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SEVEN OVENS BLOG
August 29, 2023

A San Francisco First: The SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival

by Joe Bonadio

San Francisco has been known for its outdoor parties for decades, and this one was a stunner: coming to Washington Square Park for the first time, the SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival premiered on Saturday, August 19th. Blessed with one of the warmest Saturdays this year, the city came out in force, marking an incredible debut for Tony Gemignani’s first time as a festival organizer.

North Beach's Dago Bagel was just one of six bagel bakeries featured at the SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Fest. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

North Beach’s Dago Bagel was just one of six bagel bakeries featured at the SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Fest. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Close to 3,000 people showed up for the debut festival, originally conceived as a way to showcase the top-tier work being done by so many of California’s brewers, pizzaiolos and bagel bakers. Tony had been thinking about the idea since all the way back in 2019, and he knew people would come out for it. But planning an outdoor festival is no small task, especially when the whole thing is brand-new. As Tony told me: ”The first one is always the hardest.”

Happily, the restaurateur had a lot of good people in his corner. First off, Nicholas Figone of the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club, bringing his considerable experience throwing outdoor events in North Beach, was with Tony every step of the way. Along with a surfeit of sponsors (BiRite and DoorDash chief among them) and a small army of volunteers, Tony and Nick managed to cobble together a day to remember–and hopefully, to repeat.

At least, that’s if our elected representatives have anything to say about it. Both Senator Michael Weiner and Mayor London Breed came out with a strong show of support, challenging Tony to bring the event back every year. To make it official, Mayor Breed presented him with a special certificate of honor for his work promoting the North Beach community, and the city at large.

Longtime co-conspirators Tony Gemignani and Matt Molina man the pizza ovens at the Tony's Pizza Napoletana booth. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Longtime co-conspirators Tony Gemignani and Matt Molina man the pizza ovens at the Tony’s Pizza Napoletana booth. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

It’s hard to imagine things going better, frankly. Despite some thick crowds as things got started off, lines were almost a non-issue. Needless to say, that’s a rarity when it comes to food festivals of any sort. Tony had instructed all participants to be ready to serve 2,000 samples–and ready they were.

If anything, it was almost too efficient: by 2:00 PM, just two hours in, I was absolutely stuffed. Thank goodness the great selection of craft beer revived my flagging appetite, and I soon got my second wind. (Shout out to Stellar at Otherwise Brewing, whose delicious Calrose Crisp Lager had to be the only gluten-free thing I consumed all day.)

The quality of the pizza and bagels being turned out was excellent across the board, with guest chefs popping up throughout the afternoon to refresh the offerings and keep things interesting. Though it was hard to stand out in such a talented crowd, there were a couple of surprises. Delarosa has been on my radar for a while, albeit as a cocktail bar with Italian food. Theirs was the third booth I visited, and their remarkable crust had me returning more than once. Credit to the bakers at Boichik Bagels as well, whose pillowy product reminded me of my beloved David’s Bagels back in New York.

Celia and Chris Camargo, two locals who showed up to feed the bun (excuse me, the pizza) in the oven. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Celia and Chris Camargo, two locals who showed up to feed the bun (excuse me, the pizza) in the oven. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Having been to my share of festivals in San Francisco and all over the country, I’d say this was easily the most well managed–and as a result, the most fun. Waits were kept to a bare minimum, and most importantly, everybody was well-fed and watered. This led to a general positive vibe, from the toddlers on up to the old folks. The sun was shining, there was a lovely pizza-scented breeze in the air….what more could anyone possibly want?

Nick Ferris, the Treasurer of Telegraph Hill Dwellers, attended with his wife and young daughter. “I loved the energy it brought to the neighborhood–we’re doing so well,” Ferris said. “People came from all over, and the streets were buzzing with a lot of folks who don’t usually come to North Beach. We had the chance to reintroduce them to the neighborhood, and show them we’re back and open for business.”

I also spoke with Nick Figone, who was emphatic about the importance of the festival to the neighborhood. “A year and a half ago when the SFIAC Foundation developed its strategic plan, the pizza festival was one of our goals,” Figone explained. “It’s been really inspiring collaborating to create something that reflects and continues the ongoing cultural relevance of North Beach, and of our Italian-American heritage.”

Nick Ferris, his wife Vinaya and their daughter Sienna seldom miss a North Beach event, and this one was no exception. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Nick Ferris, his wife Vinaya and their daughter Sienna seldom miss a North Beach event, and this one was no exception. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Matt Molina, the original pizzaiolo for Capo’s, was just one of the many award-winning pizza makers working the ovens at the event. “You know, considering it was the first one, it was amazing. And just being part of it was a blast,” he told me. “It was awesome working with so many phenomenal pizza makers from around the Bay Area. I got to work for Capo’s again, and I had my Graffiti Pizza booth set up at the end. It was an honor to be part of it.”

I remember when Tony first started batting this idea around, nearly four years ago. Now that the dust has settled, I circled back to get the pizza maker’s thoughts on creating his very first pizza festival.

“Being the first one we’ve done, you’re always worried about a lot of things,” Tony told me. “For me, I was worried about the generators, and the ovens working. That can really mess up a  festival.

Tony Gemignani jokes with his son Gino while Mayor London Breed and SFIAC's Nick Figone look on. The Mayor presented Tony with a certificate of honor for his work promoting the city. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Tony Gemignani jokes with his son Gino while Mayor London Breed and SFIAC’s Nick Figone look on. The Mayor presented Tony with a certificate of honor for his work promoting the city. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

“This was a brand-new festival, something that has never done before in San Francisco. None of us had worked together before, and there were a lot of moving parts. Especially the bagel and beer component, that’s never been part of a pizza festival like this.

“So to bring it all together, and see it become a successful event, was kind of exciting. And at the same time, overwhelming,” Tony explained. “It was an entire year of planning, and to see it succeed….there were a lot of emotions.”

This week Tony meets with the festival committee, where they will discuss the possibility of holding another festival next year.

“I think we will—but it was a lot of work,” Tony told me. “If we can make it easier and less expensive by working with the city, then I think we’d all be more than happy to do it again. If we have more obstacles, and more red tape, then we may not. Being able to set up the night before and close the street off, and maybe not having to pay the fees for closing the street, that would really help.

“I have to say though, having the support of your Supervisor, the Mayor and the Senator was pretty big. They were all here, and they stayed for the event. All three of them want to push it through,” Tony stressed. “They love events like this—it’s a family event, people weren’t wasted, and everyone had a great time.”

 

Tony Gemignani and his son Gino in a quiet moment stageside. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Tony Gemignani and his son Gino in a quiet moment stageside. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

 

The first thing attendees were handed was a guide to the festival grounds, complete with a map of all participants and facilities. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

The first thing attendees were handed was a guide to the festival grounds, complete with a map of all participants and facilities. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

 

The first festival of its kind, the SF Pizza Bagel & Beer Festival had Filbert and Stockton Streets packed with revelers. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

The first festival of its kind, the SF Pizza Bagel & Beer Festival had Filbert and Stockton Streets packed with revelers. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

 

For a few hours, the streets surrounding Washington Street Park became a who's-who of North Beach luminaries. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

For a few hours, the streets surrounding Washington Street Park became a who’s-who of North Beach luminaries. | Photo: Joe Bonadio