March 14, 2020

Never Stop Learning: Tony Teaches The Pros

by Joe Bonadio

Picking up a handful of black olives, Tony Gemignani begins pushing them into the soft, rectangular Sicilian dough before him. “I’m gonna do kind of a focaccia thing,” he says, continuing to poke olives into the dough. “Can you grab me those squash blossoms?”

As he builds the pizza, Tony narrates the whole process for his audience: four men, established professionals all, each of whom has paid a fair sum to spend five days learning from the 13-time world pizza champion. As Tony’s hands work, there is seemingly no detail that escapes his notice, and the students hang on his every word. Tony Gemignani is in his element.

It’s a sunny Tuesday morning, and I’m here in the kitchen at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach. The restaurant is closed today, and as it does for one week each month, it has become the setting for Tony’s International School Of Pizza. I first wrote about the highly influential school here, and I’ve returned today to get a look at Tony’s professional level class.

Tony’s students at his International School of Pizza show off their work. | Photo: Sarah Inloes

Meanwhile, I’m completely focused on the pizza, or focaccia, or whatever it is that Tony is putting together behind the counter. He’s taken some of the aforementioned squash blossoms (stuffed with ricotta cheese, naturally) and draped them liberally across the surface of the dough. Next there’s a handful of peppadew peppers, fire-engine red, and a few pinches of goat cheese. Finally some chile oil, and a light drizzle of honey for sweetness.

Good Lord. I’ve got lunch plans in an hour, and I had just turned down a slice of wicked-looking deep dish a few minutes earlier. But lunch be damned, I was going to try this pizza.

And let me tell you, it was so entirely worth it. The crust of this pizza was exceptional, with the moist, airy crunch that you want in a Sicilian, but so rarely get. I don’t think I’ve ever had better. And the combination of toppings was killer: the sweetness of the honey complemented the ricotta in the squash blossoms perfectly, the peppers and chile oil balancing the goat cheese just so. No lie, this pizza had me smacking my lips—and by their expressions as they silently devoured their own slices, Tony’s students were in full agreement.

As I tore into the pizza, Tony walked by, smiling. He gave me a look, and said sotto voce: “I don’t even serve this at my places.”

I’m guessing it’s that kind of confidence that Tony’s students are after, that level of mastery. Tony makes it look easy—and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that good pizza doesn’t come easily.

Since opening his Scuola nearly a dozen years ago, Tony has trained hundreds of students in every aspect of pizza making. With classes that focus on American, Neapolitan and Classic Italian styles, the school serves all levels of student, from aspiring chefs to established restaurant owners. They even offer a one-day class specifically for home chefs (I know, it got me thinking too).

A smiling Tony Gemignani pushes out a Sicilian dough for his students. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

This being Tony’s professional class, he had a particularly interesting group to work with. It included Ankit Ahuja, who operates a chain of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf locations in India; Matt Frampton, BBQ authority, competitive chef and founder of; Frank Pinto, erstwhile chef and founder of a successful PR firm; and Jeff Hoagland, owner of a country market in rural Orange County. I spoke with them about their week with Tony and his staff, and what they took away from the experience.

Joe Bonadio: So what brought you here?

Matt Frampton: I fell in love with competitive cooking in the BBQ world. This is my fifteenth season competing on the Kansas City BBQ Society circuit. It’s a worldwide organization, with thousands of teams across the world.

But it can be a very expensive hobby. So to offset those costs, I’ve created a business as a brand ambassador for a couple of different grills and smokers. And I’ve helped them develop attachments for pizza.

Smoked meat pizzas are a lot of what we do because they feature the smoker and the grill at the same time. I do demonstrations, classes, backyard picnic classes, and I have my own line of just add water pizza mixes coming soon.

JB: How about you, Ankit?

Ankit Ahuja: I’ve recently come up with my own pizza brand in India, so I had lots of questions when I came here. Our goal is to have the authentic American pizza experience in India, so that’s what brought me here.

It’s been really good, and I’m sure it’s going to be impactful on what I’m doing.

Taking a break from her duties at the Scuola, pizzaiola Laura Meyer displays her affection for Ceresota flour. | Photo: Sarah Inloes

JB: What was the most important thing you learned this week?

MF: For me, it was about the relationships. We were just talking before—the four of us will be forever connected. And we’re spread out all over the world. It’s like an extended family, and getting a certification is very important for the credentials of what we’re doing. It says a lot about our dedication to the craft.

I learned that I have a fair amount of bad habits. I probably made about 10,000 pizzas before I showed up here. And there were a lot of things that I just didn’t know. Better technique with stretching and opening the pie. I learned a lot about ingredients that I had never seen, and that I’ll be incorporating, I’m sure.

And just the operation of a business like this. This is my first time working in a real kitchen.

JB: So what brought you here, Jeff?

Jeff Hoagland: We own a country market in Orange County—in the only really “country” part of Orange County. And we kind of hit a wall. We maxed out, because we service a small community, around 1,100. Kind of a weekend destination.

We’ve been asking everyone up there: What do you guys want? How can we get more business out of you? Food, food, food. There’s a café up there that sucks, it’s a greasy spoon. People are tired of eating there, so they want a change.

I was a chef in the early Nineties, went to culinary school. And I kind of burned out, and got into the mortgage industry and kind of never looked back. I always loved to cook, so I figure this is the opportunity to get back into it on my own terms. I always loved pizza….that’s the perfect thing.

Just a little something Tony threw together for his students, and some of the best pizza I’ve had recently. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: The one thing that everybody loves.

JH: Exactly. And my wife kept pushing me to go to pizza school because she had heard about Tony. And I felt like, I’m a chef. I worked in a pizza place as a kid, I’ve made pizza all my life.

But she said something that kind of hit me: She said, But you’ve never made one that I would want you to sell.

So, we’re sitting watching Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives one day. Guy Fieri is in this restaurant, and he’s really impressed with this lady and her pizza skills. And he asks her: Where did you learn how to do this? And she told him she had mentored under Tony Gemignani. And my wife just sort of gave me this look. And I’m like, alright.

JB: What was the most important thing you learned here?

JH: A lot of it was the science of making dough. There are so many variations for the different styles. People think, Well, I can just go buy a dough, and push it out into a Chicago deep dish, or a Sicilian, or something else. But there are so many different flours, and so many intricacies of how they work. And that’s probably what I needed the most education on.

Frank Pinto: I would add to that technique. You can watch YouTube videos until you’re blue. But to watch someone of the caliber of Tony or Laura [Meyer], or even the guys working in the kitchen, and taking away those techniques—it was really valuable.

We’ll circle back to these guys later in the year to find out what they’ve done with their newfound pizza knowledge. Meanwhile,Tony Gemignani’s International School Of Pizza has a full roster of upcoming classes. To find out more, visit them online.