June 2, 2022

Badminton Champs Inspire Tony To Create Asian-Italian Pizza For AAPI Month

by Joe Bonadio

Everybody loves a good riddle, so here’s a tough one for you: What do Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, badminton and Chinese sausage have in common?

Turns out, it’s our very own Tony Gemignani.

I’ll explain. Thirty years ago, long before the restaurateur/chef launched his pizza empire at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, Tony was actually a serious badminton player. From his sophomore year until graduating high school, Tony played mens’ doubles and mixed doubles, and for a year after graduation he played singles in the sport.

Of course, anyone who knows Tony can tell you how competitive he is: he’s been named world pizza champion no less than thirteen times. So it’s hardly a surprise to learn the young chef-to-be was often ranked #1 in all three badminton divisions. But what does any of this have to do with Chinese sausage? Stay with me, and I promise I’ll get to that.

At the BinTang badminton facility located in Burlingame, a special exhibition game was recently organized featuring three young women athletes, all fierce competitors in their own right. Kalea Sheung, Katelin Ngo and Kelly Yau are friends who know one another from years of competitive badminton play.

Tony credits Tony Ching with the initial idea

Tony credits Tony Ching with the initial idea that led to the Bintang Exhibition match. Here the two visit Mow Lee in Chinatown for Chinese sausage. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

In fact, Kalea and Katelin recently qualified to represent Team USA in Chengdu, China for the World University Games, an event so prestigious it’s second only to the Olympic games. It’s also a stepping stone for young athletes who aspire to compete in the Olympics.

A friend of Tony’s from the neighborhood, Tony Ching, had heard about the young women and their journey to Chengdu. Knowing Tony played badminton, Ching mentioned it to their mutual friend Dion Lim, an anchor for ABC7. When Lim reached out to Tony about her idea for an event, he decided to get involved. With his long history of fundraising in the community, the pizzaiolo soon came up with a perfect way to tie it all together.

“I told her yeah—that sounds like a great idea,” Tony says. “But I want to play, too.”

So for the first time in nearly three decades, Tony picked up his badminton racquet to join the three impressive young women in a special exhibition game. To liven up the proceedings, he also showed off his legendary skills as a pizza acrobat, demonstrating his shoulder rolls (for which he holds a Guinness world record) and tossing a pizza dough between his legs, a signature move that Tony perfected years ago.

That’s not all. Tony also gave the three young athletes a lesson in pizzamaking—and even created a special pizza for the occasion. “I’ll show them how to make pizza and we’ll dedicate a really amazing Asian-Italian fusion pizza at Tony’s,” he explained when he hatched the idea. “It’s going to be awesome.”

The Panda Pie

The Panda Pie (which Tony originally wanted to call the Holy Mow Lee), an Asian-Italian mashup incorporating Calabrian chili oil, Chili Crisp and Chinese Sausage. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

Dubbed the Panda Pie in a nod to the city where the games will be held, the one-of-a kind pizza will be served at Tony’s for a limited time (dine-in only). 100% of the pizza’s proceeds will go to cover travel and training expenses for the young badminton qualifiers’ journey to China.

With Tony’s flagship restaurant located just a stone’s throw from Chinatown, naturally the chef wanted to incorporate some local Asian ingredients. If you haven’t already figured it out, that’s where the Chinese sausage comes in.

“The first thing I thought of was lap cheong, a Chinese cured sausage. I got it from Mow Lee, which is famous for it,” Tony says. “George Chen is a famous chef at China Live, also in Chinatown. I used his Famous Chili Crisp, which is great. At that point, all it needed was my Calabrian hot pepper oil.”

Tony’s Panda Pie combines the three contrasting ingredients with mozzarella, green onion and shaved piave cheese, creating a pizza that’s as eccentric as it is flavorful. The toppings turned out to be the perfect melange, bringing an Italian-Chinese flair to the pie that is unique.

“It’s a soft and really chewy Neapolitan style,” Tony says. “but with a California/Italian/ Chinese twist.” When they tried the new pie, the young athletes agreed, with Katelin calling the special pizza “amazing.”

Tony hits the court with young badminton star Kalea Sheung

Tony hits the court with young badminton star Kalea Sheung at the Bintang exhibition in Burlingame. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

Mona Sheung, Kaleas’ mother, who works part-time at the Bintang facility, also created a GoFundMe page for the occasion. As she explains, there are a lot of challenges when it comes to funding badminton. “As a sport it’s not very popular like other sports,” she says.

All of this came just in time for AAPI Heritage Month, which recognizes and pays tribute to the contributions of generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders “who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success.”

Tony points to the potential of this kind of event to bind communities together, and to help inspire kids.

“When you’re an athlete in high school, badminton is never your first choice. It’s always baseball, football, soccer,” Tony remembers. “When I was asked to be on the badminton team I wasn’t too sure about it, so I went to my mom. I told her I really liked it—but that it wasn’t very ‘cool.’ And she just told me that if I liked it, go do it.

“So growing up as a kid—and even now—I do the things I want to do. Kids should remember that: don’t let peer pressure keep you from doing the things you love,” he says. “Now did I take some razzing for it? Yes, I did.”

Badminton players Kalea Sheung (Junior) and Charlotte Tse (Sophomore

Badminton players Kalea Sheung (Junior) and Charlotte Tse (Sophomore) just finished their season at Mills High with a championship. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

“So when I saw these girls and what they were doing, it kind of touched me. And they were good. Really good,” Tony explains. “It’s been a long time since I stepped on the court and played somebody that good. It was refreshing, and for a few minutes I felt like I was in high school again.

“But my body didn’t feel like I was,” he says, laughing.

Tony credits the BinTang exhibition and meeting the impressive athletes with rekindling his interest in badminton, and he plans to return to playing.

Meanwhile, Kalea and her teammate at Mills High School, Charlotte Tse, have just made a little local history. After an undefeated season, their team finished out as the first NorCal Division GD champs in state history. Nice job, girls!

For more info, you can check out the recent report by ABC7’s Dion Lim here.

The Seven Ovens blog brings the stories behind Tony Gemignani’s San Francisco pizza school and growing restaurant group to a wider audience. Make sure to come back to visit us soon.