November 29, 2018

Cooking Up A New Batch Of Pizzaiolos: Tony Gemignani

by Joe Bonadio

In the food world, there are some items that thrill precisely because they are so simple. It seems these are always the things that stand out in memory: I think of the perfect croissant that I once enjoyed in my stepmother’s village in Northwestern France, the fragrant egg tarts I procure on certain days in Chinatown, and the savory arancini  I used to queue up for in Boston’s North End.

To me, perfect pizza fits in this category too, the Margherita pizza probably being its ultimate expression. Dough, tomato sauce, minimal cheese, and a few leaves of basil, fresh from the garden: the soul of simplicity. But as with these other items, that simplicity is only an illusion. In reality, decades of craft–and volumes of technique–lie behind every properly created pizza.

One of Tony's eager students learns the finer points of tossing pizza dough.

One of Tony’s eager students learns the finer points of tossing pizza dough.

I recently had that lesson driven home when I attended the first two hours of Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza, here in the historic North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. For those readers new to the blog, Tony is a pizzamaker who is truly in his own category: a twelve-time World Pizza Champion, Tony was the first non-Neapolitan to ever win the World Pizza Cup in Naples; the chef has since won so many titles he is barred from competing, and
typically judges instead.

The fact that the pizzaiolo operates his own school is sort of a big deal; I’ve written about it here before. So when the time came, I was excited to get a look behind the scenes. I was instructed to come early on a Tuesday morning to meet the new class. The location: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana.

Tony’s Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli actually operates out of all three of the chef’s restaurants in North Beach: Tony’s, Capo’s and Slice House. And that may be the most remarkable aspect of Tony’s San Francisco Scuola. Unlike the vast majority of pizza schools (which have proliferated since Tony opened), Tony’s school gives his students the ‘live’ pizzeria experience: the chance to work on the line in a busy, prosperous pizzeria, side-by-side with the master pizzaiolo himself.

The group I meet on Tuesday is disparate in age and dress, but otherwise they seem enough like students, if a little long in the tooth. That is, they’re attentive, well-scrubbed and wide-eyed with anticipation. I introduce myself, and we wait for Tony to finish a protracted phone call with a vendor. Lesson #1: every day begins with a new problem to solve.

Six plates line the bar around the oven, heaped with tomatoes of various kinds, the commissary-sized cans behind them identifying their provenance. I recognize a few names: Nina. Tomato Magic. Super Dolce. You can feel it: Tony’s getting ready to drop some serious knowledge on these folks.

Once introductions are done, Tony gets things started by having the students taste all six types of tomato product. All of them, he explains, are products the chef uses in his restaurants–including his own brand. Tony encourages the class to pay attention not only to the taste, but to the aroma and consistency of each one. I taste along with the students, and the differences between them are eye-opening.

IMG_4339 At first I wonder: Why begin with the tomatoes? But as Tony begins speaking, it starts to make sense. Because from the two hours I spent that Tuesday, there were two big takeaways: One, small differences matter. And two, when it comes to pizza, the devil is in the details. And let me tell you something, there are a lot of details. To complete the five day course, Tony requires his students pass a 70-question test. And these aren’t softballs, either. In case you’re curious, here are just a couple:

What are the percentages of the components of a wheat kernel?

How many pieces of information must be indicated by law on a sack of flour?
a. 2
b. 4
c. 6
d. List:

Well, then.

Tony covers seemingly every aspect of his craft in the class, going beyond technique to get into the nuts and bolts of running a successful pizzeria. Along with Tony, key staff members Laura Meyer and Thiago Vasconcelos (both experts in several areas of pizza themselves) take the students through their paces, working side-by-side with them in all three of Tony’s North Beach kitchens.

“In reality it’s hot, and you’re sweating, and you’ve got twenty orders in front of you and a server yelling in your face,” Tony says with a laugh. “That’s what it’s really like.”

Of course, that’s not to say the class didn’t make a hell of a lot of pizza: Tony estimates that each student makes between 75 and 100 pies over the course of the week. All that practice makes a difference, and when I show up on Saturday (test day!) the class is looking sharp.

In addition to the test, each student has to make one final Neapolitan pizza. To challenge the group, Tony makes them use a special dough that is particularly difficult to work with. As he watches his acolytes’ pizzas come out of the oven, you can see that Tony’s perfectionism and naturally critical eye is tempered by pride in what his students have accomplished.

The finished product.

The finished product.

And for their part, the students’ eagerness to please the master pizza chef is just as obvious; as much as they wanted to pass* the test, these students wanted this last pizza to count. And without exception, they deliver the goods: I don’t taste every pie, but what I do taste is world-class. Five short days since the class began, it’s clear that Tony has done his job well.

Whatever else they may be, these people are now pizzaiolos.

“Teaching someone to be great, it’s more rewarding than working to be great. Everytime I teach somebody, I learn,” Tony explains. “It helps me to grow personally, and for my team to grow. There are a lot of things that come out of it–more than you’d think.”

*Although there is one close call, all of the students in the group pass their written tests, and receive their official certification in Neapolitan pizza.

Tony Gemignani’s Scuola Pizzeria Italiana offers classes each month, and is typically sold out two to three months ahead of time. For more information and to register for future classes, visit