LAKE BALBOA >> The “dough girl” known as Mar Diego leans over a pizza board, rolls out a New York-thin 20 inches, swirls on a layer of sauce and cheese, and tosses on a small school of shrimp.
She then notices an unsavory ingredient breeze into her Dough Girl pizza kitchen.
“How did a fly get in here?” Diego bellows, her dark brown eyes flashing as she turns toward her teenage employees. “Somebody get a towel and swat him.
“Twenty bucks to whoever kills the fly.”
For 2 1/2 years, her hipster hole-in-the-wall pizza parlor at Victory and Balboa boulevards in Lake Balboa has drawn foodies, public officials and celebrities from across Los Angeles.
It’s also become a hangout for skate kids and other students from nearby Birmingham Charter High School and beyond.
But from inside walls tagged with professional graffiti proclaiming love and peace thumps the latest hip hop in what has also become a haven for troubled teens.
It is here that the 35-year-old ex-convict, who grew out of a public housing project in Pacoima, has schooled dozens of young employees on how to make fresh lemonade, healthy salads and hand-thrown gourmet pies.
And where she’s nurtured teens on how to earn their dough the right way — by not doing wrong. “I know what it’s like to come from a difficult background,” said Diego, a long braided pigtail poking from behind a Dough Girl cap over a green T, bike shorts and Chuck Taylor tennies. “I took a lot of left turns in life.
“Everyone needs a dough girl, like your mom, to help you make dough legally.”
Rise and fall
The girl brought up by a single welfare mom in San Fernando Gardens has long had a taste for rising dough.
She was scarcely a teen when she said she read a primer on how Warren Buffett made his billions.
She was scarcely an adult when she said she opened a cell phone store, the first of many businesses that included check cashing, car washing, real estate and valet services — much of them financed by selling weed, she said.
For a few years, she said she lived high on the hog. Then it all crashed down in 2004 with a court conviction for drug sales and money laundering, followed by five years in state prison.
Long story short: she had a come-to-pizza moment inside her prison cell. When she was sprung, she attended Le Cordon Bleu college of culinary arts in both Pasadena and Paris. Kept her spatula clean. She traveled the world staging in Michelin-starred restaurants.
As Chef Diego, she did stints at elite kitchens at Mélisse, Providence, elBulli and Wolfgang Puck Catering.
Then in November 2014 she opened Nikki’s, a pizza parlor at 16851 Victory Blvd. squeezed between a nail salon and halal meat shop and named after the daughter of business partner Veronica Alcaraz. The following year she changed its name to Dough Girl.
Its vision, she said, is quality healthy food favored by teenage kids.
A graffito, painted by noted Hollywood tattoo artist Manny Briseno, reads “You’re never too young to dream BIG.”
“I asked myself: with a prison background and a hustler background, what could I do to give back to the San Fernando Valley,” she said. “I grew up here. I grew successful here. I got in trouble here. How could I give back?
“I’ve gotta think big ‘cause I’ve gotta keep these kids off the street.”
Behind her, several teens in “Everything we dough we dough it big” T-shirts helped prep a line of signature Dough Girl pizzas. An Animal Style pizza comes slathered with Thousand Island, cheddar and french fries. A Mobster comes coated with a lobster tail bisque topped with tiger shrimp.
Celebs from singer Chris Brown to rapper ASAP Rocky, she said, and athletes from Nick Young of the NBA to light heavyweight fighter Chuck Liddell have all made pizza runs to Lake Balboa.
‘High standard for pizza’
Kevin Geiger, who ordered a vegan Shroomz, said Dough Girl puts out the best pizza in the Valley. “I’m from New York and I like it,” said Geiger, 26, of Woodland Hills. “So that’s a high standard for pizza.”
And that makes Dough Girl workers such as 14-year-old Kevon Holland proud. “She taught me everything,” said Holland, of Los Angeles. “How to make pizza. How to do dishes. Clean. Including (how to) chase your dream.”
Sixteen-year-old K.J. Marshall, who manages the place when Diego’s gone, said he was “out of control” before stepping into Dough Girl last fall.
“I’m just focussed on being successful,” said Marshall, 16, of Northridge, who now puts in 30 hours a week while on break from his Granada Hills Charter High School. “She taught me how to think before I speak. Take care of myself. Handle difficult situations. And she taught me how to drive a stick shift (truck).”
“Mar taught me responsibility,” added Roben Lopez, 18, of Van Nuys “Before I came, I would just sleep all day, be out late. Now I come to work, my mom’s proud. I pay for gas, everything. This has taught me skills for the future.”
When he graduates from Birmingham High next year, he said he aims to join the U.S. Marine Corps, where he hopes to serve in the infantry “to save people.”
Diego, who catered a 500-person breakfast at City Hall last spring for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said she aims to expand her Dough Girl into a chain of parlors across tough Los Angeles.
“The future for Dough Girl is to be the ‘hood pizza stop — in Compton, Whittier, in South L.A. I’m now building one in San Fernando,” she said, beaming. “There will be a Dough Girl in every hood.”