August 8, 2023

Now Fermenting: The SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival

by Joe Bonadio

North Beach has changed a lot since the days when Italian fishermen crowded the waterfront, but the traces of those storied times persist. Still the one San Francisco neighborhood most closely associated with Italian culture (no offense, Excelsior), North Beach remains a destination for those seeking a glimpse into that past. We’re home to many of SF’s favorite Italian restaurants, not to mention Saints Peter and Paul Church, dubbed the “Italian Cathedral of the West.” We also host the Festa Coloniale Italiano, the city’s only Italian-themed street fair, as  well as the venerated Statuto Race, a century-old Italian-American tradition.

That being said, you would think a pizza festival would be a natural for North Beach, but it has somehow never materialized—until now. But now Tony has taken the bull by the horns, and of course he’s upped the ante. This August 19th, North Beach will host the first annual SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival.

Bear in mind, having spent decades on the pizza circuit, Tony has attended pizza festivals around the world. So when he decided to create his own, the pizza maker set his sights high. The event will bring together over 45 of the best local pizzerias, bagel bakeries, and breweries in a family friendly setting—under the  spires of Saints Peter & Paul in the heart of North Beach. A ticketed event, the festival will benefit five great local charities*, with an aim to raise approximately $100,000 in a single day.

Tastes will be unlimited for ticketholders, who will have the chance to sample the wares of nearly thirty of the best pizzerias in the Bay Area, alongside six of our best bagelries. Obviously you’ll need something to wash all that down, so Tony invited along twenty of the Bay’s best craft brewers; you can view all participating businesses here. Simply put, this is shaping up to be the biggest food event to ever hit North Beach.

Alessio Acquaviva from Gold Mirror

Alessio Acquaviva from Gold Mirror, just one of nearly 30 pizzerias appearing at the SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival. | Photo Courtesy of Gold Mirror

I sat down with Tony last week to get more details, and find out what he and his talented team have planned for us. Edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So let’s talk about the SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival.

Tony Gemignani: Well first, we’ll have pizzerias from all over: Montesacro, Capo’s and Tony’s, of course. We have Il Casaro, Giorgio’s, which is old  school, we have A-16, Mozzeria. We have Delarosa, Longbridge Pizza, we have Del Popolo, we have Pizza Hacker. We’ve kind of got everyone.  Boichik Bagels, Laundromat SF, Hacker Bagels, Daily Driver, Kaz, a bunch more.  We have almost twenty breweries too.

I’ve done almost every pizza festival, from Naples to New York, to L.A., Chicago, Vegas, I’ve done all those. I wanted to do one right before the pandemic happened. I was thinking about it back in 2018, 2019.

JB: I remember talking to to you about it.

TG: Yeah, we talked about it then. So after going to all of them, I saw that there was a renaissance of pizza and bagels. A lot of pizza guys are making bagels; if you’re in the scene or going on Instagram you’ll see that. So while people might say, Why pizza and bagels? In the industry, it actually makes sense. Carbs on carbs on more carbs, right? (Laughter) 

I also thought the beer element was something that was lacking when you went to these festivals. Sure, they might have a brewery or two, but not actually curating a list of brewers that’s really representative. We’ve got almost twenty of  the best ones.

So I had the pizza side of it, the bagel side of it, the beer side. Now where were we going to do it? I was talking to some pizzerias about it, and we were looking at another area outside of North Beach at one time. Then I thought, we do  a festival on the street here already. Maybe Nick (Nick Figone, Director of  the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club) knows something about it, I’ll talk to him.

One thing leads to the next, and finally Nick said, Why don’t we just work together on it? So we started working together, and Nick and the Italian Athletic Club have been just a giant help. The Statuto Race was moved to the day after the Festa Coloniale this year, so that opened up August. We looked at the dates, we looked at Outside Lands, the weather, everything.

Getting the participants has been a challenge. Everybody’s busy; everybody is shorthanded. We’ve been getting as many volunteers as possible to help, and we’ll be reaching out more for volunteers.

Kevin Rodgers of The Laundromat SF

Kevin Rodgers of The Laundromat SF, formerly Holy Roller Bagel. | Photo Courtesy of The Laundromat SF

Then we had to decide: will it be a ticketed event? It would need to be heavily sponsored, because we’re donating about $100,000 to five different charities. At most festivals, you don’t see money given back like that. You might see a $10,000 check here or a $20,000 check there, but you’re not going to see  $100,000 for a 1-day pizza festival—at least I haven’t seen it.

It wasn’t about making it a big moneymaker. The pizzerias are getting paid some, and we’re trying to get as much product donated to the pizza shops as we can. But if it wasn’t for DoorDash, BiRite Distribution and the rest of the sponsors,** we wouldn’t be talking right now.

JB: Are there VIP tickets?

TG: Yes, but the first VIP tickets sold out fast. It was pretty special; you get in an hour early. It’s an 11-4 festival, but the first hour, 11:00-12:00, the VIP group gets  to come in. So you get to try everything, and there’s no lines. Plus you get a goody bag that’s valued at over $200, so the cost of the ticket is covered by the  goody bag.

I also looked closely at the pricing; I saw that festivals often had one price, and I didn’t think that was fair. Our standard ticket includes four beers, but maybe you’re not drinking, or you’re under 21. What if you’re under five, or between six and twelve? I thought it was important—if a dad came with his three kids, it shouldn’t be an $80 ticket times four. So we did tiered ticketing.

JB: That’s smart.

TG: We have a ticket that comes with four beers, tickets with no alcohol; tickets for six to twelve, and kids five and under are free. All the details are at EventBrite. So I thought that was important.

Mark Bowen from Kaz Bagels

Mark Bowen from Kaz Bagels demonstrates his enthusiasm for his product. | Photo Courtesy of Kaz Bagels

I also talked to Andrew Swig, who is the founder of Value Culture. He’s done a lot of events around the city, and has a pretty big name in the San Francisco world. He literally heard me talking about the festival on the street with Nick, and said Hey, you’re doing a pizza and beer festival? I’ll help you.

So Adam came in as a member of our committee, and started looking at the festival in terms of waste—trying to make it not zero-waste, but close to it. Recycling, and better cups. Think of a beer festival: 2,000 people, everybody gets four beers. All the beer companies want to bring their own cups, so that’s  thousands and thousands of 16-ounce cups.

JB: Totally wasted.

TG: Wasted, exactly. So how do you make a reusable stainless cup, maybe with all the beer logos on it? So those are being made now, designed with most of the beer companies represented on it. We had 1,500 of those made, and we looked at it this way: this is San Francisco, so this should be festival forward-thinking. San Francisco is always ahead of the curve, so we should be looking at  reusable, compostable…

JB: Just like any brick-and-mortar business in this town would.

TG: Right. So Adam looked at the festival, and said these are the things that you should consider. Would P&R Paper be willing to donate compostable plates? And other things like that. He’s also involved in bringing some of the entertainment. We have a celebrity pizza toss that we’ll be doing, and he’s helping us to get  some celebrities out here. Raising Dough in North Beach, that kind of a thing.

He’s also got this guy named Kosha Dillz. He’s a rapper from Brooklyn who raps about bagels and random things.

JB: (Laughter)

TG: He’s legitimately, amazingly good. He’s really talented.

JB: That’s sort of how the Beastie Boys started out.

TG: Kind of like the Beastie Boys! That’s actually a perfect analogy. Anyway, he raps about bagels, and he’s Jewish. He’s flying in, and that’ll be interesting. We’ve also got DJ Tony Russell donating his time to come in and spin some records, and I’ve known him for a long time.

So it hasn’t been all me, that’s for sure. Nick has been great, and Steve Costello from Morris Distributing curated the breweries for us. It’s really been a group effort.

Then there’s Women In Pizza, which is another big part of it. Laura Meyer, Leah Scruto, Christina Alvarez and Kira Zabrowski are coming, and they’re going to be working the Ooni section. Also David Jacobson, the champion California pizza maker who just won everything last year, he’s going to be out making pizzas in the Ooni section.

We’re also going to have Alistair Hannmann from Hawaii, and Justin Wadstein from Sleight of Hand in Santa Cruz. Matt Molina is going to cook, and Adam Sachs is coming out. Patrick McColley from Arizona—there’s a whole slew of  guys that are going to be here.

There’s a whole new lineup coming out—about 25 to 30 pizzerias will be represented.

Tomasso Topa of Tony's Pizza Napoletana

Tomasso Topa of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana will be practicing his craft at the SF Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival, just steps away from where he makes pizza every day. | Photo Courtesy of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

JB: Wow. And how many pizza champions are going to be out there?

TG: Oh, a lot. And we’ll have a little bit of everything: from truffles, to squash blossoms, to cup-and-char pepperoni. There’ll be Detroit, Tavern Style, Roman Style, Neapolitan, New York.

JB: Is everyone bringing their own ingredients?

TG: We had a number of manufacturers and distributors that came in to donate as much product as they could. We have a list of ingredients, so if a participant wants sauce, or flour or anything like that they can get it. We have a BiRite refrigerated truck where they’ll be able to park their dough.

Everyone knows that they’re going to need up to 2,000 samples, and there will be anywhere from 150-200 pizzas cut into samples. So for the attendee, that’ll be up to 20-25 pizza samples throughout the day. Then you’ll have your six bagel shops and twenty breweries. Carb it up, man!

JB: Damn. Makes me think of Expo. (Laughter)

TG: Then Lettieri, they’re a distributor, they’ll have a booth. BiRite will have a booth, and they’ll be cooking. Columbus will be here giving out salami. There will be some really cool booths. Everything’s going to be cordoned off for ticket holders, so you won’t be able to get in from the park. It will be different from Festa, where everything is open.

For VIP you’ll be able to enter through the Italian Athletic Club, and you’ll get upstairs entry for the balcony, where it’s all you can drink wine/beer/liquor, and charcuterie. So you get to enter an hour early, you get a goody bag worth $200, and all you can drink. $150 ticket. We already sold 150 of them, boom.

We did save some tickets that may go up the last couple of weeks. We haven’t done any TV yet. If we do TV the week of the festival and there’s no tickets, why are we doing TV? So we saved an allotment, a reserve that we can put up in  case it comes to that.

Jeremy Fish is going to be doing some artwork for it, I’m not sure what yet. We have some merchandise we’ll be selling, shirts and tote bags. We’ll be selling all types of pizza books in the merch area.

It’s going to be awesome. And a lot has gone into it. To do a festival for the first  time….it’s the hardest one to do.

Bar Manager Nick Lawlor

Bar Manager Nick Lawlor holds court behind the bar at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, Tony Gemignani’s North Beach flagship. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Is there a competitive element?

TG: No. No competition, just camaraderie. Support your favorite pizzeria and root them on, that’s what’s it’s all about, but there’s no winners and no losers.

It’s about celebrating San Francisco pizza, and bagels and beer. New York and Chicago are always celebrated as being at the forefront of pizza. But we’ve got great pizza and bagels out here, and we want everyone to know it.

For tickets, visit EventBrite here.

*Slice Out Hunger, the Salesian Boys & Girls Club, San Francisco Italian Athletic Club Foundation, Saints Peter & Paul School, and the North Beach Business Association

**Sponsors: DoorDash, BiRite Distribution, Hormel, Columbus Craft Meats, Central Milling,  Grandé Cheese, Lettieri & Co., Italfoods, Caputo Flour, Ciao Pomodoro, Jeremy Fish, Value Culture, Orlando Foods, 7/11 Tomatoes, Old Smokehouse Bacon, Ooni, Fontanini, Corto, Rosa Grande, Burke, California Milk Board, Scarlata Farms, Modernist Cuisine, Marra Forni