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December 24, 2020

A Home Away: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana’s Ro Hart

by Joe Bonadio

As we head into the holidays this year, we’re all working hard to adjust to a strange new reality. And while there are real signs of hope on the immediate horizon, it’s up to all of us to keep the fires of optimism and promise burning through the holiday season.

And over the past few months, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: people are the most important thing. The people in our lives, the people in our workplaces and in our communities: without them, everything we do would be meaningless.

Of course, being the place that it is, the talk about Tony’s Pizza Napoletana generally revolves around the food and drink. That’s only natural: the place is a veritable goldmine for foodies, and practically the National Pizza Headquarters. But again, it’s the people that make Tony’s the institution that it is. And I’ve spent a lot of time talking to those people: recent interviews in this space have featured Michele Di Ruocco, Elmer Mejicanos, Stephanie Danese and others.

This week, we’ll be talking to yet another familiar face in the Tony’s orbit: Manager Ro Hart. Lightly edited for clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So tell me, how did you end up at Tony’s Pizza?

Ro Sabra: It’s kind of funny how I came here. I lucked out–somebody recommended me, and gave me Mario’s number. I came here from the Cadillac Bar.

JB: South of Market?

RS: That’s right, in the Twitter building.

JB: Was that your first gig in hospitality?

RS: No, I actually came into the business through coffee. I was working in places like Simple Pleasures as a barista. I got lucky: after school, I traveled around a lot. I’m a military brat, and proud of it. I grew up on various bases around the world, and at the time my dad was stationed at the London Embassy. I would travel to London, then bounce around and explore.

How I came to be in management has to do with what happened to my mother. After school, I was a barista and I bounced around, and would have a job here and there. I was more interested in travel. Then my mother got sick, again. She had already survived thyroid cancer, and then she started getting sick again.

So about 5 years ago, I made a point to start helping. And about 4 years ago, my mother’s health really started to deteriorate. She was still working full-time at the VA, and we knew something was wrong, but we didn’t know exactly what was wrong.

I suddenly went from being happy with just any job, to really needing a career. I needed to have the funds to take care of my mother.

I was still working at The Grove when I got an opportunity through Steve Ring, one of the higher-up managers there: he asked me if I’d like to get into management. So I started off as a floor supervisor, and I worked my way up.

JB: Third and Mission, right?

Caught in a semi-serious moment in this shot, Ro Hart of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana always has a smile for everyone.

RS: That’s right, the Yerba Buena Grove. The big one: two stories, massive main area, lots of diners. Kitchen is huge, big staff. I was able to get my foot through the door, and with his mentorship I had the chance to refine my managerial skills.

By moving into management, I was able to get into a couple of other restaurants. But all this time, while I was moving higher up in management, unfortunately my mother was getting worse and worse. About 3 years ago, I officially moved in with her.

At the time, I had just started at Tony’s Pizza, and joined this crew. I would be coming here working full-time, and it’s just so full of life and creativity. Yes, there’s drama. You know there’s a lot of bullshit and chaos at any restaurant.

JB: It’s not always a finely oiled machine.

RS: Exactly! And sometimes that train jumps the tracks! But in a way it really helped me, because I would go home, and I was living with my mother at the time. It was a one-bedroom apartment in Park Merced, and I was sleeping on her couch for all those years. And she was deteriorating.

It was just so different going home to such a….it’s not a negative place. But it’s just a sad and small world, when you go home to someone who is dying. And it really helped me, just being able to come here, and have that support.

People laugh, because a lot of stuff just blows right past me now. It’s just not worth freaking out about. I do freak out sometimes, but when you’ve been dealing with the real shit, it just doesn’t register, you know?

I was dealing with such a dark situation at home. Then I would come here, and it was just so refreshing. Just being able to come in and see all the bartenders, Robvell is rollin’, and Stephanie is doing good. The Slice House is popping and the servers are laughing about something, and maybe the cooks are squabbling. And there’s Tony, creating brand-new pizza! And it’s just so filled with life, and just people being people, and being away from their own families.

We’ve kind of created this amalgamation of personalities, this loud and boisterous place. And it’s the customers also–we want customers to join us, and to have the best time they can.

But it really did help; it was almost therapy for me. Because after doing a whole day here, I would finish up and go home. Sometimes when the darkness tries to drag you down, being so submerged in something else helps you keep things in perspective.

JB: I think that’s something that many of us are looking for in our work. Not a replacement for family, but for that connection and community that we all learned to appreciate growing up in our own families.

RS: That’s right. It doesn’t supersede your personal life or your family of course, but it is important. And it’s good for your growth, the growth of your soul.

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

RS: Ah, the first time I met Tony….it was for my interview. I had actually done my initial interview with Diego, who was the GM for a while. I was really nervous, but I was ready to go. It’s funny, because at first, I was like Oh….it’s a pizza place.

But then I went online. And even though I don’t eat a lot of pizza, that’s when I realized, this is Tony’s Pizza! This was a place I actually tried to eat at once!

JB: But you couldn’t even get in!

RS: Right! I didn’t realize that Tony was a celebrity chef, I didn’t know any of that stuff.

So I did my interview with Diego, and that was sort of a hair-raising interview. Diego was an interesting man. Very opinionated, and right off the bat–I was even a little bit taken aback.

But Christine was also there at the time, the AGM. They both liked me, and it was funny. They were like: Okay, you need to talk to Tony now. And I was in the booth right next to the kitchen, I had all my stuff. And he just slips in right in front of me!

He was asking me all these questions: How did you get into customer service? What do you expect out of this? He was completely fair, but definitely wanted to know: Why should I hire you? I was so nervous, because he was so hardcore! He was like, I’m going to check these references.

JB: He has to play tough in the beginning.

Pizza Time

On a recent visit, I got to try a brand-new and very tasty pie: coming soon to the Tony’s menu. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

RS: He does. But he totally had me! I was like, does he know something I don’t?!

But I got hired, luckily. Like a week later, I met him again after that initial interview. And I was so impressed: when I first saw him, I was coming into the kitchen. And Tony was just behind the counter, cooking up a storm.

I forget what pizza he was making, but he was just in there with the guys. And when he pulled it out of the oven, he was just like, No. And he made a brand-new pizza. Then he took it out to the customer himself.

I was so impressed with that. This was a pie that he made himself, but he just wasn’t happy with it. Didn’t make a big deal out of it, just came back into the kitchen and started on the next pizza. We’ve all seen these celebrity chefs, but that made more of an impression on me than any chef I’d ever seen. He’s got so much going on, and he’s always juggling, but he makes the time to get it right.

I admit: I don’t really eat pizza. But I eat Tony’s pizza.

JB: I totally get that.

RS: You know, like a lot of people I came to San Francisco for school. I was a sculpture major, still am. But I’m working in a restaurant, just like all the other art people around here! And I’ve never had the luxury of working at a place like Tony’s, with such deep roots.

There’s that connection–and it’s a deep one. With people like you, and with so many other people in the North Beach neighborhood. And it’s the connection Tony has with his employees and staff, and that integration between back of house and front of house. It really is a family unit. And I understand people say ahh, family, that’s bullshit–it’s a paycheck. But it really is like that with Tony’s, though.

And I can tell you, he really does care. Just like that saying he has: Respect The Craft. I admire that. I became an artist, and I admire that creative aspect of him.

It’s the same way with our customers. You know that we get some very….interesting people. If he wanted to, he could blow them off and have someone else deal with it. But he always takes the time to talk to you, no matter who you are.

JB: He’s got five minutes of humanity for everybody.

RS: Absolutely. Once again, it’s Respect The Craft. Of course we’re all singing for our supper, and money’s important, but he’s got something else going on.

And you see him constantly trying new stuff. I remember, it was a couple of years that he was working on those thick-crust gluten-free pizzas. He was doing so many of those, for so long. And it wasn’t what he wanted, but he kept sticking with it until it was right.

As soon as it gets discovered, that’s going to be a big seller. People just don’t know about it yet.