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January 14, 2020

Gluten-Free, You Say? Yes, And It’s Damn Good Too

by Joe Bonadio

As San Francisco’s unofficial doyenne of all things pizza, Tony Gemignani is defined by his commitment to his art. More than anyone I’ve met who has experienced such success, Tony remains a perpetual student: though he has been teaching for many years, the chef never stops learning his trade, constantly improving the quality of his products.

So it makes sense that when it comes to making the perfect gluten-free pizza, Tony would be the one to figure it out. And according to all reports, figure it out he has. I’ve been hearing praise for Tony’s gluten-free pies for a long time now—as well as for the vegan cheese that he offers on his pies. Ever curious, I sat down with him last week to get the lowdown.

Joe Bonadio: One of the biggest food trends over the past ten years has been the move towards gluten-free and vegan ingredients. A lot of people might not realize that’s something that you’ve actually got a very firm handle on. Can you tell me about that?

Tony Gemignani: Sure. We started gluten-free pretty much when we started Tony’s, so it was always an option. And if you’re not in the game now, you’re really behind. I was one of the first guys in the pizza industry that competed in Italy: Italy had championships in the gluten-free category years and years before anyone in the U.S. even thought about it.

So seeing gluten-free pizza being made in Italy was always so much more advanced than the gluten-free pizzas that you’d see in the U.S. Back in the day, you would have to mix your grains. You would buy your binding agents like potato starch, guar gum or xantham gum, and you would blend it with rice flour, tapioca flour, coconut flour. Some people would use binders like egg, which the Italians would always look down upon.

This was well over ten years ago. I got my foot in the game and started blending gluten-free flours before I opened up Tony’s. So when we opened Tony’s, or I guess shortly afterward, we ended up offering a thin-crust gluten-free pizza. And they are available at almost every one of our locations.

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana sits just a few feet away from the century-old trees of San Francisco’s Washington Square Park. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Then we always had a gluten-free pasta as an option at Tony’s, and we’ve got glutenfree breadsticks out of the same thin crust dough. And all year, we’ve been launching as a special—but now we’re adding it to the menu—a thick, gluten-free pizza in the pan that you can customize in a Detroit or Sicilian style. It’s an 8” x 8” pizza that’s almost an inch and a half thick, and when people eat this one, they don’t even realize it. Even people who are gluten-free don’t think it’s gluten-free.

We make it from scratch at Tony’s, and limit it to so many per day. It’s a little bit of a challenge to make every day, and there is a process involved. But now we’re using a Caputo blend: Caputo Flour makes a blended gluten-free grain that we use in house. We mix it downstairs, we let it rise for just so long, we push it out in pans then let it rise for a very long time. It’s pretty awesome.

JB: I’m not sure how much you’re willing to divulge. But what’s your secret?

TG: Good question. In the thin crust, we have a few additions that you typically don’t see in a gluten-free. One is egg whites. The second is a blend of rosemary and thyme. And the third is agave nectar. Those three ingredients are in our thin crust, which kind of separates it from a lot of other gluten-frees.

For the thick crust, it’s the process that’s different. The time that we take to let it rise, the pan, and what we use in the pan. We make it from scratch. The process that we use for the thick crust really separates it from almost anything on the market.

JB: And you say that people legitimately can’t tell?

TG: It’s a tough one to pick out. If you’re not a gluten-free fan, you probably will be once you try our thick crust.

It’s going on the menu shortly, and there will always be the two options, thick or thin. We started with it as a special and promoted it on social media—but now it has become sort of a life-changer, so we need to add it to the menu.

Meanwhile if you’re interested in vegan, we added a vegan cheese called Nozzarella. I’ve been working with them for a long time—it’s a soy-based cheese, it’s not nut-based. But when it comes to vegan cheeses, you’ve got to be vegan to know. If you’re not used to eating vegan cheese, you probably won’t like it. You probably aren’t ready for it.

The flavor and the smell are there. The melting factor is there. But the texture is always just a bit gummy. Most vegan cheeses have a gummy texture, and this does at least have that feel to it. If you’re not used to it, it might be awkward to you.

JB: I’ve heard praise about the vegan cheese, and from a skeptic, too. A good friend of mine went to your spot with his girlfriend–the vegan thing was her idea, and he was totally against it. But he really liked it.

A view from the back of the warm, elaborately decorated Capo’s dining room in North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

TG: Yeah, the vegan cheese is good. I’ve tested a lot of them out over the years, and some have been really terrible. But this one I like.

I always like it with the Tomato Pie. An upside-down pizza, because I think the sauce sort of masks the vegan cheese, so it’s better. I think it’s better as a sauce-on-top pizza.

JB: And you offer vegan cheese on pretty much every pizza you offer?

TG: Just about. It works well in the wood-fire, and it works well in the gas oven. I don’t know if we’ve done it in the coal-fired oven, because I don’t think people really ask for it. It doesn’t work for every style.

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Well, as they say in Hollywood, we’ve got the talking part done. Make sure to check out my next post for the field report, when I’ll test out Tony’s gluten-free and vegan-cheese pies for myself. See you then!