June 12, 2018

Respect The Craft: The Tony’s Pizza Story Begins

by Joe Bonadio

Tony Gemignani – America’s Pizzamaker

In 2007, Tony Gemignani pulled off the unlikely and impressive feat of winning the venerated World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy. Unlikely, because not only was Tony the first American to ever take home the Cup: he was actually the first non-Neapolitan to win. Believe it or not, the chef had to be escorted from the venue by Italian police, who thought he might be attacked.

Yes, for the Italians (especially for the Neapolitans), pizza is a serious business. And as people all over the world would soon find out, no one was more serious about pizza than Tony Gemignani.

The Seven Ovens Blog

Today marks the first day of the Seven Ovens blog, created to tell the stories of Tony Gemignani and his growing circle of restaurants, and document his rare passion for the craft of pizzamaking. From Tony’s upbringing on an apricot and cherry orchard in Fremont to what has become no less than a modern pizza movement, a lot has transpired. This blog was created to bring some of those great stories–and that unique flavor–to you, our fellow pizza lovers.

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

tonys-pizza-napoletanaOf Tony Gemignani’s twenty-one concepts around the country, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana was the first. Most people don’t realize that by 2007, when Tony won the Cup in Naples, he had already been making first-rate pies for seventeen years–at his brother Frank Jr.’s place, Pyzano’s in Castro Valley, California. But the Naples win had given the chef serious street cred in food circles–along with a brand-new Cirigliano Forni pizza oven that came with the prize. And as Tony soon discovered, due to a permitting snafu you can’t have a wood-burning pizza oven in Castro Valley. As a result, the World Pizza Champ suddenly found himself looking for a restaurant space.

As he relates the story, Tony was initially unsure of where to park the new venture. “Well, I was on the front page of the Chronicle,” he told me. “So I’ve got everybody calling me, mayors, city officials–they’re saying come here, you can open up here.” Jack London Square in Oakland was one possibility, another was Pleasanton–and then there was North Beach. But how to choose?

Cut to the Alameda County Fair in 2008, where Tony was putting on his signature show of pizzamaking, pizza-throwing and acrobatics, the gonzo act that had put him on the map back in Castro Valley. As fate would have it, the chef slated to follow him that day was none other than legendary food writer Grace Ann Walden, original creator of the iconic Inside Scoop column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

“I mean, I did a giant show,” Tony explained. “There’d be someone sautéing something, meanwhile I’m over here doing aerials, everything. So I’m wrapping up, and here’s this lady, Grace Ann Walden. She looked at me and said ‘I’ve got to go on after you!?’

Afterwards they got to talking, and the writer asked Tony where he was from. When he replied, she didn’t skip a beat. “When the hell are you gonna get out of Castro Valley, kid?” she asked. Tony’s answer: “I’m working on it.”

When Tony was in North Beach a few months later scouting for a spot, he happened to run in to Walden again. She told him she had the perfect spot: the old La Felce on the corner of Union and Stockton Streets. And as Tony recalls, she was pretty persuasive: “You’ve got to be here,” Walden told him. “It’s North Beach. An Italian-American kid should be here.”

But this was late 2008, and there was plenty of other available space in the neighborhood. But the spots that were open were either too big or too small; even the La Felce location was a little bigger than what Tony was looking for. And for whatever reason, everybody was telling him the space was cursed–nothing would work there. But Grace Ann’s admonition stayed with him. And when the time came to sign a lease, Tony hewed to her advice, and chose 1570 Stockton Street as the address for his first restaurant: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana.

From the outset, Tony had a clear idea of what he wanted to do with the space. He wanted to make pizza, every kind of pizza, and the very best possible. But from the very beginning, there were naysayers, from every branch of the species. What are you going to do, Italian?….Really, here in North Beach?….We’ve got a lot of pizzerias here….Why not something different?

But in the three months it took to build the place, the aspiring restaurateur got to see the good side of the neighborhood. “Everyone said ‘Welcome to the neighborhood.’ I’ll never forget it,” Tony says now, almost ten years later. “I came from a small suburb in Castro Valley. Nobody ever said ‘Welcome to the neighborhood.'”

This encouragement was critical–because there was a lot of work to be done. Tony was used to making great pizza, and making it exceptionally fast. But Tony’s Pizza would be a monster of a restaurant, with an encyclopedic menu of thirteen regional styles, seven different ovens and a full bar and wine list to boot. The plan was to offer several styles of authentic pizza, eventually launching styles like Detroit, St Louis, Grandma and Coal Fire. Tony had never done anything like this before; in truth, no one really had. So how did he do it?

“I hired the right team,” Tony says. “I knew I had to be dependent on neighborhood people, and if you look at my first crew at Tony’s, it was very neighborhood-centric.” Richie, Tony’s beloved mixologist, had held down the bar at Tosca for years; Robvell, still behind the bar at Tony’s today, had been first-string behind the bar at the now-defunct Rose Pistola for over a decade.

And for this project, they were going to need all hands on deck: much of what Tony was creating here, San Francisco had never seen. “We brought things to San Francisco that never existed before,” he says. “From the school downstairs, to the flour we use, Roman pizza, Chicago Italian beef–there was so much coming out of here.”

And for North Beach, a neighborhood that had long been identified with Italian food, the place was a godsend. Because for as many Italian eateries as the neighborhood boasted, there was something missing in the pizza category. And naysayers be damned, Tony was ready to fill that void.

The restaurant opened in early 2009, starting out Wednesday through Sunday, five days a week. “It was such a hard model, that we had to do 5 days, then close,” Tony told me. “There was no B team, it was always the same bunch, day and night.

“Opening up this concept was really hard, because nobody believed me,” Tony stressed. “Nobody.” Whenever he tried to explain his idea to friends and other restaurateurs, they invariably questioned it. Eight or nine different doughs? Thirteen styles? “‘Sounds like a hassle,’ they would always say.”

But working with his superlative opening crew, Tony made it happen. “Was it chaotic? Yeah. Did people try and copy it? All the time!” Tony smiles, remembering. “Did our garbage can explode outside because there was too much raw dough in there? Yes it did.”

Of course, as we now know, that garbage can wasn’t the only thing to explode. Tony’s concept flourished; the neighborhood embraced the place, and the city all but canonized it. Best of all, foodies from all over the country made it into a destination….and North Beach was on the food map, once again. Tony was already well on his way to being a celebrity. And nine years later, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana has come to represent the very best of its kind.

In our next outing, we’ll be exploring the story behind another one of North Beach’s busiest storefronts: Slice House By Tony Gemignani.

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