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September 10, 2021

Calling All Italians: Three Bay Area Fraternal Clubs To Know

by Joe Bonadio

We cover a lot of subjects here on the blog, and this time we’re going to tackle a hyperlocal topic: Italian fraternal organizations. Living as I do in North Beach, I’ve long been familiar with our own San Francisco Italian Athletic Club (SFIAC) on Stockton Street. But speaking with Tony recently, I found out he actually belongs to three separate clubs, all of them right here in the Bay Area: The SFIAC, as well as the Fratellanza Club in Emeryville and the Colombo Club in Oakland.

I found it remarkable that he belonged to all three, and we began talking about the different clubs, and how he came to be involved with them. Edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Tony and Capo's Chef Laura Meyer whip up a monster batch of pesto at the Fratellanza Club in Oakland.

Tony and Capo’s Chef Laura Meyer whip up a monster batch of pesto at the Fratellanza Club in Oakland.

Joe Bonadio: I was surprised to hear you belong to three local fraternal organizations.

Tony Gemignani: Yes. Three of the biggest ones in California, probably. Over the years, I’ve always cooked at the events, and done fundraisers for them. I’ve done Pizza Night, pizza tossing events, and Halloween night at all these clubs.

They’re always trying to find new blood, and figure out events that you can bring kids to, to make it more family-oriented. And to attract younger Italian-Americans into the membership. I’ve been a little bit of a part of that–not only by being a younger club member, but by doing events that help them with that.

Things like Pizza-Making Night and Kid’s Pizza Night really work out well. Pre-Covid these things would sell out: big dinners, 400, 450 people. It’s just awesome. I try to support the clubs as much as I can, and they need the support: especially during Covid, they got hit pretty hard. Who was having 400 people to dinner in one room?

JB: Yeah, these are event spaces.

TG: Exactly; so these clubs got hurt. During Covid, I was giving away pizzas to Nick [Figone, COO at SFIAC], just to be able to sell, and make some additional money. 25 pizzas here, 30 pizzas there, I just donated it to him.

Stephanie Danese, veteran bartender at Tony's Pizza Napoletana, feeding the hungry crowds at the Colombo Club in Oakland.

Stephanie Danese, veteran bartender at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, feeding the hungry crowds at the Colombo Club in Oakland.

Because through Covid, we were all just trying to figure it out. It was a little easier for me to change it up for to-go and delivery, with pizza. But for them, it was a real tough one.

JB: They had to change everything. Nick has done an admirable job: just imagine going from being a private club to serving the general public all at once. It’s quite a task.

TG: Yeah, I know.

JB: So I’m curious, which club did you join first?

TG: Fratellanza.

JB: How long ago was that?

TG: Twenty years ago, maybe. I had three brothers that used to work for me, they were in the Badarello family. They were all members, and their grandpa was John Spalasso. I believe he was the one who started Parisian, Toscano and Columbo Breads–one of the founders. He aways used to come in to Pyzano’s and say ‘You gotta be part of the Fratellanza!’ So I ended up going to a couple of dinners, and he sponsored me, and I became a member.

But the hardest one to get into was the Colombo Club. That’s the giant club in Oakland, and at one time you could be on the waiting list for years. I know when I got in, there was a guy next to me who had been waiting for fifteen years to get in. I didn’t wait that long; I knew a guy.

Over the years, Tony has spent countless hours in the kitchens of the Colombo Club, the SFIAC and the Fratellanza Club.

Over the years, Tony has spent countless hours in the kitchens of the Colombo Club, the SFIAC and the Fratellanza Club.

JB: It’s all about knowing a guy.

TG: I mean, I had to wait–but not for fifteen years! [Laughter]

JB: Fifteen years!

TG: The guy was crying! It was kind of surreal, it was really a special moment for him.

JB: [Laughter] I guess it meant a lot more to him than it did to you. So, you also have a long history with the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club?

TG: Julie and I had our wedding reception at the Italian Athletic Club. We were married at Saints Peter & Paul, and we held the reception at the club. His name was Nick D’Angelo, the one who took care of us. When we were talking about food, Julie wanted pesto, and I wanted red sauce. Nick was so cool about it. He said, Don’t fight—we’ll just do both!

It was funny: years before, the Getty family had a wedding reception at the club, and I was throwing pizzas there. It was a giant wedding, and there was press, and a lot of politicians there. I remember my first agent was there, Gina Lauren—we called her Gina Bowl of Spaghetti. She would do events, and bring in stilt-walkers and other things like that.

This is was when I was really young, tossing pizzas, and I remember thinking to myself: one day I want to have my wedding here. I want to have this.

I remember they had long tables like at all the Italian clubs, and they had a wreath on each table with little trinkets intertwined with the flowers: mini bottles of Campari and Fernet, little Puntini Italian candies, little treats like that. So when I did my reception, I did it exactly the same way.

Tony poses with Tim Tomei, longtime president of Oakland's Fratellanza Club.

Tony poses with Tim Tomei, longtime former president of Oakland’s Fratellanza Club.

JB: That’s cool.

TG: I always found myself in North Beach back then, before I had Tony’s. So I did a lot of pizza throwing events and other things there [SFIAC] over the years. And I eventually became a member there–I think it was shortly after I opened Tony’s.

If you’re able to get into these clubs, or if you know a friend that can take you to have dinner, they are some of the best dinners you’ll ever have. When I would go in and work in the kitchen when I was younger, some of these old-timers would come in, guys who worked for years at Scoma’s and all these other places. They’d say “Come here kid, this is how you make sauce!”

And I’d watch them, and I got to work with all these different guys in the kitchens. You’re in there all day and night cooking, so sometimes they’ll come and help me….and I’ll make my sauce. And they’ll see unusual ingredients, like Stanislaus tomatoes. I’ll let them know where they can find them, and what distributors have them. Some of the clubs have even upgraded their tomatoes, or their flour or cheese, because they had them with me on our pizza nights.

And Columbus Salami sponsors a lot of the events too, so they always give me a ton of product. I’m always giving the guys in the back salamis. They love it.

JB: We have a big event coming up here at SFIAC: the Statuto Race. And I understand you’ve got a couple of people running in it.

TG: Yeah. The funny thing is, I’ve been running in the mornings. Just practicing a little bit. Because both Adam and Natale are runners, and they’ve run their whole lives. And I’m not trying to do what they do, but I’m thinking about running it. I’m not sure if I’m going to do it, but I’m thinking about it.

So I’ve been running a little bit. My knees are killing me right now. It’s a five mile run–it starts here at the club and goes all the way to Red’s Java House, and then comes back. I mean, I can run a mile. I can run two miles. But five miles? It could be a little tough. But I’m gonna try….maybe!

Tony cranking out Sicilians with Chef Bobby at the Fratellanza Club in Oakland.

Tony cranking out Sicilians with Chef Bobby at the Fratellanza Club in Oakland.

JB: Have you ever run that distance?

TG: No, not like this. Maybe when I was 18, back in high school.

JB: I never ran like that, not even then. I’ve never been a runner.

TG: Well, I played soccer in high school. But still, I’m going to need a breather along the way.

So yeah, I might run the Statuto. We’re a sponsor of the race; it’s the oldest race in San Francisco, this is their hundredth year.

JB: One of the oldest in the country.

TG: Yes. It’s a cool little race that doesn’t really get that much publicity. So might run in it. There is a walking one, too. But I don’t want to be in the walking one. I want to have all these guys ready to race, and just pop up in the middle of them: Hey guys, what’s up!

JB: That’d be perfect.

TG: Also, the Italian Club here [the SFIAC] does the Festa Coloniale every year: the Italian festa. They haven’t done one this year, but it’s a big event, and I always toss pizzas for the kids on the street. That’s another sponsored event that they do. They always do great things. They’re actually doing a big wine and jazz event later this month, with a film premiere and a concert with Omar Sosa (more info here).

We do everything we can to help them out. Right now for every bagel that we sell at Dago Bagel, we donate 10 cents to the club. Their foundation gets a check every month, so that has been good.


SFIAC's Nick Figone with Tony and Laura Meyer at a recent event in North Beach.

SFIAC’s Nick Figone with Tony and Laura Meyer at a recent event in North Beach.

When I asked Nick Figone, SFIAC’s COO, about Tony’s involvement in the club, he had this to say:

“Tony has been a steadfast and ardent supporter of the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club. His donations of time and product, not to mention financial support, have been crucial. As a sponsor, he has taken a big role in our Statuto race, as well as the Festa Coloniale Italiana, where he brings the kids up and shows them how to toss pizza. He always launches his dough into the crowd, and tries to get it up onto the balcony–and very often succeeds.”

When we spoke, longtime former Fratellanza Club President Tim Tomei had similarly high praise:

Tony tosses pizza dough in front of the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club (SFIAC) in North Beach.

Tony tosses pizza dough in front of the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club (SFIAC) in North Beach.

“Tony has been very supportive of the clubs, and extremely generous with his time and talents. His commitment to our heritage and culture is vitally important. Tony has done so much to support the Italian community, and his efforts make a real difference.

I’ve known Tony as a friend for years, and while I’m never surprised by his generosity, I’m always humbled by it.”

For more information on these organizations, visit the links below:

https://www.sfiac.org/

https://fratellanzaclub.com/

https://thecolomboclub.com/