October 19, 2018

Careful With That Password: A North Beach Story

by Joe Bonadio

Even in a city as libertine as San Francisco, North Beach has always had a reputation as an untamed and untethered neighborhood. And it’s well-earned: from the days of the Barbary Coast and the Vigilantes through the Beatniks and the sexual revolution, North Beach has been ground zero for it all. There is always something happening in the Beach, and you’ll find that everyone here has a ‘North Beach story.’ If you stay long enough, you’ll have one too.

One person with an abundance of these stories is local pizza boss Tony Gemignani. Working with Tony, I hear more than my share; you’ll find plenty of them here on the blog. All these tales get me to thinking, and the next time Tony and I speak, I ask a random question: What’s the craziest thing that ever happened to you in North Beach?

The chef laughs, but doesn’t hesitate to answer. “I got robbed at the Bank of America.”

It was a few years ago, Tony explains. “One of my guys asked to borrow a hundred bucks. And I never take money out of my till, so I walked down to the bank.

“It’s right at 6:00, and I go to the ATM–the one on the right, there are two,” he tells me. “There’s a guy on his phone, and he’s yelling ‘I made the deposit, and I’m at the ATM and I can’t get it. I need my money today!’ So he’s talking to B of A.”

Careful with that password: the scene of the crime. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Careful with that password: the scene of the crime. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Meanwhile, next to the man on the phone there’s a woman in a leather jacket holding a bag; from the looks of it, the two are traveling together. Thinking nothing of it at first, Tony finishes his transaction, withdrawing $200 in cash. But when the screen comes up asking him if he would like to make another transaction, in a rush, Tony walks away from the ATM without replying.

“Even if you touch ‘yes’, you still have to enter your pin number again. So now I’m walking back to Tony’s. And I thought: Huh…that was weird,” Tony recalls. “So I turned around and went back.

“And the guy with the phone is on my terminal now. And the lady’s still standing there. I’m looking at him, and thinking, How do I figure out if this guy is in my account?

“So I go on my phone, and log in to my account,” Tony says. “And it says minus $200, minus $500. I had been on vacation in San Diego, so now I’m wondering if that was the rental car. That’s another thing: I had just brought my family back from vacation two days early to fix something, so I was already pissed.

“So I look up, and the guy is stuffing cash in his pocket,” Tony says, mimicking his motions. “Really tight jeans. So I look at my phone again, and now it says minus $200, minus $500…and minus $500. I look up, and now he’s jamming money in his other pocket!

“He turns around, and I’m right there in front of him. ‘Are you in my account?’ I say to him. ‘Are you stealing my money?’ Guy rears back and says I’m crazy. I say it again-you just stole a thousand dollars out of my account.

“So the guy starts screaming at me ‘This guy’s crazy! Get this guy away from me!’ And at this point, I know–I’m not crazy.”

Realizing Tony wasn’t about to back off, the would-be felon opts to escalate the situation and swing on his accuser. “So he hits the top of my head as I duck. And I hit him here,” Tony says, pointing to his chest. “He’s wearing this backpack, and all I can remember is something exploding in his pocket. And suddenly there’s cat food everywhere!”

Tony shakes with laughter. “And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, he’s got a cat.’”

Eager to exit the scene, at this point our bad guy throws his backpack at Tony and turns tail, sprinting up Stockton full speed toward Broadway. After throwing the pack at the woman (having spotted her as the thief’s accomplice), Tony gives chase.

“So I’m running after this guy in my chef’s whites, and he’s headed straight for Chinatown,” Tony says. “Remember, Chinatown at 6:00 is insane. It’s a sea of people.

“So I have an idea, and I yell at him, ‘Take a right [expletive], and I’ll beat your ass!’ And the guy actually yells back at me: ‘I will take a right!’ And he does–directly toward the police station.

“I’m right behind the guy, thinking damn, there better be some cops out here. And now I literally hear the guy go ‘Oh, f*#k!’ Because there are like seven cops standing there.

Perhaps not the most well-planned escape route: North Beach's Central Station | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Perhaps not the most well-planned escape route: North Beach’s Central Station | Photo: Joe Bonadio

“There’s cops eating donuts, there’s a cop hugging another cop. They’re everywhere! So I scream ‘Get this guy!!’”

Tony mimes the thief trying to do a one-eighty at top speed as I laugh uncontrollably. “They all look at me….and then they’re running,” Tony says. “They tackle him right in the front of The Loving Cup, remember that place? [it formerly stood at the corner of Vallejo and Stockton].

“So they’re wrestling with this guy, trying to get him down. And I’ll never forget, this old lady comes walking by, and she says in this haughty voice: ‘That man did nothing wrong. He’s not resisting.’ And I’m like, lady, this guy just ripped me off!”

Once they had their man in (loving?) cuffs, the rest was pretty straightforward. “So the cops get up, and I tell them, ‘Yeah, this guy robbed me. I bet you he’s got five hundred bucks in each pocket, wrapped up with a receipt. I know it.’

“So they take us back to the station. They’re looking at my head, I’ve got a bump, they’re taking pictures of that,” Tony continues. “My thumb is bleeding, and I don’t even realize my finger’s broken yet.

“So I’m sitting in the chair. And they give me my money back,” Tony says incredulously. The chef was already a known quantity in the neighborhood, and apparently the detectives had their evidence and had seen enough. “They just said ’Here you go.’ I showed them a picture of my account, minus $500, minus $500.”

Feeling drained but vindicated, at this point Tony was ready to get the hell out of Central Station and back to his restaurant. He thought of his staff, serving customers and turning tables just blocks away, oblivious to the unfolding craziness. It was time to go.

But the detectives weren’t done with Tony yet. “I make my statement and I’m ready to leave, and this detective comes in and sits down. Big guy, very serious. He says ‘He’s being processed. But I need for you to take a look at something.’

“And I’m thinking, what did they find on this guy? Some kind of weapons, or weird porn or something? I literally have no idea what to expect.

“The guy holds up his phone and says, ‘What can you tell me about this?’ I look up, and I can’t even make out what I’m looking at. I just stared and said ‘What?’

“And the cop says, ‘It’s a wood fired oven. I built it. What do you think?’

“And sure enough, it was an oven. I’m like: ‘Oh! It’s amazing.’ I was stunned, and just answered him. ‘The mouth looks perfect. The dome looks like the right height.’

“So the cop jumps right up, and says ‘Thanks! I just wanted to get your approval. I’ve got a Pizza Bible!’” Tony laughs out loud.

“I just got assaulted, and this guy wants my blessings on his pizza oven!”

Postscript: It took a lot of time, but the case eventually went to trial. The defense attorneys tried some seriously suspect shenanigans, but the D.A. eventually got a conviction–and it turned out the perp was someone the authorities had been after for a long, long time.

And you thought Tony was just a pizza guy.

The Seven Ovens blog appears in this space twice each month, bringing the stories and details behind Tony Gemignani’s San Francisco school and remarkable group of restaurants to a wider audience. Make sure to bookmark us, and we’ll see you here soon.