager is to get pizza, maybe your first date. It follows you through all these parts of your life. Lord, how much pizza did I eat in college?! We also eat a lot of pizza here. The importance of pizza to newsrooms. Election night is deeply tied to pizza.

It really is a part of every single era of my life. And now that my friends have children, I’m eating pizza at their birthday parties and it’s a marker of celebration.

But also in the days and weeks and months that followed my mother’s passing, where I literally couldn’t find the energy to feed myself, I could call and get a pizza delivered and eat it for two days and not think about it.

There’s comfort and ease and that’s important both in really good times and really difficult times. Pizza is the great bridge. I’ve had a great day or a really bad day and pizza still works. Even if I have to make that pizza myself, it still works.