August 28, 2018

Impart The Craft: Tony Gemignani’s International School Of Pizza

by Joe Bonadio

As influential as Tony Gemignani’s restaurants have been in the pizza world, what many people don’t realize is that the chef’s biggest impact on that world has been in a quieter forum: the classroom. But it’s true: Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza, which operates out of Tony’s flagship restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach, has been instructing aspiring pizza chefs for a decade.

And his track record is hard to believe: on a recent Food Network list of the best pizzerias in America’s 52 biggest cities, two of them* were Tony’s restaurants–and five of them belonged to his former students. That’s a formidable achievement, but it just stands to reason: there are few chefs anywhere in the world that have shown Tony’s slavish devotion to the pizza craft.

By the time he brought home the trophy at the World Pizza Championship in Naples in 2007, Tony had been in the business for 15 years, and was an established competitor on the pizza circuit. So much so that the pizza schools in Italy had already begun courting him as a potential master instructor. While the pizza school is a relatively new phenomenon here in the states, the Italians had been running serious schools since the Eighties; the more prominent of these schools were going to need a recognized name in order to expand to the U.S., and Tony Gemignani fit the bill.

But there were several schools in Italy, and Tony would have to choose between them. In 2006, after nearly two years of investigation, he settled on Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli, located in the Venetian city of Caorle. “Out of all the schools I visited in Italy, this was the one,” Tony recalled. “The book they taught from was the best, because it gave you the chemistry and science behind the pizza, not just this style and that style.

“I went there for almost two weeks,” Tony told me, “and ended up getting certified in Pizza Clásica, Pizza Teglia and Pizza In Pala. But not in Pizza Napoletana–I did that on my own.”

Why not Neapolitan? You see, Tony had a plan: he had been working hard on his Neapolitan pie, and thought he had a real shot at winning the World Pizza Cup in Naples the following year. If he was victorious there, Tony would win as an outsider– without ever being certified under a master instructor. This outsider status would give him the credibility he needed to run his pizza school however he saw fit.

So Tony bided his time, putting both the pizza school and his first restaurant, the gestating Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, on hold. “I saw that a lot of these schools were tied in to certain producers,” Tony explained. “If you go to this school, then you have to use this flour, or this tomato. It was very political. For me, I wanted to use American products in my American courses, and Italian products in my Italian courses.” “I also wanted to do Neapolitan certifications,” Tony clarified. “But I didn’t want Naples to say ‘You have to do it this way, or use this flour,’ and this and that. So I said to myself, if I win in Naples….they can’t tell me sh-t.”

So, we all know what happened next: Tony won it all in Naples, the first non-Neapolitan to ever nab the prize. The young chef shocked the pizza world when he took home that cup. It might all seem preordained now, but back then even Tony thought it was a longshot: “I wasn’t that confident.”

In any case, the chef had earned the right to create his pizza school the way he chose. “I wanted to do it in a way that I thought was right,” Tony stressed. “For me, I saw a much bigger picture. I wanted to have a school that celebrated every style, certified in every style.

“So, I win in Naples….and then I find North Beach.

A happy crowd enjoys the parklet in front of Tony's Pizza Napoletana and Tony's Slice House, also headquarters of Tony's International School of Pizza.

A happy crowd enjoys the parklet in front of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and Tony’s Slice House, also headquarters of Tony’s International School of Pizza.

A historic destination neighborhood with a distinct Italian character, San Francisco’s North Beach was everything that Tony was looking for: a local-centric, parkside village nestled in the shadow of an enormous Catholic church. Truly, you couldn’t choose a more idyllic setting. The rest was details: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and the International School of Pizza had found their home.

But there was a lot of work to be done. As much as Tony respected the great pizza masters he had learned from in Italy, Tony wanted to do something completely different with his school. “It was going to be a school incorporated in a restaurant, where students get to actually work in the kitchen, and see how day-to-day operations work,” he explained. “They’d be able to learn in a live restaurant setting, baking with seven different ovens in real time.

“The schools were great, and I learned a lot, but they had mock kitchens. That’s just not the real world,” Tony elaborated. “In the real world, you have a board up with fifty tags on it, and you’re looking at an angry server, everyone’s impatient, and you’re sweating. That’s the real world.

“I want these guys to see the plumbing back up, to deal with orders coming in wrong, I want them to see the signage going out, everything.”

Tony smiles as he demonstrates the proper way to extract a pizza from a cast iron pan.

Tony smiles as he demonstrates the proper way to extract a pizza from a cast iron pan.

Tony’s school sees applicants from all over the world: chefs, restaurant owners, home chefs and everything in between, Tony has certified students from Italy, Tahiti, Poland, Singapore, New Guinea, Russia–the list just goes on. Attendees are required to complete an intensive five-day course, with separate courses offered for Italian (Neapolitan, Classic Italian) and American (New York, Chicago, Pan) pizza styles. There are also one-day courses specifically designed for the adventurous home chef. Demand is stiff, and the courses invariably sell out months ahead of time.

“The students learn to pull mozzarella, they learn how to make dough. They learn how to work with different ovens, to make fresh sausage,” Tony told me. “They learn a lot of different dough recipes, and how to make starters. Mostly about technique, but a lot about ingredients too, and a little bit of history mixed in.”

The impact this one ‘Scuola’ has had on the national pizza scene is hard to estimate. “A lot of people don’t realize that the students leaving this school have been James Beard-nominated, they’ve won World Pizza Championships,” Tony told me. “Ann Kim at Pizzeria Lola out in Minnesota, Jeff Smokevitch at Blue Pan in Denver, the Hunt Brothers out of Austin at Via 313, Will Grant on Bainbridge Island in Washington.”

That list only goes on, and there’s good reason for that. Tony’s courses are not only comprehensive, they are anything but easy; it’s not like you just put in your five days, and that’s it. “Oh, you’re tested alright,” Tony emphasizes. “It’s a seventy question test, and it’s difficult.”

A group of students wait attentively as Tony samples their tomato sauce.

A group of students wait attentively as Tony samples their tomato sauce.

And believe it or not, Tony has even had to disqualify a cheater. “It was like that movie Spies Like Us, it was almost that comical,” the chef recalled, laughing at the absurdity of it. “He was wearing shorts, and he had everything written on his thigh. I couldn’t believe it! I felt like a high school principal.”

Of course, as Tony had originally dreamed, his school now certifies pizza chefs for the whole range of Italian and American styles. That includes both Pizza Clásica and Pizza In Pala, and yes, Neapolitan style. “After I won in Naples without my certification, Naples ended up giving me an ambassadorship for Neapolitan pizza,” he explained. “Basically, they recognized that although I was never certified for Neapolitan style pizza….I know what I’m doing.”

As a 12-time World Pizza Champion, Tony clearly understates the point. With his award-winning restaurants and groundbreaking school, the chef is slowly remaking the pizza game. So if you’d like to know your way around a pizza oven (and if you’re up to the challenge), just check out Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza in San Francisco. But please remember: No cheating!

*Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Pizza Rock in Las Vegas both made the Food Network list.

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