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SEVEN OVENS BLOG
September 13, 2018

All About The Ingredients: Talking Shop With Tony

The second time I visited Giovanni Italian Specialties, Tony Gemignani’s picture perfect Italian market in San Francisco’s North Beach, I had the good fortune to run into Tony himself. We talked a little bit about the shop, and some of the products he had chosen to stock. And there in front of the canned tomatoes, salted capers and sardines, I learned that Tony and I had something in common: like me, Tony is obsessed with ingredients. I also learned more about tomatoes in our five-minute conversation than I had in the previous five years.

At that moment, I vowed to continue that conversation whenever the chance arose – and last week, Tony and I picked up the thread. Sitting down in Tony’s crow’s nest of an office, which looks out on Washington Square Park and the Saints Peter & Paul Church, we spoke about the most important thing in any cuisine: the Ingredients.

“Being in the pizza industry, it’s all about the ingredients,” Tony began, quickly warming to his subject. “What makes a great pizza? I’d say balance is important, but it’s always about your dough, sauce and cheese.”

Having spent more than a quarter century as a pizzaiolo, Tony has put a lot of thought into that holy trinity. At his North Beach restaurants alone, Tony bakes sixteen different regional styles of pizza, all requiring different sauces, doughs and combinations of cheeses. It’s hard to imagine anyone being more immersed in their craft.

Tony Gemignani’s California Artisan Type 00 Pizza Flour sits on the shelf alongside classic Caputo and Molino flours. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Tony Gemignani’s California Artisan Type 00 Pizza Flour sits on the shelf alongside classic Caputo and Molino flours. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

“One of the first things I wanted to come out with was a flour,” the chef explained. “A flour that could work for the home chef, and for the professional. It took me three years to develop. I did it with Nicky and Keith Giusto, from Central Milling, probably the biggest organic flour company out there.

“They’re geniuses. You look at guys like Acme, Tartine, they’re all buying their flour from Central Milling.”

When Tony approached the Giustos, he had a very specific idea of the flour he wanted to create. But when he asked them about it, they said they already had a perfectly good pizza flour. But Tony begged to differ.

“Of course, they’re bread guys. But when I eat pizza, I don’t want it to taste bready.” Tony pointed out. “That’s a term: ‘bready.’ When you eat a New York slice in New York, it doesn’t have a bready flavor profile to it. But a lot of chefs in California that use Central Milling or Giusto flours end up with that quality in their pizza.”

What Tony wanted was a pizza flour he was familiar with, like the one he grew up with – just much better. He told the Giustos that he was after something a little different. “I love your flour. It’s awesome for bread,” he told the master millers. “I’m just not a big fan of that flavor in my pizza.”

It was an arduous process, but Tony persisted, and the Giustos eventually came around. And the payoff was tremendous: “My flour’s perfect for Sicilian, Roman, New York Style, baguettes, you name it. It’s very versatile,” Tony told me, his enthusiasm for his ‘baby’ obvious. “It’s totally different. It has a little malt in it, it’s super strong. It also has ascorbic acid in it–that’s Vitamin C-which actually strengthens the dough. You can make dough and use it two days, three, even four days later.”

For those home chefs out there, you already know how tricky it can be to bake a proper pizza in your own kitchen’s oven. As Tony revealed, much of that comes down to the flour. “A lot of guys will grab some pizza flour, like a Neapolitan flour, and take that home and make pizza with it. And it comes out like cardboard, it won’t brown well, it’s just a nightmare.

“When you’re cooking at five hundred degrees, you need a flour that can cook at that temperature,” Tony told me. “You can’t just grab an eight- or nine-hundred-degree flour that cooks in one of those ovens, and think you’re going to replicate it in your home oven.

“My flour performs great at five hundred to six hundred and fifty degrees. It’s not meant for your wood-fired ovens,” he clarified. “I wasn’t going to duplicate what Naples has been doing for over a hundred years. So I just came up with my own flour.”

The result, Tony Gemignani’s California Artisan Type 00 Pizza Flour, is the best of both worlds: like the best Italian flours, it’s a double zero flour, the most refined classification. But like the greatest American flours, it’s strong and malty, and of course perfect for American pizza styles–and for the production-minded pizza chef.

“So it’s great,” Tony added. “I have this American flour that performs great at five hundred, six hundred degrees, but it’s milled like an Italian flour.”

Used extensively at all Tony’s restaurants and sold all around the U.S., it has already been adopted by a number of prominent pizzerias. “It’s available in fifty pound bags and two pound bags, and the retail side has just started,” the chef divulged. ”I wanted to really develop the flour, and see how it worked in all my stores. Once it performed right, I started to offer it to everyone.”

For those in the industry, Tony’s flour is currently available through a host of national distributors. For the home chef, you can find it online at CentralMilling.com, and as of this month, GiovanniSpecialties.com.

Tony Gemignani's Hot Pepper Olive Oil has become Tony's most popular retail product. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Tony Gemignani’s Hot Pepper Olive Oil has become Tony’s most popular retail product. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

And the next time you’re shopping online, there’s another tasty TG product to look out for: Tony Gemignani’s Hot Pepper Oil. Calabrese pepper oil has always been a favorite condiment of Tony’s, and he knew it deserved a bigger audience. “In Italy, you’ll see hot Calabrese oil on the table in a lot of places. You don’t see it here that often,” Tony lamented.

So the chef decided to create a condiment of his own. And with the housemade hot pepper oil Tony was serving at his restaurants, he already had a working model. “People would just devour it, and ask where they could get it in a bottle,” Tony recalled, smiling. “It got to the point where I just couldn’t stand hearing it any more!”

When Tony set about creating his own in-house brand of hot oil, he knew what he was after. Like his in-house version, he wanted it to have a serious kick, and to be made with real Calabrese peppers and sea salt. It took some doing, but the final product is a bonafide hit. Available on Amazon, It has become Tony’s best-selling retail offering, flying off the shelves.

Of course, no discussion of the pizza chef’s pantry can omit the mighty tomato. That day at Giovanni, tomatoes were the first topic of conversation. As an ardent consumer of San Marzano tomatoes, an expensive canned variety imported from Italy, I thought I had the tomato game figured out. Just look for the DOP stamp (which stands for Protected Designation of Origin, indicating they’re the real thing), and you’ve got the best product out there.

But in the pizza world, it’s not so simple. As good as they are, the expense of San Marzano tomatoes makes them unrealistic for most pizzerias to use in quantity. So where do America’s pizzerias go for their tomatoes? America’s breadbasket, that’s where: California.

“Most people don’t realize that probably 99 percent of pizza is made with canned tomatoes,” Tony told me. “and something like 90 percent of those come from California.”

A little over three years ago, Tony threw his hat into the business, developing his own line of canned tomatoes. And as you might imagine, the chef has a lot to say on the subject.

Stanislaus is the Ferrari of canned tomatoes in California. I don’t think there’s anyone better,” Tony insisted. “They make 7/11, Super Dolce, they make Full Red, they make them all.

“If you go to New York, the common blend for pizza sauce is 7/11 and Full Red. It’s like 60 percent of the pizza market. They’re that big.”

When Tony started talking to Stanislaus about developing his own tomato blend, the learning curve was steep. Sobering realization Number One: for the company to even talk to you, you have to be capable of going through 10,000 cases of tomatoes a year. “I don’t know if that sounds like much, or if it doesn’t,” Tony emphasized, “but it is.”

One of Tony's eager students learns the finer points of tossing pizza dough.

One of Tony’s eager students learns the finer points of tossing pizza dough.

A friend of Tony’s, Mark Kimmel, who had been the Stanislaus’ head scientist for decades, helped the chef navigate the tomato terrain. “I wanted more solids in my ground tomatoes. I wanted it to be thicker, with the skins off, and sweeter,” Tony recalled. “This tomato is sweet-ripened. You’ll eat it out of the can, and think there’s sugar in it, it’s so sweet. But it’s 100% tomato.”

“People always ask, Why do your tomato sauces pop? Why is your pizza sauce so sweet?” Tony recounted, clearly proud of his secret weapon. “It’s the tomatoes. Any time you get our Jersey Pie, our Coal Fired New Yorker, our pepperoni slice–those are my tomatoes.”

And Tony has a lot more to come: he’s now working on bringing a special dry mozzarella, made by Aiello Brothers on the East Coast, to the market. “When it comes to the coal oven, this mozzarella is just what you use,” Tony told me. “It’s a great cheese–and nobody out here knows about it.”

Tony has already been using the dry mozzarella in his kitchen for years, on both his Coal Fired and Grandma pizzas. And now he’s talking to Aiello Brothers about developing his own line of mozzarella. “It will be a little higher in fat,” Tony said. “But we’re still figuring it out.”

Cheese has always been a point of distinction for Tony’s pies, and there’s another cheesemaker for which the chef reserves special praise: Grande of Wisconsin. The most expensive cheese in the industry, it’s used by most East Coast pizzerias. “I’ve used Grande Cheese ever since I started making pizza–now almost thirty years,” Tony revealed.

“That’s the same cheese I used on all of my championship pizzas, including my biggest win in Naples [at the World Pizza Cup] for Best Margherita,” Tony told me. “I still use their mozzarella today for certain styles.”

“I still have all my importers, and use a lot of ingredients from all over the place,” Tony stressed. “But these days, when everyone can buy everything, it’s nice to have a few things of our own to set us apart.”

The Seven Ovens blog appears in this space twice each month, bringing the stories and details behind Tony Gemignani’s San Francisco school and remarkable group of restaurants to a wider audience. Make sure to bookmark us, and we’ll see you here soon.