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Tony’s Pizza Napoletana: #19 In The World, Right in Your Backyard
October 3, 2023

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana: #19 In The World, Right in Your Backyard

by Joe Bonadio

It’s true: there’s nothing quite like pizza. Even in the world of foodies pizza stands in its own category, commanding a loyalty that other types of cuisine have never enjoyed. By the time this humble pie had made it to New York from Naples 120 years ago, it was already revered by the Italians, but its rise had only just begun. Today pizza is the most popular takeout and delivery food in the entire world—and according to people who measure such things, Americans eat an astounding 350 slices of pizza every second.

There is nothing quite like Washington Square Park, the perfect backdrop for Tony's and its sister restaurant, Slice House by Tony Gemignani. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

There is nothing quite like Washington Square Park, the perfect backdrop for Tony’s and its sister restaurant, Slice House by Tony Gemignani. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

I personally don’t trust anyone who doesn’t eat pizza, so these numbers seem just a touch on the low side. But you get the point: people love their pizza. And happily, the category has been undergoing a serious resurgence in recent years. You can now find great pizzerias in every state in the union, and that has changed the public’s perception of what constitutes a good pizza. Simply put, the bar has been raised.

Tony Gemignani is one of the people behind this pizza renaissance. When he opened Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach back in 2009, he quickly put our little neighborhood at the center of West Coast pizza. Since then he’s built a veritable business universe around the corner pizzeria, with a sizable legend to go with it.

My friend Jonathan recently brought me out to lunch for my birthday, and it being a Monday, Tony’s was the natural call. Monday is locals day at the Tony’s bar, so I knew I’d be sure to see a few people I knew, and that Robvell would be working the day shift. I’ve known Robvell since he was the regular ‘tender at the lovely and long-defunct Rose Pistola around the corner. He’s one of my oldest friends in the city, and I honestly couldn’t think of a better way to start the afternoon.

As expected the bar was loaded with familiar faces, so once I’d fielded a few birthday greetings (and a glass of very nice reposado tequila from my friend Lacey), we settled in at the bar. From there, Robvell poured us each a glass of Franciacorta, an Italian sparkling wine that I adore. Well ensconced, we proceeded to zero in on the menu.

With muenster cheese, smoked bacon, calabrese peppers and honey, the delicious Eddie Muenster is adorned with a generous crown of tasty, crispy-fried kale, and finished with a squeeze of lemon. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

With muenster cheese, smoked bacon, calabrese peppers and honey, the delicious Eddie Muenster is adorned with a generous crown of tasty, crispy-fried kale, and finished with a squeeze of lemon. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Ordering at Tony’s is a challenge, and that’s not just due to the sheer number of choices. I’m always torn between being loyal to one of my favorites and trying something I’ve never had. As a result, it’s hard for me to keep up with the new additions—and no matter how often I visit Tony’s, there’s always something new on the menu. This time, I was curious to finally try the Eddie Muenster; although it’s anything but new, it’s a pizza I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about.

An outlier even on the Tony’s menu, the Eddie Muenster is a counterintuitive combination of muenster cheese, smoked bacon, calabrese peppers and honey, topped with heaps of crunchy-fried kale. Drizzled with a squeeze of fresh lemon, this pizza turns out to be a flavor bomb, and unlike anything either of us have had before. It’s also got to be the tastiest deployment of kale you’ll find anywhere. Coming out of a 900º wood-fired oven with a chewy, toothsome crust, this pizza lived up to the hype, and we made short work of it.

Creative combinations like the Eddie Muenster abound here. Another fun example is the El Jefe, which brings together pork carnitas, apricot habanero jam, mozzarella, sweet plantains, white onion and cilantro, which the chef finishes with a mist of orange juice. For some an unholy alliance, this melange of toppings nonetheless works like a charm. Admittedly, I had my doubts at first—carnitas on pizza? Nonetheless, this savory pie has made it’s way into my regular rotation.

If you're a fan of oven-baked pasta, Tony's toothsome Lasagna is a dish that you have to try. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

If you’re a fan of oven-baked pasta, Tony’s toothsome Lasagna is a dish that you have to try. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Meanwhile, If you like Sicilian style, the Burrata Queen is another standout that might make you say How did they think of that? A rich combination of ricotta, sliced mozzarella, pesto artichoke cream, burrata, garlic, hot pepper oil, crushed red pepper and agave, the Burrata Queen is unique, delicious—and it’s also vegetarian. I’m a big fan of Sicilian pizza, and the flavors and textures are a perfect foil for the pillowy, crunchy crust.

After nearly 15 years on this corner, by now everyone knows Tony is a serious player in the pizza world. But this last year has seen a serious uptick in attention for our favorite pizzaiolo. He started out last Fall by capturing Pizzeria of The Year from Pizza Today Magazine, the nation’s biggest magazine for the pizza trade. The holy grail for American pizza makers, this was an honor Tony had always coveted, and one he describes as “bigger than James Beard.”

He’s also become a regular leader on Italy’s 50 Top Pizza list, which has become highly influential in recent years. Tony’s Pizza Napoletana has appeared on their list since the organization’s inception, and early on was recognized as their #1 pizzeria in America. This year, 50 Top Pizza named Tony’s the #19 best pizzeria in the world, the only California restaurant to make the worldwide top 50. Tony also snagged the Robo Award for being the only operator with two restaurants appearing on their U.S. list (Las Vegas’ Pizza Rock placed 18th).

Nick Lawlor keeps things lively at the Tony's bar. Pro Tip: you can get Tony's full menu at the bar––and it's first come, first served. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Nick Lawlor keeps things lively at the Tony’s bar. Pro Tip: you can get Tony’s full menu at the bar––and it’s first come, first served. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

The local press has finally started getting on the bandwagon, too. The San Francisco Chronicle in particular, who previously hadn’t written about Tony since the Obama Administration, seems to have discovered Tony’s anew. Starting with a quick nod on a best-of list in February, the paper and their sister publication SF Gate have featured Tony’s a half-dozen times in the past year alone. Following their lead, a slew of local publications and broadcasters alike have covered the restaurant since, including CBS, KRON, Eater, 7×7 and others.

For my part, I’m glad to see Tony and his incredibly talented crew finally getting the local ink they deserve. I’m not sure what they’ll come up with next, but I’ll be the first one to check it out.


The Seven Ovens Blog appears here regularly, documenting the stories and characters behind Tony Gemignani’s remarkable group of restaurants. Don’t forget to bookmark us–and we’ll see you in North Beach!

Only one San Francisco restaurant named to world’s top pizzerias list
September 18, 2023

Only one San Francisco restaurant named to world’s top pizzerias list

San Francisco’s Tony’s Pizza Napoletana claimed the No. 19 spot on a list of the top 100 pizzerias around the world. Tony’s was among a fraction of U.S. pizzerias in the ranking and the only California restaurant recognized in the roundup…

Click here to read full article

A San Francisco First: The SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival
August 29, 2023

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

by Joe Bonadio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Now Fermenting: The SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival
August 8, 2023

Now Fermenting: The SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival

by Joe Bonadio

North Beach has changed a lot since the days when Italian fishermen crowded the waterfront, but the traces of those storied times persist. Still the one San Francisco neighborhood most closely associated with Italian culture (no offense, Excelsior), North Beach remains a destination for those seeking a glimpse into that past. We’re home to many of SF’s favorite Italian restaurants, not to mention Saints Peter and Paul Church, dubbed the “Italian Cathedral of the West.” We also host the Festa Coloniale Italiano, the city’s only Italian-themed street fair, as  well as the venerated Statuto Race, a century-old Italian-American tradition.

That being said, you would think a pizza festival would be a natural for North Beach, but it has somehow never materialized—until now. But now Tony has  taken the bull by the horns, and of course he’s upped the ante. This August 19th, North Beach will host the first annual SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival.

Bear in mind, having spent decades on the pizza circuit, Tony has attended pizza festivals around the world. So when he decided to create his own, the pizza maker set his sights high. The event will bring together over 45 of the best local pizzerias, bagel bakeries, and breweries in a family friendly setting—under the  spires of Saints Peter & Paul in the heart of North Beach. A ticketed event, the festival will benefit five great local charities*, with an aim to raise approximately $100,000 in a single day.

Tastes will be unlimited for ticketholders, who will have the chance to sample the wares of nearly thirty of the best pizzerias in the Bay Area, alongside six of our best bagelries. Obviously you’ll need something to wash all that down, so Tony invited along twenty of the Bay’s best craft brewers; you can view all participating businesses here. Simply put, this is shaping up to be the biggest food event to ever hit North Beach.

Alessio Acquaviva from Gold Mirror

Alessio Acquaviva from Gold Mirror, just one of nearly 30 pizzerias appearing at the SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival. | Photo Courtesy of Gold Mirror

I sat down with Tony last week to get more details, and find out what he and his talented team have planned for us. Edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So let’s talk about the SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival.

Tony Gemignani: Well first, we’ll have pizzerias from all over: Montesacro, Capo’s and Tony’s, of course. We have Il Casaro, Giorgio’s, which is old  school, we have A-16, Mozzeria. We have Delarosa, Longbridge Pizza, we have Del Popolo, we have Pizza Hacker. We’ve kind of got everyone.  Boichik Bagels, Laundromat SF, Hacker Bagels, Daily Driver, Kaz, a bunch more.  We have almost twenty breweries too.

I’ve done almost every pizza festival, from Naples to New York, to L.A., Chicago, Vegas, I’ve done all those. I wanted to do one right before the pandemic happened. I was thinking about it back in 2018, 2019.

JB: I remember talking to to you about it.

TG: Yeah, we talked about it then. So after going to all of them, I saw that there was a renaissance of pizza and bagels. A lot of pizza guys are making bagels; if you’re in the scene or going on Instagram you’ll see that. So while people might say, Why pizza and bagels? In the industry, it actually makes sense. Carbs on carbs on more carbs, right? (Laughter) 

I also thought the beer element was something that was lacking when you went to these festivals. Sure, they might have a brewery or two, but not actually curating a list of brewers that’s really representative. We’ve got almost twenty of  the best ones.

So I had the pizza side of it, the bagel side of it, the beer side. Now where were we going to do it? I was talking to some pizzerias about it, and we were looking at another area outside of North Beach at one time. Then I thought, we do  a festival on the street here already. Maybe Nick (Nick Figone, Director of  the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club) knows something about it, I’ll talk to him.

One thing leads to the next, and finally Nick said, Why don’t we just work together on it? So we started working together, and Nick and the Italian Athletic Club have been just a giant help. The Statuto Race was moved to the day after the Festa Coloniale this year, so that opened up August. We looked at the dates, we looked at Outside Lands, the weather, everything.

Getting the participants has been a challenge. Everybody’s busy; everybody is shorthanded. We’ve been getting as many volunteers as possible to help, and we’ll be reaching out more for volunteers.

Kevin Rodgers of The Laundromat SF

Kevin Rodgers of The Laundromat SF, formerly Holy Roller Bagel. | Photo Courtesy of The Laundromat SF

Then we had to decide: will it be a ticketed event? It would need to be heavily sponsored, because we’re donating about $100,000 to five different charities. At most festivals, you don’t see money given back like that. You might see a $10,000 check here or a $20,000 check there, but you’re not going to see  $100,000 for a 1-day pizza festival—at least I haven’t seen it.

It wasn’t about making it a big moneymaker. The pizzerias are getting paid some, and we’re trying to get as much product donated to the pizza shops as we can. But if it wasn’t for DoorDash, BiRite Distribution and the rest of the sponsors,** we wouldn’t be talking right now.

JB: Are there VIP tickets?

TG: Yes, but the first VIP tickets sold out fast. It was pretty special; you get in an hour early. It’s an 11-4 festival, but the first hour, 11:00-12:00, the VIP group gets  to come in. So you get to try everything, and there’s no lines. Plus you get a goody bag that’s valued at over $200, so the cost of the ticket is covered by the  goody bag.

I also looked closely at the pricing; I saw that festivals often had one price, and I didn’t think that was fair. Our standard ticket includes four beers, but maybe you’re not drinking, or you’re under 21. What if you’re under five, or between six and twelve? I thought it was important—if a dad came with his three kids, it shouldn’t be an $80 ticket times four. So we did tiered ticketing.

JB: That’s smart.

TG: We have a ticket that comes with four beers, tickets with no alcohol; tickets for six to twelve, and kids five and under are free. All the details are at EventBrite. So I thought that was important.

Mark Bowen from Kaz Bagels

Mark Bowen from Kaz Bagels demonstrates his enthusiasm for his product. | Photo Courtesy of Kaz Bagels

I also talked to Andrew Swig, who is the founder of Value Culture. He’s done a lot of events around the city, and has a pretty big name in the San Francisco world. He literally heard me talking about the festival on the street with Nick, and said Hey, you’re doing a pizza and beer festival? I’ll help you.

So Adam came in as a member of our committee, and started looking at the festival in terms of waste—trying to make it not zero-waste, but close to it. Recycling, and better cups. Think of a beer festival: 2,000 people, everybody gets four beers. All the beer companies want to bring their own cups, so that’s  thousands and thousands of 16-ounce cups.

JB: Totally wasted.

TG: Wasted, exactly. So how do you make a reusable stainless cup, maybe with all the beer logos on it? So those are being made now, designed with most of the beer companies represented on it. We had 1,500 of those made, and we looked at it this way: this is San Francisco, so this should be festival forward-thinking. San Francisco is always ahead of the curve, so we should be looking at  reusable, compostable…

JB: Just like any brick-and-mortar business in this town would.

TG: Right. So Adam looked at the festival, and said these are the things that you should consider. Would P&R Paper be willing to donate compostable plates? And other things like that. He’s also involved in bringing some of the entertainment. We have a celebrity pizza toss that we’ll be doing, and he’s helping us to get  some celebrities out here. Raising Dough in North Beach, that kind of a thing.

He’s also got this guy named Kosha Dillz. He’s a rapper from Brooklyn who raps about bagels and random things.

JB: (Laughter)

TG: He’s legitimately, amazingly good. He’s really talented.

JB: That’s sort of how the Beastie Boys started out.

TG: Kind of like the Beastie Boys! That’s actually a perfect analogy. Anyway, he raps about bagels, and he’s Jewish. He’s flying in, and that’ll be interesting. We’ve also got DJ Tony Russell donating his time to come in and spin some records, and I’ve known him for a long time.

So it hasn’t been all me, that’s for sure. Nick has been great, and Steve Costello from Morris Distributing curated the breweries for us. It’s really been a group effort.

Then there’s Women In Pizza, which is another big part of it. Laura Meyer, Leah Scruto, Christina Alvarez and Kira Zabrowski are coming, and they’re going to be working the Ooni section. Also David Jacobson, the champion California pizza maker who just won everything last year, he’s going to be out making pizzas in the Ooni section.

We’re also going to have Alistair Hannmann from Hawaii, and Justin Wadstein from Sleight of Hand in Santa Cruz. Matt Molina is going to cook, and Adam Sachs is coming out. Patrick McColley from Arizona—there’s a whole slew of  guys that are going to be here.

There’s a whole new lineup coming out—about 25 to 30 pizzerias will be represented.

Tomasso Topa of Tony's Pizza Napoletana

Tomasso Topa of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana will be practicing his craft at the SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival, just steps away from where he makes pizza every day. | Photo Courtesy of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

JB: Wow. And how many pizza champions are going to be out there?

TG: Oh, a lot. And we’ll have a little bit of everything: from truffles, to squash blossoms, to cup-and-char pepperoni. There’ll be Detroit, Tavern Style, Roman Style, Neapolitan, New York.

JB: Is everyone bringing their own ingredients?

TG: We had a number of manufacturers and distributors that came in to donate as much product as they could. We have a list of ingredients, so if a participant wants sauce, or flour or anything like that they can get it. We have a BiRite refrigerated truck where they’ll be able to park their dough.

Everyone knows that they’re going to need up to 2,000 samples, and there will be anywhere from 150-200 pizzas cut into samples. So for the attendee, that’ll be up to 20-25 pizza samples throughout the day. Then you’ll have your six bagel shops and twenty breweries. Carb it up, man!

JB: Damn. Makes me think of Expo. (Laughter)

TG: Then Lettieri, they’re a distributor, they’ll have a booth. BiRite will have a booth, and they’ll be cooking. Columbus will be here giving out salami. There will be some really cool booths. Everything’s going to be cordoned off for ticket holders, so you won’t be able to get in from the park. It will be different from Festa, where everything is open.

For VIP you’ll be able to enter through the Italian Athletic Club, and you’ll get upstairs entry for the balcony, where it’s all you can drink wine/beer/liquor, and charcuterie. So you get to enter an hour early, you get a goody bag worth $200, and all you can drink. $150 ticket. We already sold 150 of them, boom.

We did save some tickets that may go up the last couple of weeks. We haven’t done any TV yet. If we do TV the week of the festival and there’s no tickets, why are we doing TV? So we saved an allotment, a reserve that we can put up in  case it comes to that.

Jeremy Fish is going to be doing some artwork for it, I’m not sure what yet. We have some merchandise we’ll be selling, shirts and tote bags. We’ll be selling all types of pizza books in the merch area.

It’s going to be awesome. And a lot has gone into it. To do a festival for the first  time….it’s the hardest one to do.

Bar Manager Nick Lawlor

Bar Manager Nick Lawlor holds court behind the bar at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, Tony Gemignani’s North Beach flagship. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Is there a competitive element?

TG: No. No competition, just camaraderie. Support your favorite pizzeria and root them on, that’s what’s it’s all about, but there’s no winners and no losers.

It’s about celebrating San Francisco pizza, and bagels and beer. New York and Chicago are always celebrated as being at the forefront of pizza. But we’ve got great pizza and bagels out here, and we want everyone to know it.

For tickets, visit EventBrite here.

*Slice Out Hunger, the Salesian Boys & Girls Club, San Francisco Italian Athletic Club Foundation, Saints Peter & Paul School, and the North Beach Business Association

**Sponsors: DoorDash, BiRite Distribution, Hormel, Columbus Craft Meats, Central Milling,  Grandé Cheese, Lettieri & Co., Italfoods, Caputo Flour, Ciao Pomodoro, Jeremy Fish, Value Culture, Orlando Foods, 7/11 Tomatoes, Old Smokehouse Bacon, Ooni, Fontanini, Corto, Rosa Grande, Burke, California Milk Board, Scarlata Farms, Modernist Cuisine, Marra Forni

Team Becca: Rebecca Scaramuzzino Finds A Home At Tony’s
July 12, 2023

Team Becca: Rebecca Scaramuzzino Finds A Home At Tony’s

by Joe Bonadio

Like a lot of my fellow San Franciscans, I spend a good bit of time in restaurants. It’s a habit I picked up when I was living in New York, aided and abetted by a surprisingly generous expense account. And though I’m not quite the obsessed gastronome I once was, I still jump at the chance to dine out whenever I can. There’s just something about sharing a good table with people whose company you enjoy; it’s easily one of my favorite things.

Having worked on the edges of the restaurant business for many years, there’s one thing I’ve learned: it’s hard. Whether it’s bartending, serving, cooking or greeting the people, the energy required to produce a great restaurant experience is astounding. Generally speaking, I’ve found that quality people work in restaurants. I’ve made a lot of friends in the service biz, more than a few of them at Tony’s—on both sides of the bar.

Of course everyone has a story, and with that in mind, every so often we like to do employee interviews here on the blog. Over the past five years, I’ve interviewed everyone from Tony himself (here, here and here) to award-winning pizza makers Laura Meyer and Oscar Venegas, not to mention other key players like OG bartender Robvell Smith, Operations Manager Mario Acevedo and many more.

This week we’re talking with Tony’s Manager Rebecca Scaramuzzino, who recently competed at Pizza Expo for the very first time. Rebecca was kind enough to sit down with me just last week….and our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So where are you from, Rebecca?

Rebecca Scaramuzzino: I was actually born in Stockton.

JB: California girl.

RS: Yes, I am! We moved down to LA for a couple of years until I was three, then we moved up to San Leandro. I’ve been in the East Bay ever since.

JB: How did you first get into the restaurant business?

RS: Funny thing, in San Leandro there’s a pizza restaurant called Porky’s Pizza. It’s the local go to spot–it’s where all the high school kids work, it’s everyone’s first job. It’s where all the kids hung out then, and they had a little payphone in the back so we could keep in touch with our parents.

So it was a place that I was familiar with. A lot of the people I went to school with worked there, and they would tell me: You’ve gotta get in here, this is a great spot to work. So my first job: pizza place.

JB: A hyperlocal pizza place.

RS: Hyperlocal. It’s the biggest spot in town, in what they call the Manor of San Leandro. There’s a little grocery store there, a liquor store, a bar, and everyone kind of gathers there.

JB: Sort of the local square.

RS: Pretty much. So me and my best friend began working there, and right away I felt at home. I caught on quick.

I was working full-time, and I got to work side-by-side with the owners, the Valenziano family. Gary and Greg were the brothers, and their dad was still alive at the time. He passed a few years after, but I did get a chance to work with him, which was incredible to me. To be in such a tight group—it was an Italian family restaurant, so I felt like I was a part of the family.

I just thought, this is amazing. I come here, I’m with my best friends, I’m part of a big family. I get to see all the local people every day. I loved it!

JB: Not bad for a first job. How long were you with the Valenzianos?

RS: Twenty years. All the way up until I came to Tony’s.

JB: Wow.

RS: I left a couple of times and tried a few different things. I did a little retail, I worked at Sears.

JB: That’s a decision that sort of makes itself, huh?

RS: (Laughter) Yeah! I did a little fine dining, I worked at Horatio’s in the San Leandro Marina, just to get my feet wet in a couple of different areas. But I always came back. There was just something about that place, and that family—and I didn’t want to give it up.

Tony and Rebecca in the dining room at Tony's Pizza Napoletana

Tony and Rebecca in the dining room at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach. | Photo courtesy of Rebecca Scaramuzzino

JB: So how did you finally end up making the jump to Tony’s?

RS: I became a manager at Porky’s about seven years ago, and I got the opportunity to go to Pizza Expo for the first time. It opened my eyes to the pizza world—this whole world full of things you didn’t even know existed.

JB: I remember feeling the same way.

RS: My boss knows Tony, so I got to meet him there. And I remember watching him, and just being in complete awe. Look what this guy does. Look what is possible in this field of work I’ve chosen.

And at that point, I didn’t know if I was going to be in this business forever. I’d been doing it for 20 years, but was it going to be my career? I didn’t know yet—but watching Tony inspired me. I started reading Pizza Bible, and watching videos on Tony, and researching the restaurant.

It wasn’t until about five years ago until I came to the restaurant. Tony had popped into Porky’s, and he remembered who I was. We exchanged phone numbers, and he said Hey, I’d like to show you my place.  And I acted really cool about it, like it wasn’t a big deal—but inside, it was a huge deal. (Laughter)

I came out here with my mom and sister, and Tony treated us to an impeccable meal. I got to try every style of pizza, we had a couple of bottles of wine. The environment was just so….I was like Wow, I can see this for me. 

He took me on a tour through the kitchen, and introduced me to a few people. They all added me as friends on Facebook. And something told me that this was the direction I was going.

A couple of years went by, and I came back to Tony’s for their ten year anniversary party. At that point, I had decided to enroll in the pizza school. I wanted to make this a career, and that was my decision. I enrolled in the school, and gave my deposit to Laura.

My mom and I went together to the party. I got to meet Bill [Ginsburg, Tony’s VP of Operations) for the first time, and he spent a long time hanging out at the table with us. I loved him, though I didn’t really know who he was.

Then just after enrolling, I found out I was pregnant. I thought to myself: this is never going to work. How am I going to have a newborn child, commute out to the city, hire a babysitter….all the barriers you can think of.

So I decided my daughter had to come first, and I dropped out of the school. Then just before I had my daughter, Covid happened. In March of 2020, my doctor took me out of work, and my daughter was born in April. I was home with her for five months; they didn’t want me to go back to work because of all of the unknowns, and the chance of bringing Covid home to the baby.

JB: We were all terrified.

RS: Exactly. So I got to stay home with her, and I really had time to think about what I was going to do. Eventually I went back to work at Porky’s, for limited hours. Right about then I got a text message from Tony: Are you still looking for a job? 

He gave me a call, and we talked for about an hour and a half. I came in two weeks later, and met with Tony, Bill and Natale. They called me three days later, and said you’ve got the job. I didn’t even think twice—I took it.

JB: You had known years earlier that’s where you wanted to be.

RS: Yes. Since I was a little girl, I always thought it would be really cool to have a nice Italian restaurant. At the time I hadn’t started working yet, I was really young, but I remember telling my dad: one day, I’m going to work in a big famous Italian restaurant. And I’m going to make food for you and Grandma. Even as a little kid I remember saying this, because we were always so into cooking and food in my family.

JB: It took a while, but you wound up in the right spot.

RS: I did.

JB: And you already had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Once you began working here, what was the biggest surprise you found?

RS: It was definitely the learning: about all the styles, learning about the ovens, and the craft of the pizza. If you think about it, I went from a restaurant where we made one style of pizza, we had one oven, and we used the ingredients we used. Now I had worked sauté, and I’d worked the fryers, and every other aspect of our restaurant. But that’s all I really knew.

Coming to this restaurant, I found the crust of Tony’s pizza was the most important part of working here. When you are table touching, people want to talk to you about Tony’s. They want to ask you questions, they want to know about the ingredients. They want to know about the styles. It’s part of the experience.

JB: I imagine that built-in need to educate your customers really sustains you in this business, and keeps you engaged.

Rebecca showing off a little front-of-house style

Rebecca showing off a little front-of-house style. | Photo Courtesy of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

RS: Absolutely. There’s something to learn every day, and Tony is there so often that you get to watch the magic happen. Before something lands on the menu, before there’s a weird special release in Pizza Today, or whatever is going on, you get to see it happen. Watch him playing with things, and talking about what he’s working on. So few people ever get to do that. That’s incredible to me.

JB: The two years you’ve been here have been very transformative for food and beverage. What are some of the things you’ve noticed in terms of broader changes in the business?

RS: Well, when I first started, obviously masks were still a thing. Then the city began requiring everyone have their vaccination card. That was a troubling time; we had to have someone at the door, and we had people coming from all over the world, who didn’t know about all of these rules and policies.

Then as soon as that was lifted, you noticed: slowly but surely, more people out on the street, more people in the park. People began to be more comfortable sitting inside, and we’ve seen families coming back out again.

And honestly, people are starting to be kinder than they used to be. For a while during Covid there was a lot of anger, a lot of aggression—and now people are just being nicer. People are happy to be out, people are happy to see businesses striving.

JB: They’ve had the pressure taken off of them, the uncertainty was eliminated.

RS: Yeah. And it’s been hard being in the restaurant business, because the restaurants are really the one thing that stayed open during all of this. We saw everything.

JB: And you kept us all going. Our local restaurants were what allowed the locals to limp through that whole period.

So I want to talk to you about Pizza Expo. You just made your first appearance there as a competitor. Tell me how that came about. 

RS: Well, Tony noticed that I wanted to be in the kitchen a lot. In my previous job, I was in the kitchen on the line every day. That’s where my heart was—I loved making pizza. I love being on the line, I love when it gets busy and you have to hustle. It’s just a part of who I am.

So Tony started talking to me about what I wanted to do. He watched me make a few pizzas, and I filled in at Expo for Oscar a couple of times. Finally Tony said: I think it’s time. I’d like to take you to Expo—I think you can do it. I think you’d be great. And I said, Yeah. 

JB: What was it like hearing that from Tony?

RS: I was terrified.

JB: (Laughter)

RS: I took a deep breath and thought: what did I get myself into? I better step my game up!

So I started working with Oscar, and at first I focused on my hand stretching technique. I had used a rolling pin at my old restaurant, I didn’t hand stretch. I thought, I can’t walk up there and not know how to hand stretch. So I’d come in early, and I’d go in the kitchen, and I’d just be stretching, stretching, stretching. I still never got the full, proper technique down—but it was good enough for me.

JB: So what division did you start in?

RS: I started with traditional, because Tony said it was probably the best place to start. Non traditional is hard to judge, where they’re comparing an apple pizza to a lobster pizza.

So the one thing that was really important to me, I wanted to stick with my Calabrian roots. I wanted to do something with Calabrian chiles. So Tony said okay, that’s a good place to start— let’s work with that. We came up with this great vodka cream Calabrian chile sauce, and I had pepperoni and millionaire’s bacon, and it was just this incredible pizza. And my bake was perfect. We started coming in early on Saturday morning to practice, just me, Tony, Oscar and Adam. Make your pizza, make your pizza, make your pizza. Keep working on it. Tweak it.

Then about a month and a half before Expo, we found out I couldn’t use the ingredients that I had on my pizza.

JB: Why?

RS: You can’t use a cream sauce. It has to be a red traditional sauce. It changed my whole direction. I also had a basil ricotta on top—you can’t pipe cheese on top, they said. You could do it in previous years, but you can’t do it this year.

So okay, take away my sauce, take away my cheese….this is complicated.

JB: Meanwhile, this is a pie you had already made a hundred times. 

RS: Right! So I went with a classic American and a classic Italian sauce. I wanted the texture with the sweetness, and it was a good combination of the two sauces. It worked well with the pepperoni and a little bit of spice. I did the millionaire’s bacon—or as I called it at Expo, a maple spiced bacon. It’s the umami spice and maple syrup, like we make on the Smokeshow.

It was delicious. Tony said: Your pizza is actually great. Don’t change anything, you’ve got it. You’re better than you think you are. You can do it.

Anyway, I was like 74th on the list to go, and then they called me two hours late. My dough started getting really warm. But when I stepped up there, and I was finally ready to go, I actually felt good. I had sat there all day, and I watched everyone. All the technique, everything.

Finally I was like, you know what? I make pizza every day. What’s the difference? Just go up there and have fun.

Rebecca with her old boss at Pizza Expo

Rebecca with her old boss Gregg Valenziano and his son Nick at Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. | Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Scaramuzzino

JB: Just make pizza. You’ve done it a million times.

RS: Right! Meanwhile, I get up there and I start to scrape the dough out, and I’m like, Oh, No. 

But it was great. My old bosses came to support me, my sister came, Tony showed up, Natale, Oscar. Everybody stood right in front, to be there with me. I was like: Yes! Team Becca, this is awesome! (Laughter)

When I felt nervous, I’d look up at them, make contact and take a deep breath, and it was fine. The only thing: my pizza kind of came out looking like an egg, because it was too warm when I landed it in the oven.

But I got 13th in my region, for my first time. And everybody said that a couple of years ago, I would have placed with that score. A lot of big people competed this year, and everyone said the score I got was incredible for a first time.

And so many people came up to me, and told me they saw the posts that Tony put up about me: I’ve been following you, and rooting for you. It was crazy, I was almost like a celebrity already.

JB: So I’m guessing that you’re already working on your pizza for next year….

RS: I am! I’m going to venture out and go into nontraditional this time. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but there’s a pizza that I’ve always wanted to make. I went to Tony with it when I first started. And he said, that would actually work. I asked him, do you think I’d have a chance with it? He said, Yeah.

A little basil aioli, a little steak, a little red onion….but that’s enough details for now.

JB: Thank you, Rebecca. Hopefully I’ll be with you at Pizza Expo next year.

RS: I hope so. You can be on Team Becca!

The Seven Ovens Blog documents the many stories and personalities behind Tony Gemignani’s unique group of restaurants. Make sure to bookmark us, and come back to visit us again soon.