August 16, 2018

Bringing It All Home: Tony Gemignani Tackles Retail At Giovanni Italian Specialties

by Joe Bonadio

By placing the headquarters of his growing pizza empire in the heart of San Francisco’s North Beach, California’s Tony Gemignani, who had risen to fame with his acrobatic pizza-tossing skills, had pulled off his most elaborate trick yet. The pizzaiolo had built not one, but three thriving, distinct Italian restaurants–right in the middle of San Francisco’s historic Italian district. One by one, Tony had knocked the critics out, and in the process he had changed the public’s very idea of what a pizzeria could be.

But the chef was ready for his next challenge. After all, Tony hadn’t won the World Pizza Cup in Naples (as the first non-Neapolitan to do so) by resting on his laurels. And as we would soon find out, he had a few other ideas for the neighborhood.

One thing Tony thought a lot about was pasta, which he was going through an awful lot of at his restaurants. Though pizza was the main draw for many, the menus at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and Capo’s were both heavy on pasta, and Tony insisted on making his own product.

The Gemignani family had been in the provisions business before he was born, so Tony envisioned an old-fashioned general store–but stocked with all things Italian. In addition to fresh pasta and ravioli, there would be fresh focaccia (both from Tony’s oven and legendary Liguria Bakery across the park). The shop would also have a selection of housemade sauces, including Tony’s killer pesto, and of course the chef’s notorious meatballs. They’d serve piping-hot panzerotti (fried calzone) on the weekends, and perfect cannoli, filled to order–just like in the old days.

OutsideAnd that would just be the beginning. The place would be a motherlode for the Italian home chef, with professional pizza tools, bakeware and other kitchen accessories, along with a collection of leading local cookbooks–including Tony’s own, so shoppers could recreate his recipes at home. And the ambitious chef had the ideal name for it: Giovanni, name of his (then) three-year-old son.

Giovanni Italian Specialties opened in November of 2017, in a perfect spot on Union Street nearly equidistant to Tony’s three neighborhood restaurants. Located in the former home of Ladies & Gents, an old-fashioned barbershop, it’s tucked neatly between Original Joe’s and Mario’s Bohemian, two North Beach institutions–and with its 50’s era signage and vintage style, it couldn’t suit the block any better.

The day the shop opened, Tony had a young violinist on the sidewalk in front, playing traditional Italian songs for passersby in the Fall air. It was a nice touch, and it seemed to send a subtle message: This place is a gift to the neighborhood, to North Beach.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say ‘there used to be places like this all over North Beach, but they’re all gone,’” Tony says now. “And like a lot of the things we do, Giovanni is meant to bring back a little bit of that old North Beach.

“So I really like hearing that.”

insideNot surprisingly, one emphasis of the place is on pizza. From pans to tools to ingredients, the shelves of Giovanni are loaded with just about everything you need to up your pizza game at home.

“For Italian home chefs, it’s a one-stop shop,” Tony explains. “You want to make your own Deep Dish, or a Detroit Red Top? We’ve got the pans that you need–and ingredients too.”

Tony has moved all pasta production for his restaurants to the shop, and three extruders now crank out over 100 pounds of pasta per day, six days a week. Of course that means there’s plenty on offer in the shop, including delectable fresh ravioli every Friday. And in a nod to Chinatown, our sister neighborhood to the south, Giovanni also makes pasta for George Chen’s China Live, one of San Francisco’s most celebrated Asian restaurants.*

Not long after Giovanni opened, I stopped in for one of Tony’s diabolical panzerotti. Crispy, chewy and just a little bit over the top, it’s only served on the weekends, and a must-try. While I was there, I had the chance to talk a little shop with Tony himself.

I fancy myself a passable home chef, and somehow we landed on the topic of canned tomatoes. Now, a novice might make the mistake of assuming that only amateurs (and snowbound East-Coasters) use canned tomatoes. While I knew better, my knowledge was limited to San Marzano tomatoes, a top-quality imported Italian variety that’s perfect for a winter sauce.

Well, let’s just say that Tony schooled me on canned tomatoes, pizza, and the complex and hotly contested territory between the two. I learned about 6 in 1, 7/11 and a host of other tomato brands I’d never even heard of. I learned that they all have their place in pizza history and the pizza business, and that some pizzaiolos would sooner hang up their pizza peels than use one over the other. (This is a tasty subject worth digging into, and we’ll be returning to it in a future article).

Looking back, that afternoon may have been the first time I really saw Tony for what he is: a full-on pizza obsessive. Tony talks about tomatoes–and artisanal flours, and obscure pizza styles, and imported ovens, and a host of other things–with the brio of a true fanatic.

And I suppose that’s what makes things work at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, the Slice House, Capo’s, and all of Tony’s places around the country. Tony Gemignani clearly loves his craft; always the student, he never stops looking for ways to make his product better. With Giovanni, Tony has brought a big, fat slice of that knowledge to the retail marketplace, furthering his mission to transform the way pizza is made, and the way it’s enjoyed by the public.

Just swing by Giovanni and see for yourself. Step inside, and you’re soon in shopping mode: a peek in the case reveals some of the most scrumptious-looking focaccia you’ll ever see, strewn with crisp arugula and glistening with olive oil. Freshly extruded pasta hangs in the window, ready for the boil. Nothing seems to have been overlooked here.

It’s difficult to create a retail market that’s as much fun as a restaurant, not to mention one of Tony’s restaurants. But somehow, Giovanni manages to do just that. So whether you’re cooking dinner tonight, or prefer to leave it to the pros, one place has got you covered either way: Giovanni Italian Specialties.

*Note to the trade: Giovanni will provide fresh pasta wholesale to any North Beach establishment. Call or come by the shop to inquire.

The Seven Ovens blog appears in this space twice each month, bringing the stories and details behind Tony Gemignani’s San Francisco pizza school and remarkable group of restaurants to a wider audience. Make sure to bookmark us, and we’ll see you next time, when we’ll be looking at Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza.