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Second To None: A Talk With Capo’s Grace Fentress
April 23, 2024

Second To None: A Talk With Capo’s Grace Fentress

by Joe Bonadio

In 2012, Tony Gemignani opened Capo’s on Vallejo Street, just a few blocks away from his flagship, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. Tony’s had opened to a respectable buzz just over three years earlier, and while the neighborhood was grateful for a Chicago pizza option, many didn’t understand the logic behind it. Why open a pizzeria right around the corner from your pizzeria?

The truth is, Tony opened Capo’s because he had to. The reason lies in the fire times: that’s the term for how long a pizza spends in the oven. As we know now, Tony’s goal was to serve the very best, most authentic version of every style of pizza. And naturally, the pizza maker had the mighty Chicago Deep-Dish dead in his sights.

The problem is, a Deep-Dish pizza can take 45 minutes to bake. Compare that to Tony’s Margherita, which might spend 90 seconds in the oven––it’s just a completely different animal. Trying to serve both in the same dining room would be nothing but chaos, both for the kitchen and the servers. As anyone who has visited Giordano’s or Malnati’s in Chi-Town knows, you don’t order Deep-Dish when you’re in a hurry.

The distinction is evident the moment you step into Capo’s. The vibe of the place is dictated by its slower pace, and the room exudes a serenity and calm that is almost the opposite of the high-energy vibe at Tony’s. Capo’s speakeasy atmosphere, red leather banquettes, stamped tin ceilings and Prohibition-era brick walls attract regular customers like a warm campfire. Whether it’s to post up at the bar to explore the extensive whiskey selection, or grab a table with friends for a relaxed and satisfying meal, people like to take their time at Capo’s.

Of course, the business has changed since Capo’s debut, and one of the biggest changes is the rapid rise of Detroit-Style pizza. A step ahead of that trend, in 2020 Tony expanded the Capo’s concept to include Detroit, at that time the new star of the pan pizza world.

Of course, the most important ingredient at any great restaurant is the people. Last week, I had the chance to sit down with the woman behind Capo’s relaxed and welcoming energy: their supremely hospitable manager Grace Fentress. Edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

A band of happy locals raise a glass at the cozy bar in front of Capo's spacious open kitchen

A band of happy locals raise a glass at the cozy bar in front of Capo’s spacious open kitchen. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Joe Bonadio: So where are you from, Grace?

Grace Fentress: I’m from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A very small one-road town off the beach. A tiny little sandbox, pretty much.

JB: How long have you been in California?

GF: I moved out here when I turned 22, so coming up on 12 years now. I had never been to San Francisco, and I just hopped in the car and came out here.

JB: Were you quick to get into the restaurant world when you got here?

GF: I wasn’t—but I’ve been in the restaurant industry since I was 15. You could kind of get away with that in North Carolina in a small town. But I wanted to take a break from it when I got here, so I got a customer service representative job at Google actually…..and I hated it.

I really missed the fast pace and volume of restaurants. And I went to school for accounting, so in the job I have now, I can use that a little bit while still being in the restaurant environment, so it’s nice.

JB: How did you make the shift back to restaurants?

GF: I lived over on Church and Market in the Mission, it was my first apartment here. I just pounded the pavement and dropped off resumes. Luna Park on 18th and Valencia was my first serving job in the city. It’s something else now.

Fancy glass full of The Made Man, a brawny but smooth combination of bourbon, cognac, benedictine and sweet vermouth

The Made Man, a brawny but smooth combination of bourbon, cognac, benedictine and sweet vermouth, was right in my wheelhouse. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: So you started out as a server?

GF: Yes. I also taught myself bartending over the years. Especially when you’re managing, you have to be able to fill every role—because you never know what’s going to happen! I’ve never actually had a bartending job, I’ve always stuck to serving and managing. But I’ve had to jump behind the bar plenty of times.

After Luna Park I went to the Boxing Room, which is part of the Absinthe Group, in Hayes Valley. That was their New Orleans restaurant, and that was my first managing job. I was 23.

JB: Wow, you made the jump into management quickly.

GF: Yes.

JB: What do you think accounts for that?

GF: One of my best skills, I’m very observant. I have  the ability to notice a lot of little things that other people I’ve worked with don’t really focus on. For instance, here I serve and I manage, so I’m typically doing the two roles. I’ll have a full section, but I’m still keeping an eye on everybody. So I’m good with multitasking and problem solving. I’m good at figuring stuff out, and I think that really facilitated my move into management.

JB: So how long were you at Boxing Room?

GF: I was there for about a year and a half. Then one of my friends that I knew through Boxing Room, their dad was a manager at Tony’s—Kevin Nusso. He brought me in, when Jaime (Wong) was the manager and all that. So for a while I tried to do both, Tony’s and managing at Boxing Room, which was impossible. So I made the move to Tony’s full time.

I served there for like seven years, and then I went on to become the GM at Elmer’s restaurant, Red Window. I was the GM there for about a year. But it was a lot of hours, and I wanted a break. I wanted to get back into serving a little bit, and something with less hours–it adds up when you’re GM, because you’re just always on.

That’s when Tony approached me about  coming over here. And it was kind of the perfect fit, in terms of what I was looking for. I’m still able to serve; I’m still able to be on the floor. And we’re a little family at Capo’s. It’s a very small staff, and everybody works together so closely, because we have to. I really like that.

It’s a nice transition from Red Window to here because I’m managing, and I’m still on the floor serving.

JB: It keeps you interested.

GF: Yeah. It keeps me moving, and out of the office a little bit. I like that I’m able to wear multiple hats when I need to. It’s just adding more and more stuff that I’m able to learn, especially working with Tony. It’s just such a great opportunity.

And Tony’s is a buzzsaw, from the moment you walk in until you clock out to leave. It’s just that volume, and that busyness. Here, with the styles of pizza that we do, things take a little longer. People sit down and have an hour-and-a-half meal. A  Margherita pizza cooks in 90 seconds, whereas here, a deep-dish can take 45 or 50 minutes on a busy night. So people have a couple of cocktails, some appetizers, maybe a bottle of wine.

A really nice, full dining experience—that’s what I think we do best here. We also get a lot of large groups. We get parties of like 20 that come in a lot, and we can do full buyouts. These are things that we’re able to hone in on at Capo’s that Tony’s is just not set up for.

Isabel posing in front of the bar. She is one of the reasons that Capo's bar is one of the friendliest in San Francisco

Isabel is just one of the reasons that Capo’s bar is one of the friendliest in San Francisco. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: But much like Tony’s. it seems like you also see a lot of regulars.

GF: Yes. We have such a great regular clientele. People who come in three times a week, they sit at the bar, and we all know their order. People always comment that it’s kind of like you’re in your living room, and that they can sit here for hours. I love that we’re able to provide that. And I think that’s what has made Capo’s what it is over the last 11 years.

JB: So tell me about the first time you met Tony.

GF: I was so nervous when I met him the first time. I think he was cooking in the kitchen that day, and I was so scared I was going to mess something up. (Laughter)

You know, this is Tony, and his name carried a lot of weight. And I’m this 23, 24-year old girl, who is just totally intimidated. And I’m working with all of these people who have been there since they opened…

But he was so nice. As soon as he met me for the first time, he was just generous, right off the bat. It really dispelled that intimidation that goes with a name like Tony Gemignani. He’s just an awesome, supportive person. He jokes around with you, and laughs, and he’s just happy. With how busy he is, and how much he does, especially now with the franchises and everything. He can be shooting a tv show in Texas—just like he was a couple of weeks ago—and he still texts me everyday, checking in. “Hey Grace, how are you?”

To work for someone who is as successful as he is, but still cares, is the best. To work for somebody who cares about their employees and their well-being—I wouldn’t want to work for anyone else.

JB: So you started here at Capo’s just as the city really began coming back from Covid. Do you feel like your timing was pretty good?

GF: Yes. Business lately has been great. We’re doing live music, and a lot of big groups. We have a lot of birthday parties where they’ll bring in their own band. We’re able to do so much more now, and it makes it more fun.

JB: Since you’ve come in, what sort of changes have you made?

GF: We’ve changed the music, we’ve made some changes in staff. We’ve changed a lot of our menus, like our Happy Hour, which we’ve really beefed up. Having lived in North Beach for coming up on 11 years now, I think we do one of the best Happy Hours in the neighborhood, for both food and drink. So I really amped that up, and we do it five days a week. I took over the music and the booking, and we’re doing a lot of full buyouts for groups of like 50—wedding rehearsals, receptions, things like that.

JB: And that’s another big difference between you guys and Tony’s, is that Capo’s takes reservations.

GF: We do. Most of the reservations come directly through me, on my email. But I book parties for months in advance, so I’m able to sit down and build a calendar, and map things out. We really have to plan ahead, especially before a busy night. Because you have to take into account the style of food that we do, and the times on everything.

And I like that part of the job, the meticulous planning. Because it just makes me feel better.

JB: (Laughter)

GF: You know? It calms me down a little bit.

JB: So we’ve got a lot coming up this year. We’ve got the Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival coming up in August, which was amazing last year.

GF: That was fun. I worked the Capo’s booth last year.

JB: Are you doing it again this year?

GF: Yeah, I liked it. Matt (Molina, longtime Capo’s Chef) and I worked it together, and it was fun.

JB: What a great event.

GF: And they’re doing it bigger, too, Tony was saying that they’re going to be able to use the full (Washington Square) park this time.

JB: The interior too? Wow.

GF: That’s great, because it needed more space in order to grow.

JB: Right, there are probably going to be twice as many people this year.

GF: Tony just jumped in on it. That thing was a well-oiled machine, which makes me even more excited for this year.

Matt Molina the two-time world pizza champion has returned to the Capo's kitchen

Is that Matt Molina? It sure is! The two-time world pizza champion has returned to the Capo’s kitchen. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: So what do you have coming up here at Capo’s?

GF: Well, we just restarted live music; we took a break during the rainy season. We’re on our third week of music now after our little hiatus. We were doing music inside, but with the space that we have it’s less than ideal. It’s just better to keep it outside.

And now that Matt’s come back over, we’re going to be changing up some things. We’re changing up our cocktail menu soon, so we’ll be bringing in our Spring/Summer stuff. We try and rotate every few months, and we’ll do a whole new cocktail program, which is always fun—because everybody throws their ideas in.

JB: Speaking of Matt, how does it feel to have the prodigal son back in the kitchen?

GF: I’m really excited, it’s really nice. He came in for a few pick-up shifts at first, and now he’s back as the Kitchen Manager.

I’ve worked with Matt for a very long time, and we work so well together, so it’s fun. And he’s so good when it comes to communicating, that it just makes everyone’s shift easier.

JB: Thanks for taking the time, Grace.

 

Next time we’ll be talking with Matt Molina, the two-time World Pizza Champion, about his recent return to his first San Francisco home, Capo’s.

In Pursuit Of Pizza: Tony’s Fourth Book Hits The Shelves
April 10, 2024

In Pursuit Of Pizza: Tony’s Fourth Book Hits The Shelves

by Joe Bonadio

As a longtime owner of Tony’s The Pizza Bible, I’m well aware of his talents as a food writer. It’s one of my favorite cookbooks of any kind, and it taught me how to finally make world-class pizza in my crummy 500º oven. Along with a little hands-on instruction from Tony, the book was an absolute game-changer for me, and I threw more dinner parties that year than any year, before or since.

That being said, it’s exciting to announce the publication of Tony’s new book: The Pursuit of Pizza. Co-authored with Laura Meyer, Mike Bausch and Nick Bogacz, it’s Tony’s fourth, and continues in the pizza-to-the-people vein of Pizza Bible. The book features almost 50 exclusive recipes from 40 pizza makers, all of them World Pizza Champions. Best of all, every one of them is easy to follow. From Laura Meyer’s direct-dough recipe to John Arena’s “Little Carlies” fried calzone and Tony’s very own Cortopassi recipe, they’re all assembled with the home cook in mind.

Needless to say, this one has got me scraping my pizza steels in anticipation. I had the chance to talk with Tony about the new book on Saturday–and our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: Congratulations on The Pursuit Of Pizza.

Tony Gemignani: Thank you. You know the name actually changed just prior to the printing, like weeks before. It was Passion….no, Passage. No, Pathway! It was The Pathway to Pizza. And then we came around to Pursuit Of Pizza, and at the last minute decided to go with that.

It’s a collection of forty pizza makers from the World Pizza Champions that came together to do a book. Getting over forty recipes into one book, and making it cohesive enough, with photos, was a real challenge. Because it’s not like you have one pizza maker set for one photoshoot that takes several days. Instead you have all the pizza makers flying into one hub for several days and doing a photoshoot, just to keep the continuity right.

At first we said, how about we do it regionally? Five guys will go here, and six will go there…

JB: But for uniformity…

TG: For uniformity, we had to do it this way.

Another thing that’s unique, there are QR codes throughout the book that take you to YouTube videos. So if you want to learn how to push out Sicilian, or how to ball dough, or how to cut a Roman pizza, you can learn that. It’s really unique.

JB: I saw that, that’s really cool. Who thought of that?

TG: Good question. I don’t know.

JB: That sounds like the kind of thing you’d come up with.

TG: Yeah, it does.

Tony shows off his brand-new book The Pursuit Of Pizza at last month's Pizza Expo in Las Vegas

Tony shows off his brand-new book The Pursuit Of Pizza at last month’s Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

JB: (Laughter)

TG: Originally Laura Meyer brought up that we [World Pizza Champions] should do a book, and Mike Bausch spearheaded it. Tony Gemignani, Laura Meyer, Nick Bogacz and Mike Bausch are the authors. We spent a lot of time on the book, but a lot of other people did as well. There are forty contributors to this book, and they all have their own stories in it.

I also have a dough recipe in it, and I have the recipe for my Canotto Americano pizza. I also have a tribute pizza to Dino Cortopassi in it too.

JB: I wanted to ask you about that. What is that?

TG: The pizza is a micro-blistering pizza that we do at Tony’s, the Canotto Americano. In Naples, there is a canotto style that has a very prominent crust—the cornicione—that’s super thick. And it’s great, it’s not bready or doughy or anything like that. They cook it longer in a wood-fired oven, and away from the flame. It’s not Neapolitan-hot. It’s a different dough recipe, and a different flour.

I have been making my Canotto Americano style of pizza once in a while for students at my school since around 2010. They asked me, Can you do a pizza like Mozza in L.A.? They do a pizza in the wood-fired oven in a certain way. And I would do my version, and when my students would try it, they’d say it was better than Mozza’s.

JB: And they’re no slouches.

TG: It was always a favorite amongst my students, and my employees would ask me, Why aren’t we doing this? But we had so many styles at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana it was hard to introduce it to the menu. We finally did that last year.

With canotto in Naples, they have all these rules. You have to do it this way, you have to do it that way, with this flour, and that hydration. And I don’t do it in any of those ways. I use a different oven, different flour, different maturation time—everything’s different.

JB: You were basically going for a similar effect, but coming from a completely different direction.

TG: Yeah, and it just had a different look. I actually put the original recipe in Pizza Today Magazine in 2022, a lot of people don’t know this. It was a pizza I dedicated to Dino Cortopassi from Stanislaus, I used all of his tomatoes on it, with burrata in the middle and all the rest.

So when I started posting the recipe, people from Italy were messaging me, saying How do you make this? What’s your biga? Is it 100% biga? All this stuff. Are you using this flour? No, no, no.

And they would be like, How the hell are you getting it to turn out like that? Finally I would just say, you can look at the recipe in Pizza Today Magazine.

Anyway, long story short: I put that recipe in this book, and I believe it’s the first time anyone has put this style of pizza in a book. I don’t think the photo in the book does it full justice, I think it could have been a little better. But it’s a nice crumb structure, and you’ll see me cutting it with scissors, and I kind of show you how to do it.

It’s a very unique pizza that’s showcased as a recipe in the book, and I have my dough recipe in it as well. My dough recipe is one of the base doughs for the majority of the pizzas in the book. So if it’s Chris Decker’s Upside-Down Sicilian, it would be my dough recipe, but maybe matured for five days, things like that.

Co-authors along with Laura Meyer and Nick Bogacz, Tony Gemignani and Mike Bausch celebrate the launch of their book The Pursuit Of Pizza

Co-authors along with Laura Meyer and Nick Bogacz, Tony Gemignani and Mike Bausch celebrate the launch of their book The Pursuit Of Pizza. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

JB: So that allows people to get into making most of these recipes more readily.

TG: Yes. Laura Meyer has a dough recipe, and Will Grant has a dough recipe; there are three dough recipes as bases. Gluten-free is in there too. And of course, there are all these different pizza recipes, and cool recipes for things like calzones, breadsticks and meatballs. 

It’s nice, because you’ll see a story on each pizza maker, and their backstories. And you’ll see, there are some really beautiful pizzas in here.

JB: Do you consider this to be kind of a companion piece to The Pizza Bible?

TG: You know, it’s different, and I haven’t mentioned the Bible in here. This one is unique, in that you have forty of the best pizza makers in the world coming together to do a book. So the recipes they showcase are pretty fucking good!

Chris Decker’s Upside-Down Sicilian, John Arena’s calzone—everything is really good. Audrey is in here, Thiago is in here. Laura is in here. Floriana—she and I go back to when I competed in Italy back in 2000. She was one of the first ladies I met at the competition in Italy. She lived there, and was competing as well. So it’s nice to come full circle on a project like this.

So you can get the book on Amazon right now. We’ve been working on finding different printers to be able to offer it at a reasonable price. It’s been hard, because this wasn’t through the publishers—the three books I did before were done through publishers, so this is different.

But a lot of money went into this book, and we had a lot of support. HormelRoma and PizzaMaster were all big supporters of this book, and we couldn’t have done it without them.

It was a collab—everybody had to come together. Valerie Wei-Haas did the photography, and the photography in the book is great. Even some people from The Pizza Bible—Amy Vogler was the recipe tester for Pizza Bible, and she was our recipe tester for this book. 

It was one of those things: Okay, you did The Pizza Bible, and your next book is gonna be self-published….but this is a nice book. It had to be beautifully done. The recipes are very solid in it, and the QR-code videos that go with it are key. I get calls all the time from my book: How do you ball the dough? It seems wet.

JB: You’ve got to see it.

TG: You’ve got to see it. It’s hard to write a perfect description, but when you’re able to see it on video, it’s totally different. 

JB: So you launched it at Pizza Expo?

TG: It was late. We expedited the printing, and paid all this money. It didn’t come Thursday, it didn’t come Friday, it didn’t come Saturday. It came Wednesday late afternoon….after all my demos. Everything except Thursday.

JB: Oh man.

Released in March, The Pursuit Of Pizza is Tony's fourth book

Released in March, The Pursuit Of Pizza is Tony’s fourth book. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

TG: We got the book for an influencer launch, and we had to move the whole thing because the books weren’t there. We had to move it from Tuesday morning to Wednesday night, and we had to get all the books signed for these influencers—by all forty pizza makers [sighs]. We had to do hundreds of books.

It was a lot of pressure, a lot of stress. We couldn’t get ahold of anyone at all over the weekend, then we finally got someone on Monday, and they told us we wouldn’t have it until Wednesday.

JB: So you missed almost the entire Expo.

TG: Almost the entire Expo. The book was only there for a day, pretty much. It was very hurried, very nerve wracking. 

But it was very cool to see the members who’ve never had a book have someone come up to them and say “Hey, can I get your autograph?” I remember seeing that happen to Will Grant, and the Mercurios, and Tony Cerimele. Seeing that….I’ve had books before and signed them and gone through all of that, but seeing it happen to them was cool. Seeing the looks on their faces, that was a highlight.

It was like they didn’t realize what it was to be in a book until they opened it, and saw their photos—and then they got it. Like Holy shit, this is great!

It means a lot to see so many pizza makers who once worked at Tony’s being featured in the book, people like Laura Meyer, Thiago Vasconcelos and Audrey Kelly. All of them are so talented, and it’s great to see their recipes alongside those of so many former students. I feel like a proud papa.

So we’re going to be doing some TV with it. I just did a show called California Live, and there are some other shows that are excited about it. So hopefully I’ll be around to be on those too. Meanwhile, I’ve got the book on sale right now at Giovanni’s here in North Beach.

JB: Congratulations again, Tony.

Pizzeria Da Laura Marks One Year: A Talk With Our Own Laura Meyer
March 25, 2024

Pizzeria Da Laura Marks One Year: A Talk With Our Own Laura Meyer

by Joe Bonadio

It was just over five years ago when I first interviewed Laura Meyer for the Seven Ovens blog, a project then less than eight months old. At the time, Laura was serving as Regional Chef for ten of Tony’s Pizza Rock restaurants around the country, following a long stint as Head Chef in the kitchen at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana.

Already a two-time World Pizza Champion, Laura had made quite the splash in the industry by winning first place in back-to-back contests in Las Vegas and Parma, Italy. Impressively, she had even been named to Forbes 30 Under 30 a couple of years earlier, an entry you don’t typically see on a pizzaiolas resumé.

Even then it was quite evident that Laura plays a bigger game, and given her unique path it only makes sense. Even back in the early days of Castro Valley’s Pyzano’s, Laura was already by Tony’s side. Beginning her career as his protegé and sidekick, she learned quickly, and no one in the industry is more closely tied to Tony Gemignani. As Tony built his restaurant group and rose through the ranks of the business, Laura was always right next to him, rowing in tandem.

With that kind of pedigree, you’d think opening a restaurant of her own would have been Laura’s first move. But as we discussed in our second interview, it wasn’t something the chef was about to rush into. If Laura was going to create her own restaurant, the timing would have to be just right—and finally in 2022, the stars began to align.

In March of last year, the chef returned to her East Bay roots to open Pizzeria da Laura in the center of Downtown Berkeley. It has been a year since she opened her doors, and we had the chance to talk at the restaurant last week. Edited for clarity and length, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So one year, and still here! Congratulations Laura.

Laura Meyer: Thank you. Yes, we’re still living—and thriving.

JB: So it seems like you’ve gotten a little more attention than you counted on.

LM: Yeah, it’s been an interesting first year. It seems, based on the first year, that Berkeley likes us. So hopefully we’re here to stay.

Laura Meyer in her spacious kitchen at Pizzeria da Laura

Just one year after opening in Downtown Berkeley, Laura Meyer seems perfectly at home in her spacious kitchen at Pizzeria da Laura. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Well, you certainly couldn’t have put yourself in a more central location.

LM: That really wasn’t my intention, I looked at a couple of locations further down. But when I found this place, and I did the walkthrough and whatnot, you couldn’t beat it. Corner location, literally right outside of BART, a couple of blocks from the university. We’re in the Theater District of the Downtown area…

JB: It checked all the boxes.

LM: Yeah. Every time you talk to someone with experience, when they tell you little things to look for in a location. Foot traffic, visibility, all that kind of stuff—it checked all the boxes.

JB: And it’s a beautiful spot.

LM: Yep!

JB: So when did you originally make the move over to the East Bay?

LM: I moved out of San Francisco right before the pandemic hit. It wasn’t because of the pandemic, it just kind of happened that way. I moved to Oakland right before the lockdown happened.

JB: Yeah, this weekend it’ll be four years to the day.

LM: So it’s four years. I moved out the week before the lockdown went into effect. I was originally supposed to move at the end of March, but when they told everyone what was happening, I called the mover and told them we have to do this now.

JB: Getting out while the getting was good!

LM: It just kind of worked out that way. But when I decided to open the restaurant, I knew I wanted it to be in the East Bay. So it all kind of came together.

Pizzeria da Laura is located on Shattuck Avenue in the center of downtown

Located on Shattuck Avenue in the center of downtown Berkeley, Pizzeria da Laura has been embraced by the locals, including the nearby Cal campus. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: So why the East Bay?

LM: Oh, many reasons. I felt like my time in San Francisco was done. This was my roots, being out here. I grew up in Hayward, went to school there. My best friend in high school lived in Berkeley, so I knew it very well.

It felt like this was where my home should be. Don’t get me wrong, I love San Francisco, and if the circumstances were right I could see myself moving back. But in terms of doing business, with my personality and my history, I just felt like the East Bay was where I wanted to start. It doesn’t mean that I won’t go to San Francisco one day. But for my first location, I wanted to be out here.

And of course, the logistics of doing business is definitely different here than in San Francisco. Getting permits is so different, and the cost of a liquor license here is a third if not a quarter of a license in San Francisco.

JB: That’s a lot of extra square footage.

LM: Exactly. There’s just all of these things that go into it. The right decision was to stay in the East Bay. There was also more room for me to grow. San Francisco is great, but it felt like I wasn’t going to be able to spread my wings the way I wanted to. Just because of the saturation of the pizza industry there—at least in the neighborhood I would have chosen.

I didn’t feel like I’d be able to grow the way I wanted to, without having the overshadowing of Tony in North Beach and all the other pizzerias in San Francisco. I felt like it was better for making a name for myself here.

JB: Bigger fish, smaller pond.

LM: Yeah. Exactly. (Laughter)

JB: Seems like the right choice. It’s just closer to home.

LM: Exactly. My parents are on this side, they’re getting older.

JB: Are they close to the restaurant?

LM: They’re in Hayward, so they are about 20-25 minutes away.

JB: Do they come in a lot?

LM: They do come in a lot. My mom is actually a cashier, she loves to work on Sundays.

JB: That’s awesome!

LM: Yeah, it’s just nice to be able to see them more frequently. If I were in the city, I’d probably rarely ever see them.

JB: Honestly, that’s the best argument for the East Bay that I’ve heard so far.

LM: Yes, especially since I’m the last of my siblings to live in this area. It means a lot to them to be able to come and see me whenever they want.

JB: So of anyone I know who was going to open a business, I’d say you’d be prepared for most contingencies.

LM: I’d like to think that I’m more informed than most.

JB: So my question is, what one thing has surprised you the most?

LM: I wouldn’t say I’ve been surprised by anything, it’s just….hard.

The menu at Pizzeria da Laura

The menu at Pizzeria da Laura is built to mix and match, with ten topping combinations that can be ordered atop Sicilian, Grandma, Detroit or New York style crust. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

When people tell you this is one of the hardest things that you can do, it really is. They’re not joking. It’s not that it’s physically hard per se, in terms of hours. It’s just mentally and emotionally exhausting. Business hours are only so long. We’re lunch and dinner only, and in this area dinner only lasts so long, because it’s more of a residential crowd.

But this is a business where things are happening all the time. It’s people calling out, people getting sick, vendors having issues, the alarm going off, you’re worried about money—it’s an all-consuming thing.

When you tack the physical on top of it, it really is one of the hardest things to do. And it’s such an unsure thing; there is no guarantee that you’re going to be successful, or that you’ll make it through the year. My hours aren’t any different than when I was working with Tony. It’s just that the responsibility….the weight is bigger.

When you take on the ownership role, you take on the responsibility of everyone’s livelihood. The first payroll, I had a moment where I was like, wow. The 30-some odd people that are employed here, they depend on me to pay their bills, and their families depend on them. It’s a big responsibility, and it’s daunting at times.

But the first year has been going well, so I’m hopeful.

JB: I think you’ve got a right to be.

LM: But you know, you get comfortable—but you can never be totally comfortable. Because as we learned in the pandemic, things can change at any moment. And you’ve got to learn to adapt.

JB: I’m going to guess you see a lot of people from the city.

LM: I do and I don’t. I’m always surprised when I do see people, just because it’s so hard to get people out of the city….especially out of North Beach, it’s hard to get people to leave that neighborhood.

JB: (Laughter)

LM: Don’t get me wrong, I love that neighborhood, it’s my second home.

JB: But it has a gravity to it.

LM: It does, it has its own pull. So anytime I see a North Beacher out here, I’m like doubly excited!

JB: So any changes coming up here at the restaurant?

LM: Well I’m always thinking about how we move the restaurant forward, how we increase revenue streams, grow the brand, things like that. Taking a page out of Tony’s book, you’ve always got to think about the next thing. I’ve definitely got a couple of things in….discussion, let’s say. I’m talking to Cal about their concessions and whatnot; just the proximity alone is huge for them. We get orders from all the different departments, all the time. So we’ll see what happens.

JB: A campus can make a brand.

LM: That’s one of the reasons I loved this location. I knew that being this close to a college campus, we’re always going to have an influx of the new generation. And not only do they eat a lot…

JB: (Laughter)

LM: But it helps you to stay with the times. How are they ordering to-go food, where are they going, how much are they looking to spend.

JB: They keep you current.

LM: They keep you current. And also a lot of the vitality of the restaurant comes from the customers. They come in and they’re excited and they’re chatty. And with the university, you’ve got a brand-new incoming class every year—that’s 10,000 people.

Because we don’t get hit with tourism like San Francisco does. But we do get hit with the new incoming classes, graduations, all that stuff.

JB: It’s kind of crucial for this spot.

LM: A hundred percent. Our seasonality is a little bit different; where most restaurants see an increase in sales during summer, because of the university we tend to see a little bit of a dip, because a lot of those students are gone. So our seasonality is almost flipped, but it’s not so drastic that it’s a problem for the restaurant.

JB: So let’s talk about food. Tell me something about your menu.

LM: The styles are going to be very familiar to anyone who has been to Tony’s, or to most modern pizza shops. So you do get a variety of styles: we’ve got the New York, the Sicilian, the Detroit and the Grandma. I knew going into this that I wanted to feature the pan styles. One, because it’s what I’m known for: the big award that I have is for Sicilian.

And it’s one of the styles that I always like to go back and tweak, and play with. It’s a little more forgiving because it’s in a pan, and you don’t get as beat up over the shape of it.

JB: And you did the focaccia thing…

LM: Exactly. I love pan styles, and I love the versatility of them, so I knew I wanted to feature them. But then on top of that, when I was looking for a location, nobody was doing pan styles in this area. There really wasn’t anything.

JB: And with the rise of pan styles, especially Detroit…

LM: Yeah. So I knew going into it that I wanted to offer something different to really set myself apart. And then of course the New York style….if I only offered square pies, I’m sure the neighborhood would love it. But it would exclude a certain demographic, because they’re looking for what’s familiar—like kids. And it’s such an easy thing to incorporate, it was just a no-brainer.

So I knew those were the four styles that I wanted to do. And I know that for some people, starting right out of the gate with four styles might seem like a lot. But coming from Tony’s

JB: (Laughter)

LM: By the end of my tenure there, we were doing what, fourteen styles? I was like, four styles is a piece of cake. Don’t worry about it, I got it!

But the biggest difference in my menu is that you can get any of the combination pizzas on any style. Unlike other restaurants where there is usually a preset number of pizzas for each style, and you can’t mix and match. Our menu is built to mix and match.

So you actually get four times the variety, without having to have four times the toppings, essentially. The way the menu is built, there are ten topping combinations, but you can put them on any of the four crust styles. It gives you more variety, without having to overproduce in the kitchen.

And it makes people want to come back more, because they want to try their favorite toppings on the other crusts. So we tend to see a lot more repeat customers. And I didn’t think people were going to be as into the Sicilian as they are. It actually sells out almost every day.

JB: Who makes a better Sicilian pizza than you?!

LM: (Laughter) But I wasn’t sure about the fluffiness, and if people were going to be into the thick crust. But they are.

JB: There’s nothing quite like a nice, puffy slice of Sicilian.

LM: Well when people see it, it’s definitely a wow. But then when they eat it, they realize it’s not as dense as they thought it would be.

JB: So what have been your most popular styles so far?

LM: Definitely the Regina, obviously that’s the pizza that I won with, so it sells a lot.

JB: And you probably hand-sell that one a little bit.

The Ray J pizzas has tomato sauce, mozzarella, thin and thick cup-and-char pepperoni, burrata, basil, fermented honey and parmigiano reggiano

Named for Laura’s brother, the Ray J has tomato sauce, mozzarella, thin and thick cup-and-char pepperoni, burrata, basil, fermented honey and parmigiano reggiano. I had the Grandma style—and it was spectacular. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

LM: And the one that we call the Ray J, it’s named after my brother. It’s double pepperoni, thin and thick, with burrata, basil, parmigiana and fermented honey. It’s really nice—you get a little bit of spice from the honey, but you also get the sweet which offsets the spice of the pepperoni. And the burrata kind of ties it all together, and the basil….it’s a great pie all around.

So those are the two that are the top sellers. But the beauty of having a smaller menu is that it all sells. There isn’t a pizza on the menu that doesn’t sell.

JB: Have you curated the menu a little bit since opening?

LM: Yeah, we’ve added a couple of things, and we’ve changed some things. It was nice to see in the beginning what people were going to tend towards, and what they were going to like. We do get a fair amount of create-your-own pizzas, but a lot more people just order off the menu.

It’s funny, owning a restaurant was not something I grew up dreaming about, like a lot of restaurateurs. It’s not something that I knew that I wanted to do. Honestly, right after the focaccia popup, I just decided “Okay, I’m going to do this.” And then the next thing you know, I had a restaurant.

So it was a very quick decision in a way, but it also wasn’t, in the sense that I knew the steps I needed to take. I feel like I learned a lot from Tony, and from watching other people, about avoiding certain pitfalls.

JB: You learned what not to do.

LM: Yeah, and that served me most of all. And I feel like those things will allow me to grow with more ease. When it comes to the back-end work, I definitely took the harder route in terms of building it and finding investment. The things that will benefit me in the long run, and insure that it can grow at a rate that is good for the business.

Finding good management has honestly been the hardest thing, because the restaurant industry has changed a lot. A lot. At the same time, I feel like the crew that we’ve grown here is great. Most of the people have been here since day one, and it’s a tight-knit group.

You don’t really hear about people putting that much time in before they become an owner. I put in almost twenty years before I decided to do it. Most people don’t do it that way anymore. A lot of people want to get into it because they’ve seen the glamorous side of it, and the ooh and aah of celebrity chefs and things like that, and they don’t know the hard side of it.

And on the flipside, I feel like a lot of people don’t have the heart that you need to make a successful restaurant. One of the reasons Tony has been so successful—and I’d like to think this restaurant—is because you can tell that the heart is there. That the owner really loves it, and has a passion for it. That’s a connection that the community feels, and people are drawn to it.

Community is so important. You can’t just plop down and open. I’ve seen beautiful branding and marketing from certain companies, but if you don’t get in with the community….I love the fact that the fire department will bring their giant truck and park it outside just to get a pizza. Same with the police department. I love that they all want to come in, and that they all love being here. They feel like they’re visiting friends.

I’ve always loved that about Tony’s. Anyone that walks in, they feel like they’re among friends.

 
Pizzeria da Laura
2049 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA  94704
(510) 985-0409
www.pizzeriadalaura.com

The Slice House Comes To Sacramento County; Tony’s Tasting Menu Debuts
March 12, 2024

The Slice House Comes To Sacramento County; Tony’s Tasting Menu Debuts

by Joe Bonadio

Having spent the last two decades between San Francisco and New York, you can imagine I’ve met more than my share of hard-charging workaholic types. But as I’ve said before, I’ve never met anyone who works harder than Tony Gemignani.

Now unless you’ve been living beneath a rock, you’ve probably noticed that Tony has been having one hell of a year. As the local and national press have been quick to document, Tony’s pizza empire has been growing like summer tomatoes: his Slice House by Tony Gemignani recently surpassed 100 franchises sold, making it the hottest pizza brand in the country.  Which begs the question: what happens when the busiest guy in the restaurant business gets a whole lot busier?

Tony and I sat down last week, and he gave me a glimpse into what it takes to build a national pizza empire. Edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: First off, congratulations on the opening of the Folsom store. Sacramento County seems awfully glad to have you back.

Tony Gemignani: Yeah! It’s been very busy, similar to Thousand Oaks. But what was different, in L.A. not everyone was familiar with our pizza, so there were more slices being bought. Where in Folsom, they were very familiar with it—Pizza Rock was there for a long time, and a lot of those people have been coming to Tony’s and of course Pyzano’s for years. So they were ordering a lot more whole pies.

It was interesting to see the volume being so busy, but with such a difference between purchases at the stores. At Folsom we haven’t even added the delivery component yet, because it’s just been too busy.

JB: Wow.

Loaded with triple sausage, red onion and house-made hot honey, the Motown is an immediate contender for the best Detroit Pizza on the Tony's menu

Loaded with triple sausage, red onion and house-made hot honey, the Motown is an immediate contender for the best Detroit Pizza on the Tony’s menu. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

TG: I’ll be back for a ribbon cutting with the Mayor, and I’ll be doing a couple of morning shows. So it’s been great. It’s funny, so many people have moved to that area from both San Francisco and Castro Valley, where I grew up.

So almost every day, all day long I’d be seeing guys I played soccer with, people I went to grammar school with, people who knew me from Tony’s. So it was nice. It was really cool that we had such a strong following there, and we got a ton of TV and press. It was great—a little busy, but that’s a good thing.

JB: So it was smart for you to slow roll the delivery aspect. Is that something you typically do?

TG: If it’s too busy and we can’t handle it, we’ll wait. You want to try to accommodate the customers you have, and not get overwhelmed.

JB: So I understand you have a special pizza that’s only available at that location in Folsom Ranch: tell me about the Vampire Killer.

TG: Yeah, the Vampire Killer. You know, I created a pizza for Thousand Oaks, called the Angeleno; it was a pizza I did for the L.A. Pizza Festival. I said this is a special pizza, only available for your location, and at the other locations you open you can go ahead and serve it.

So when we went to open Folsom I got together with the owners and the franchisees, and they asked if they were going to have a special pizza. And I said yeah, let’s do it.

I asked them what they liked, and they said “we like garlic, and we like spicy.” They were talking about black garlic, and I said sure, I can experiment with that.

JB: Exactly what is black garlic?

TG: It’s a different type of garlic with a molasses flavor to it, and not as much of a kick. I went ahead and pureed it, and added it to a pastry bag. I made a Grandma style pizza with mozzarella and ricotta, and it’s striped with the black garlic. It has my hot pepper oil over that, with green onions and cup-and-char sausage on it.

So it’s that sweet onions and sausage pizza, that’s garlicky….it’s fucking good.

JB: [Laughter] Sounds amazing.

TG: It’s finished with a little romano and oregano. Yeah, it’s nice: it’s sweet, garlicky, and it sells really well. It’s only available by the slice, you can’t get a whole pie. That’s how we did it at Thousand Oaks. You had to come in and get it, it’s just one of those things we do.

So now, when Mountain View opens I’m going to do the same thing for that group, a different pizza that’s just theirs.

By the way, the only other place where you can  get the Vampire Killer is here at Tony’s—it’s called the Garlic Grandma. I liked it so much I put it on the menu. Not saying I’ll do that with every pizza that I create for people, but that one was unique.

And you’ve got to remember, one pound of black garlic is $30. Prosciutto di Parma is less expensive than that. Reggiano Parmigiano, three years old, is less than that. It’s literally the most expensive ingredient that we have. I think we get like seven pizzas out of a pound, so it’s an expensive slice, and pie.

Striped with richly flavored black garlic, Tony's Garlic Grandma is topped with mozzarella, ricotta, green onions, cup-and-char sausage, Tony's hot pepper oil, romano cheese and oregano

Striped with richly flavored black garlic, Tony’s Garlic Grandma is topped with mozzarella, ricotta, green onions, cup-and-char sausage, Tony’s hot pepper oil, romano cheese and oregano. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: So you now have plans to open over 100 new Slice House locations. How have these huge steps affected your day-to-day schedule?

TG: It has affected me quite a bit, primarily on calls. Zoom calls, interviewing these candidates, and then the calls for kitchen design. I’m more of a kitchen guy who like to get his hands dirty, so I’ll spend like seven hours on design calls, and then I’ve got to get in the kitchen.

I’m not used to that. I’m good on the phone for a while, but when you’re doing Zoom interview after Zoom interview….okay, we’ve got a guy in Arizona who owns 17 Carl’s Juniors, and we’d like you to meet him. There’s an hour and 15 minutes. Then you’ve got a PR call, and after that a call with a writer. Then another design call with an architect, and that’s half your afternoon.

I’m a part of every kitchen design, and you’re always trying to improve them. So that has been hard to handle.

JB: Well you’ve put a lot of restaurants together at this point, so I’m sure you’ve got a lot of input for these guys.

TG: I can do it easily now, simple. I have it all in my head.

And then there’s the training side of it, which I’m a small part of. But luckily I have Dominique, Renae, Bill, Chef Anthony and Javi and all these guys with me. Then there’s the opening side: I’ve got to be there for all the openings, to meet the public.

But I’m still at Tony’s as much as I can, and at Capo’s and the bakery. And we’ve been working on things….I’ve launched more things in the past year than I have at Tony’s, ever. From the Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival, to the art campaign with the billboards, to the tasting menu—which just took off, it’s insane.

Also, the Pizza Joint cannabis thing we did with Jeremy Fish and North Beach Pipeline. By the way, on 4/20 we’re doing another collab with them, so we’ll talk about that next time.

So I’ve been kind of like busier than ever, but somehow I’m still getting it done. My days are earlier now—I’m getting up at 4:15-4:30. If I’m up by 4 something, I’ll usually get on my phone and answer two or three questions real quick.

Then I get out and walk and run, and my goal in the morning is 3,200 steps. I come back, work out a little bit, and eat. Then off to work. And my night goes all the way until 10:00. What sucks is that my days are getting longer, and my sleep is getting shorter. I’m a six hour a night sleeper now, unfortunately. It’s really hard for me to get eight hours. If I get eight hours it’s like, wow. I can get to sleep, but I have trouble staying asleep. But I did sleep eight hours yesterday, so I feel pretty good.

But my days are different now. There’s no rolling out at eight o’clock, get on the road—no. If it’s eight o’clock, then I’m late, and I’ll spend the whole day catching up.

I’m also on the phone all day. I spend time with my son Gino, I’ve been making time for him. But I’m on my phone constantly. My wife and I will be sitting and watching TV at eight o’clock at night, and I’m usually working while I’m watching. Then I’ll wind down. Luckily we have our phones I guess, because I can still get shit done while I’m spending time with them. It’s tough to say, but it’s real.

Happy Place: nothing is more likely to produce a smile than a trip to Tony's Pizza Napoletana

Happy Place: nothing is more likely to produce a smile than a trip to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: You can’t be as busy as you’ve been without making some compromises.

TG: Another thing that people don’t realize is that I do all of the marketing. I don’t have some whiz that comes in and says, Hey! For me, 98% of marketing is, this is the idea—and we’re going to run with it. And I tell the marketing team, but the marketing is something I’m constantly working on myself. I love it. We’ve got a lot of cool marketing, and you have to.

We hired a new manager, Kiki, and she’s great. She’s helped us out a lot. So we’re always trying to hire people. We’re also hiring more people on the franchise side. A Chief Marketing Officer, a Chief Technology Officer. They’re fractionals, meaning they’re only hired for a portion of the year. W’re hiring in operations, and we just hired two people for regional chefs. One named Jason that worked at Pizza Hut for twelve years, and spent time at Little Caesar’s. We need some help from someone who knows chains, and how to talk to franchisees and mentor them, coach them, that kind of thing.

So we’re trying to build the infrastructure to help this….machine that is going full speed ahead. It has been an interesting time.

And it’s funny, for some reason I’ve been able to carve out more time than ever for my son. Maybe it’s the 4:00 AM rising time. And it’s my team—it’s Grace, and Natale and Oscar. I told them a while back, soon I’m going to be extremely busy, and I won’t be able to be here as much. And I’ve kind of built that team here to prepare for times like that. There are a lot of building blocks, and people don’t realize what it has taken. Bringing in people, and paying the employees, that’s an investment—because there’s a lot to it.

JB: It’s justified. As hard as it may be too believe, it’s only going to get busier. I also see that your tasting menu is finally up and running.

TG: The tasting menu took off. It got some great press—more press than I thought we’d ever get. I actually didn’t think it was going to be that newsworthy of a thing. I figured people would talk about it, but it ended up on the news.

I think it’s because it’s the opposite of what other people are doing. Everyone’s discounting now, and offering deals. Who’s doing a $500 prix fixe for pizza? And if anyone was going to do it, it would be us: we’ve got all the different styles to make it work.

We’ve got over 80 reservations for that. It’s Wednesday through Sunday, three time slots. The 7:00 slot is taken until April at least.

We’ve just done four so far, but one of the people told us it was the best pizza experience they’ve ever had. And three of the four told us it was the best thing they’ve ever experienced in pizza. Which is fucking great. I wanted that.

The other night one table ended up spending over $1,000 between the wine and everything, and they loved it. They asked Natale: if we finish everything, will you put our picture on the wall?

If you’re out there eating Domino’s and stuff like that, then you won’t get it. But if you’re really into pizza, you’ll get it. This is something that’s special.

JB: It’s really not that much. How many times have you spent $150 for your own dinner and left hungry?

TG: Exactly. If you look at it and do the math, it’s a good value. People who are doing it have been doing the optional wine flights, or they’ve been ordering six Fernets, Amaros, bottles of wine. If you’re out for a big night, it’s a bigger night. It just is. People are super excited.

JB: It’s possible you’ve done more than you set out to do. Do you think the tasting menu opens Tony’s up to a different audience? You know how diners are. They tend to gravitate to the trendy thing, the new thing. And some people just like to go hard, and spend some money.

TG: It’s possible. We needed to elevate the service, which we’ve been working on. Elevate a few things in that category, so that’s good.

People have asked: can it be eight people? Yes, we’ve allowed it, but there’s an added cost. And it’s not on that same table, which I love. Table 20 is a very special table. It can be five; it doesn’t have to be six. You don’t have to drink, that’s not a necessary part of it.

JB: How about vegetarians, can they participate?

TG: Yes, that’s easy. Vegan we can’t do.

And I didn’t do our two most famous pizzas: I didn’t do the New Yorker or the Cal-Italia. The Margherita I had to do. So I did it mostly based on styles. Like the New Haven Clam & Garlic: it’s one of the best pizzas we have on the menu, and not a lot of people order it. And the Canotto Americano, everybody says it’s one of their favorites. They’ve never really had anything like it.

JB: Seven pizzas plus appetizers is a lot of food. So I was surprised to see you chose the Sicilian.

TG: Well, you had to have Grandma, Detroit, Sicilian. When can you have a true version of all three of these at a table, so you can compare and say okay, that’s what they are.

You know how many writers ask me, can you explain all three? Now I don’t have to explain it—you can eat it!

So it has been awesome. I had a friend call me: Dude, I can’t get in for six weeks?!

I said, is it for 7:00? I can’t help you. The guy’s one of our best customers!

For reservations for the Around The World Tasting at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, click here.

 

Tony’s & Luke’s Local Launch Art Contest For Local Kids; Tony’s Pizza Appears In Indie Film
February 12, 2024

Tony’s & Luke’s Local Launch Art Contest For Local Kids; Tony’s Pizza Appears In Indie Film

by Joe Bonadio

It’s already February somehow, and not surprisingly, we have much to report.

Following closely on the heels of the launch of his unique local billboard program, slated to feature six local artists on two full-size billboards over six months, last week Tony announced a brand-new art contest—and this time, it’s all about the kids.

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and local grocer Luke’s Local have partnered up with North Beach’s Saints Peter & Paul School to create an art contest that’s all about celebrating art in the schools, and giving back to the community.

By working with Saints Peter & Paul School, Tony hopes to spotlight the artistic talents of young students in our community, and give local kids a much-needed outlet for their creativity. “Art in schools has long been underserved, but it’s absolutely essential,” Tony says, emphasizing the crucial role of art programs in education.

Tony poses with the girls' second grade class of Saints Peter & Paul School, who are the first to participate in the student art contest. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

Tony poses with the girls’ second grade class of Saints Peter & Paul School, who are the first to participate in the student art contest. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

“Who doesn’t like art? Who doesn’t like pizza—and what little kid doesn’t like going to the grocery store with their parents or grandparents?” Tony asks, pointing out the universal appeal of the contest.

Students will be given a blank canvas, and each will have the chance to submit their original drawings for the contest. The best among them will be chosen to appear on Tony’s 12” takeout pizza boxes, as well as Luke’s Local tote bags.

Tony speaks to the students and faculty at the launch of the contest in North Beach last week. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

Tony speaks to the students and faculty at the launch of the contest in North Beach last week. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

“For every classic Italian or classic American pizza sold in the winning box, we’re donating $0.25 to the school,” Tony explains. “On the other side, Luke’s Local is going to make a reusable tote bag with the winning art on it. For every bag sold, they’ll donate a dollar.”

And as Tony stresses, in this contest there are no losers. “Every kid wins, because at the end we’ll have a pizza party for every class.”

The winning designs will add a splash of artistic flair to everyday items, and provide inspiration for young people just beginning to explore their creative potential.

Much like Tony’s billboard program, the contest is all about encouraging local art and artists—and as always, promoting North Beach. “I’m always excited to see the incredible talent in our community,” Tony says. “And this is just one more way for everybody to support it.”

Tony also recently threw his hat into another genre of the visual arts: independent film.

“A couple of years ago, I invested in a movie. It’s an independent movie called LaRoy,” Tony shares. “A friend, Nhan Nguyen, reached out to me about it; he knows me, and that I’m always interested in something new.

“Part of the movie takes place inside of Tony’s. And I was credited as Associate Producer, because I had some say in it—which really wasn’t a lot.

“The movie has already won some awards,” Tony tells me. “I’m actually going to Paris for a film festival where it’s screening later this year. You can look it up on IMDB.

The beautiful Saints Peter & Paul Church, the center of the North Beach community. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

The beautiful Saints Peter & Paul Church, the center of the North Beach community. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

“Shane Atkinson directed it, and he has worked with the Coen brothers, who I love. And this movie is kind of in that vein,” Tony explains. “Danny Glover was originally supposed to be in the movie, and I like Danny Glover—Bay Area guy, spends a lot of time here.

“But it didn’t work out, and Steve Zahn ended up being cast in it,” Tony says. “He’s a really good actor, and he’s had a couple roles I liked. Jared Harris is in it, John Magaro, Galadriel Stineman.

“Anyway, it ended up being chosen for San Francisco IndieFest. Julie and I got free passes, so we got to see it here, and that was cool. It’s been at Tribeca Film Festival in New York, it’s on that circuit.

“And you almost never see this, but the movie’s had a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for a while now. That’s pretty impressive,” Tony says. “It’s great to see it doing so well. I’m proud to be a small part of it.”

Love Letter To SF: Six Local Artists Chosen For North Beach Billboard Campaign
January 15, 2024

Love Letter To SF: Six Local Artists Chosen For North Beach Billboard Campaign

by Joe Bonadio

As we swing into 2024, it’s hardly a secret that San Francisco has been facing some serious challenges of late. Between homelessness, property crime and vacancy issues, we’ve had our share of woes in recent years—and the news media has made a meal of it. Local coverage about the city is almost uniformly negative, and the national news paints an even bleaker picture of our fair city.

Meanwhile, facts on the ground tell a different story. Despite some pockets of blight, many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods are looking better than ever—North Beach chief among them. The city is emerging from its doldrums; our communities are rallying, and San Franciscans have been showing our better lights. Programs like Vacant to Vibrant have been reactivating empty storefronts across the city, and initiatives supporting both small business and the arts have begun to gain real momentum.

The arts have played a prominent role in San Francisco since its founding, and the city has always hosted more than its share of galleries and museums, a tradition that continues to this day. We also have a deep heritage of public art and urban murals, the latter being near-ubiquitous in our Mission District. And San Francisco’s commitment to the arts is good policy: looking back at our history, the health of our creative community has always reflected the well-being of the city at large.

San Francisco photographer Markelle Palombo in front of the Union Street billboard in North Beach

San Francisco photographer Markelle Palombo in front of the Union Street billboard in North Beach the day after her work was posted. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Going back to his earliest days, Tony Gemignani has been an active supporter of local art. From the enormous Jeremy Fish mural that has adorned the north wall of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana from the pizzeria’s start to the Ed Hardy pizza box designs that many came to identify with the Tony’s brand, the restaurateur has always found a way to integrate local art into his businesses.

This month Tony doubled down on that commitment, choosing six local artists to be featured on two full-sized billboards in North Beach over the next six months—and he’s picking up the tab. This week the first piece, by North Beach photographer and longtime resident Markelle Palombo, was installed on the billboards at Columbus and Union above Mario’s Bohemian Café, and at Columbus and Vallejo next to Caffe Trieste.

As Tony explains, it came about pretty organically. “Markelle reached out to me initially because she knew I had the board on Union. Neighborhood girl, and I didn’t know her actually,” he told me. “A couple of people, you were one of them, told me she wanted to talk to me.

“So we met at Capo’s, and she brought her portfolio, and her business card. She said I love your billboard, and I’d love to do some photography, maybe take a shot of Tony’s. Put your logos under it, and maybe we can split the cost or do something together.

“So she started the meeting out kind of like that. I looked at her portfolio, and I saw her card—and I said that the image on the card should be the billboard. It was an image of her standing with her back to the camera in the middle of the road with mountains in the background, holding a red suitcase.

Tony secured an annual lease on this board, located directly next to Caffe Trieste

To increase the billboard program’s reach, Tony secured an annual lease on this board, located directly next to Caffe Trieste in the heart of North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

“I thought it looked sort of like a Guess ad, but it needed to say something. Like ‘Letter to North Beach’ or something. It took me a minute—and then I said, how about On The Road To North Beach?

“You always hear that everyone is leaving California. How about someone who is just arriving here? Then there’s the Kerouac reference. It was kind of perfect.

“So she asked me, What’s it going to cost? I said it’s not going to cost you anything. Do you want your logos on it? I told her no, it’s not about the logos.

“So we finished the meeting, and I think she was kind of taken aback, thinking it was going to cost her something. Sort of like, what’s your angle?

“And then she sent me the first version—with all of my logos on the bottom. And I’m like, No. I don’t want my logos on the bottom. I just want the photo, no logos. [Laughter]

“Anyway, it took me maybe half a day to think about it, then I told my wife what I was going to do: I’m going to do this for six months. I’m going to find six artists or photographers, let them have the billboard—it was just one at first—and each piece has to be a love letter to San Francisco or North Beach. I’ll tell my PR team, and maybe somebody like the Chronicle or SFGate will be interested in doing a call for artwork submissions.

Tony Gemignani in Washington Square Park with Rhonel Roberts

Tony Gemignani in Washington Square Park with Rhonel Roberts, one of six artists whose work will be featured on two full-sized billboards in San Francisco’s North Beach. | Photo: James Phillip Wright

“And I got flooded. Tons, just dozens and dozens of responses,” Tony explained. “I got some amazing pieces. I have enough for six months, and another six pieces for next year, if I want to do it again. They were that good. Complete diversity—each work is totally different.

“I had a couple from Jeremy Fish that I had to do, because we’re so close, and he has always wanted to be on the billboard. Also the artist who did the Carol Doda mural off of Filbert Street, her name is Natalie Gabriel. Then there’s Doug Lawlor and Rhonel Roberts. Lawlor is the only one from outside San Francisco, he’s from Oakland—but when I saw his work, I wanted him to be in it. He’s working on a movie right now. His shit is like….it’s cool. So I wonder what he’s going to do, that one I’m pretty excited about.

“When I met Rhonel Roberts, I told him his work has this kind of timeless, Sixties-Seventies vintage vibe to it. Like the old TWA posters. And I collect those, I told him—I have all the original prints.

“So if you look at Palombo’s work, you look at Lawlor, at what Roberts is going to do, Fish….they’re all just totally different.

“I ended up buying the second billboard in North Beach next to Trieste. So now it will be the same art on two billboards in North Beach. I’ve been walking past the one next to Trieste almost every day on the way to get coffee. And it’ll be tagged, and it always has old advertising on it. Once in a while someone will place an ad on it, but hardly ever. So I took the whole year on that one—committed to the next year with Clear Channel. So now it’s double the exposure for the artists, so it’s pretty cool.

Union Street billboard bearing Markelle Palombo

On the Road to North Beach: the Union Street billboard bearing Markelle Palombo’s work dominates the corner of Union and Columbus. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

“Does it bring people to North Beach? I hope so. I was asked a question by channel seven for a story they’re doing: When someone is driving down the street and sees one of these billboards, what do you want them to feel?

“I want them to feel positive about San Francisco, and to put a smile on their face. Because it’s not all negative. I even told the news guy: the news is all negative. It’s always about somebody getting shot, or corruption or something.

“There are some good things happening out there. And it’s not like an ad meant to direct business or anything. Some people have said to me, you mean you’re going to pay $4,000 a month, and nobody’s going to know it’s Tony’s or Capo’s? And I said, Yeah.

“Some might say it’s a poor choice of advertising. As far as I’m concerned, it’s 2024, let’s kick it off with something different, something positive. Artists typically don’t have the chance to get this kind of exposure, and have a billboard up. So it’s a way for them to get some exposure.

A painting by Rhonel Roberts

A painting by Rhonel Roberts, one of the participating artists, shows his affection for the North Beach neighborhood. | Photo Courtesy of Rhonel Roberts

“You hope writers write about it, and you hope the city supports it. Maybe Clear Channel hears about it and comes in and gets behind it with a discount, or something. We hope the Mayor and the supervisors see it; it’s a positive reflection of the city when the city needs that. It’s about coming to San Francisco, not leaving.

“I’m really excited to see it go up.”

After talking with Tony, I also had the chance to speak with artist Rhonel Roberts about his participation. “I think it’s notable that Tony would reach out to local artists to celebrate their artwork on a billboard,” he told me. “I’m honored to be one of his choices, and to have my work exhibited on such a grand scale in the city that I love.”

Meanwhile photographer Markelle Palombo, whose pipe dream was the original impetus for the whole project, spent last week anxiously checking the Union billboard three times a day, waiting for her work to go up. “I’m just super excited,” she said. “Tony has been so great to work with.

“It’s funny, this all started because I found some prints of mine in the park, discarded and burnt. I had no idea why, but I decided that I wanted to be on that billboard, so that whoever did that could look at it every day,” Palombo explained with a smile. “So something that started out negative turned into something really positive.”

 
Participating Artists 2024
January – Markelle Palombo, Photographer
February – Jeremy Fish, Artist
March – Natalie Gabriel, Artist 
April – Douglas Lawlor, Artist
May – Dennis Hearne, Photographer
June – Rhonel Roberts, Artist  

Victory Lap: After Nearly 22 Years, Jose Acevedo Returns Home To Mexico
December 27, 2023

Victory Lap: After Nearly 22 Years, Jose Acevedo Returns Home To Mexico

by Joe Bonadio

Having perambulated the North Beach neighborhood for well over 20 years now, I’ve learned a little bit about the culture here. And while we obviously occupy some pretty choice real estate on this edge of the city, North Beach is, and apparently always has been, resolutely middle class. Combined with the neighborhood’s entrenched café culture, that strong egalitarian streak is one of the things that define the neighborhood. It has also fostered an unusually close bond between North Beachers and the bartenders, servers and managers who serve our drinks, listen to us bitch, and generally make our lives better. In a lot of ways, our service professionals make up the core of the North Beach community.

Jose Acevedo in his natural environment: behind the bar

Jose Acevedo in his natural environment: behind the bar at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Of course, bartenders hold a particularly special place in the neighborhood’s heart. Naturally we all have our favorites, but every once in a while a bartender comes along that everyone can agree on—and one of those people is Jose Acevedo of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana.

If you know Jose, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. In a sea of competition, the guy is simply one of the most popular bartenders this neighborhood has ever seen. I’ve watched him operate behind the Tony’s bar for many years now, and the guy just has such a knack for dealing with people. Once I caught on to him, Jose quickly became one of my favorite bartenders, and I interviewed him at length in this space back in March of 2021.

What a group: from left to right, Tony Gemignani, JP Jacques, Jose Acevedo, Robvell Smith and Stephanie Danese.

What a group: from left to right, Tony Gemignani, JP Jacques, Jose Acevedo, Robvell Smith and Stephanie Danese. | | Photo Courtesy of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

You might also know that Jose recently moved back to Mexico, after spending over 20 years in the United States. But not before having one of the biggest going away parties you could possibly hope for: Tony closed Capo’s for the occasion, and brought in a huge friends-and-family crowd that was a Who’s-Who of North Beach.

The place was packed to the gills, and Tony himself was flying solo in the kitchen, cranking out special pizzas for the lively crowd. It couldn’t have been a bigger turnout, and just about anyone who ever worked at Tony’s or Capo’s showed up to send Jose off. Once everyone had some food in front of them, Tony came out to speak to the crowd, and pay tribute to Jose—a guy that has been by the pizza maker’s side since the opening of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana almost 15 years ago.

Spirits were high, and once everyone was well lubricated, Tony broke out the serious party gear. Of course, I’m referring here to a genuine piñata.

Tony in the kitchen at Capo's

With a house full of revelers, I found Tony in the kitchen at Capo’s, doing what he does best. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

I’ve got to say, those things are more durable than you think: JP spun him around pretty good, and I was afraid Jose would knock himself out before he finally got that thing open. But accompanied by some raucous cheering from the crowd, he eventually beat it into submission.

I know that I’m speaking for a lot of people when I say that I’ll truly miss Jose. Earlier last week, he and I sat down for a drink at Showdown ahead of his departure; lightly edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So Jose! Here we are after fourteen and a half years. How do you feel?

Jose Acevedo: I feel….sad. But at the same time, I’m very happy.

JB: It’s a lot to walk away from.

JA: Yep. It’s a lot. Being part of this family, the Tony’s family, has been a very good experience for me. Getting all this knowledge….I really appreciate Tony giving me the opportunity to be a part of that.

But I guess it’s time to go back home. After more than 20 years away from the family….it’s tough. So I get to finally go back home to celebrate a very nice Christmas. The original one, all together.

Tony takes the stage to pay tribute to Jose Acevedo

Tony takes the stage to pay tribute to Jose Acevedo, an original employee at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, who will be sorely missed. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

I hope I can get all of my brothers together, but you know how it is. My brothers Rafael, Angel and Mario are still going to be working at Tony’s.

JB: The fearsome foursome!

JA: That’s right!

JB: How long have the four of you been working together at Tony’s?

JA: Well I’ve been here for 22 years, and I brought Mario 2 years after that. He started with Tony at the very beginning,  and he was the one who brought me in. I had just quit working at Chevy’s, and he was like Jose, we need you over here.

JB: A little nepotism goes a long way.

JA: Yep!

JB: So what are you planning to do when you get back down to Mexico?

JA: I’ve had a business there for the last two years, and thank god it’s been doing very well. It’s a home supply company—kind of like a Best Buy, but on a smaller scale. And I have a grocery store there, too.

Jose with Robvell Smith and Stephanie Danese

Jose with Robvell Smith and Stephanie Danese, just two of the bartenders who originally taught him the ropes at the Tony’s bar. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Where is this?

JA: In Ticul.

JB: So you told me that you’ve only been back home once in the past 20 years. Do you feel like you’re going into the unknown?

JA: Yes, I do. I feel like I’m starting over, starting a brand-new story.

But it’s going to take some time to get used to everything. Because it’s not the same; the times aren’t the same, and computers run everything. Even though I’ve already got a business running there, I’ve got to start over. Even just recognizing people: there are people who were little kids when I left, and now they’re adults.

Some of them have come to the restaurant, and said Jose, you don’t remember me? People who were five years old when I left. Man, how in the hell am I going to remember you? [Laughter]

Victory Lap: Jose punishes the piñata at his jubilant going away party at Capo's in North Beach

Victory Lap: Jose punishes the piñata at his jubilant going away party at Capo’s in North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: It’s going to be interesting for you. You’re going to be home….but you’re not going to be a celebrity anymore.

JA: I’m going to try and stay on top of that! I’ve learned from Tony that once you are up there, the trick is to stay up there. That’s the hard part. So I’m planning to make TV commercials for my business.

JB: That’s great. You’ve spent over two decades of your life here, Jose. What do you think is the most important thing that the United States taught this Mexican boy?

JA: Respect. Humanity. Be kind to other people. To me, that’s the key to everything.

JB: That’s a good answer. Thank you for everything, Jose. And good luck.

JA: Thank you. And thank you to San Francisco, for everything.

Christmas Spirits: New Cocktails At Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
December 21, 2023

Christmas Spirits: New Cocktails At Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

by Joe Bonadio

Looking around the city, it has become apparent in the quality of the light: the change has begun. The temperatures have begun to dip, and the sun sets just a bit earlier every day. Alas, our lovely Indian Summer has taken its leave, and the time has come to pull our warm clothes out of the back of the closet.

With Thanksgiving already in the rear view, the holiday season is well underway––and just in time for the holidays, there’s a new cocktail lineup at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. Since its earliest days, Tony’s has emphasized its cocktail program, incorporating small-batch craft liqueurs, seasonal produce and housemade elixirs. As a result, along with a celebrated wine list courtesy of Jules Gregg, regulars have gotten used to enjoying their pizza and pasta alongside some of the best cocktails in the city.

The Bellissimo Spritz combines Barr Hill gin, limoncello, King Floyd bitters and prosecco. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

The Bellissimo Spritz combines Barr Hill gin, limoncello, King Floyd bitters and prosecco. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

When Nick Lawlor took over as Bar Manager in March of this year, the young mixologist didn’t waste any time revamping the bar menu. Nick introduced his first collection of signature cocktails in April, and since then he’s consistently worked to elevate the Tony’s bar program. Last week, he took the time to mix up a few of his newest creations for yours truly.

It’s always fun to taste cocktails with Nick––but I’ve learned to get all my work done beforehand. Beyond some very loud guitar playing, I’m generally not going to get much work done after sampling a half-dozen strong drinks. So I woke up early, put in a harried half-day, and ambled into Tony’s a few minutes before 1:00 PM to meet Nick.

The barkeep started me off with his Bellissimo Spritz, a beguiling blend of Barr Hill Gin, limoncello and King Floyd Bitters. “They make their bitters up in Novato. It’s a peach and ginger bitters, so it kind of gets you on that back note,” Nick explains. “Barr Hill is an artisanal gin out of Vermont, and they do a lot of sustainability practices, and they use honey to ferment. There’s also a little dehydrated pear in the glass, which I like because it looks almost like a leaf. And with the prosecco, the sweetness is still there, so you don’t lose the pear and the ginger.”

This cocktail is easy drinking like you would expect from a spritz, but still packs a punch due to the gin. It’s festive, bright, and right up my alley.

The Fly For A Chai Guy is Nick's inventive spin on a clarified whiskey sour, and it's a winner. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

The Fly For A Chai Guy is Nick’s inventive spin on a clarified whiskey sour, and it’s a winner. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Being a dedicated fan of reposado tequila, Nick’s next creation immediately piqued my interest. “This one is our tequila-based cocktail, the Il Lampone del Frisco. We use a tarragon-infused reposado tequila, Lo Siento, a new tequila that has been getting a lot of traction,” he tells me. “We use a raspberry syrup, and just lemon and agave. So it’s really simple, with a little bit of sugar on the rim.

“I always describe tarragon as a cross between mint and rosemary,” Nick elaborates. “So it’s really unique, with a great depth of flavor.”

I have to agree: raspberry and tarragon is easily one of the most novel combinations I’ve come across in the glass, and with a tart herbal kick that marries wickedly with the reposado, this one is another keeper.

As you might understand, my mood was steadily improving at this point, so we forged onward. After a few more deft moves behind the bar, Nick presented me with his take on a clarified Whiskey Sour, which he has dubbed the Fly For A Chai Guy.

“We use a Woodford Reserve that we infuse with chai, lemon and maple syrup,” Nick tells me. “There’s cointreau, and we let all that sit with the tea. Then we add whole milk to it, and the milk reacts with the lemon and curdles. We then run that through a fine cheesecloth, which clears it up. So it’s a stirred cocktail, and there’s just a float of Angostura bitters on top.”

Nick Lawlor took over as Bar Manager at Tony's Pizza Napoletana in March of this year. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Nick Lawlor took over as Bar Manager at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in March of this year. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Not being overly fond of chai, I didn’t really know what to expect––and was pleasantly surprised. While it looks like a shaken cocktail, as Nick explained, the Chai Guy drinks more like an Old Fashioned. With a tannic bite and a lush mouthfeel, it managed to win this Non-Chai-Guy over.

We then moved on to the Slice Of Pie, a très seasonal combination of Tito’s Vodka infused with cinnamon and clove, and mixed with apple spice liqueur, lemon and agave. Much like the Chai Guy, it was not quite what I expected. This one was admittedly a touch sweet for my taste, but still surprisingly quaffable.

Thanks again to Nick for taking the time to taste me through the new roster, and make sure to slide by to sample his new lineup. Also, if you haven’t done so already, don’t forget to try the new pizzas coming out of the kitchen. Six brand-new pies created by six of Tony’s longest-running pizza chefs––and they’re available now.

 

The Seven Ovens Blog appears in this space regularly, exploring the many stories behind Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and Tony Gemignani’s award-winning restaurant group.