December 29, 2018

Money Talks: Robvell Smith of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

As anyone can tell you, the restaurant business is an inherently tricky one, and not for the faint of heart. Indeed, one of the first lessons that new owners learn is counterintuitive: namely, that the food is secondary. I know that may sound crazy, but it’s true: study after study has shown that when it comes to comparing restaurants, customers’ number one criterion is actually not the quality of the food. Rather, it’s hospitality: the way they are treated by the staff.

Of course, once you think about it, this makes perfect sense. The quickest way to ruin someone’s dining experience is to mistreat them at the door; anyone who’s read even a handful of one-star Yelp reviews can tell you that. You might have a stable of world-class chefs back in the kitchen, but once a party feels they’ve been slighted–even if they’ve yet to see a menu–there’s usually no turning back.

This is something that Tony Gemignani understands. So when the world champion pizzaiolo began making plans for his first restaurant, North Beach’s seminal Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, he was determined to recruit the perfect team. Tony wanted pros, industry veterans who loved people and shared his unbridled enthusiasm for the business–and he wanted locals. To capture the city’s imagination, Tony knew that first he’d have to conquer the neighborhood. And if there is one thing you can say about North Beach, it’s all about the local. And we have names for our opinion leaders: we call them bartenders, chefs and servers.

Robvell Smith caught with a handful of his namesake behind the bar at Tony's Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Robvell Smith caught with a handful of his namesake behind the bar at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

One of the first people that Tony brought on board was my friend Robvell Smith. I first met Robvell way back in 2000, when he was bartending at the widely celebrated, now-defunct Rose Pistola. Located just steps away from where Tony’s Pizza Napoletana does business today, at the time Rose may have been the hottest restaurant in San Francisco. Robvell was a friend of one of my oldest friends, so at first I assumed this was what accounted for the warm, attentive service at that bar (which was invariably thronged). But as I would soon learn, Robvell made everyone feel that way.

I recently sat down with Robvell (or “Money” as some friends call him) to talk about his history with Tony Gemignani, and how he came to be a veteran at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. We had our conversation at one of the back tables at Specs’, a legendary 50-year-old North Beach watering hole just below Broadway.

How did you first hear about Tony’s place?
Robvell Smith: I remember going past Tony’s Pizza, walking my son to school. There was a sign on the door that said Bartenders Needed. And Chris said to me, “Dad, why don’t you check this out?” At this point, I’m already at Rose Pistola, and doing good.

But Tony was sitting on his car, and I remember going over to talk to him. I told him I worked at Rose Pistola, and asked if he was looking for a bartender. Now, I believe he came over to Rose after that, secretly, just watching and asking questions–because that’s Tony. And I don’t think I ever filled out an application. But he hired me. I met Noble, the bar manager, and he offered me the job.

But you held on to your best shifts at Rose for awhile?
I did. But that started to get kind of heavy, working at both spots and taking care of my son. I loved Rose Pistola, but I decided to take a chance, and go full-time with Tony’s. And it has been a great experience–one of the best I’ve ever had.

Tony is real, and he respects his craft–it’s true. I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I’ve worked with lots of different people. And Tony is one of those cats that is always innovating, always coming up with something that’s better, and putting it out there.

The contest he just did? It was in Portugal. Who goes all the way to Portugal to compete in something like that? And he won it!*

People don’t realize how hard Tony’s job is, and he does it continuously. The guy is so serious about what he’s doing–but he never forgets the important things. The cat asks about my mom every time I see him. That’s all I need to tell you about him.

(*Antonio Mezzero’s All-Star Pizza Championship was held on November 19th in Porto, Portugal; Tony Gemignani won first place in the port wine category, pairing his white pizza topped with Topo cheese, Grande mozzarella, chorizo, crema de port and nduja salami with a 20-year-old Croft tawny port. This marks the chef’s 13th world pizza championship.)

What’s the craziest thing that ever happened to you at Tony’s?
OK, I’ve got one. Tony called all the bartenders in for a meeting one day, told us he wanted to give us an evaluation. So we all file in and get our sheet, and we’re looking at it. And my evaluation said that I didn’t know my drinks; I wasn’t hospitable to the guests; and something else crazy. I took one look at it and said, Who is this that he’s talking about? And everybody got bad reviews, it wasn’t just me.

So, we’re all standing there with our mouths open. That’s when Tony says: I want you to open your review up, and see what’s in there. We do–and we’ve all got plane tickets to Vegas. He was messing with us!

He flew us all to Las Vegas for the Bartender’s Convention. Who does that? And that isn’t all. Before we left, Tony told us there’d be someone meeting us in the lobby of the hotel, and they would show us around town. He didn’t tell us who it was, and when we got there, who was waiting for us? Tony.

And man, he took us out. And Tony in Vegas is like Elvis! (laughter). You walk with Tony, and everybody knows him. Everybody! So we show up at this one nightclub, it’s got a line going around the block. Tony says, “come here.” He walks us all the way up to the front, and they have a red rope set up–especially for us.

We head back to the pool, and they’ve got everything all set up: they had a carafe of orange juice, grapefruit juice, cranberry juice, all of it on ice, surrounded with bottles of Grey Goose. For us.

He styled us out so hard, man. I’ve never seen anything like it–and I’ll never forget it.

Tony tells me people from all over the world come into his place, sometimes years later, and ask if you still work there. And when they find out that you do, they immediately sit right down at the bar. Some even say you’re the best bartender they’ve ever had. Can you share your secret?
I really don’t have an answer for you, I just love what I do. And I feel that everybody that comes into the place, no matter who it is, should have the best possible time. That’s what I’m here for.

You can visit Robvell at the bar at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, where a full menu is served along with beer, wine and cocktails.