October 3, 2018

Staking A Claim: Tony Gemignani’s Path To North Beach

by Joe Bonadio

Whenever a chef decides to open a restaurant–any restaurant–there are inevitably a thousand decisions that must be made. As simple as a project might be, that’s just the nature of the business. And after the menus have been created, and the concept, the decor, and the staffing have all been thought out, there is one all-important consideration that typically remains. It’s a cliché that real estate agents have come to recite like a mantra: Location, Location, Location.

It only makes sense: foot traffic, visibility and environment are all hypercritical for a new eatery, so picking a spot is one of the most important decisions a new owner makes. And for Tony Gemignani, the choice was no less essential.

That’s because Tony knew that when he opened his first restaurant, the planned Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, in San Francisco, he would be coming from outside the city–and leaving behind his loyal following in Castro Valley. The young chef was confident, his reputation newly burnished by a stunning win at the World Pizza Championship in Naples the previous year. But Tony and his team would have to build a San Francisco following from square one. So the spot had to be perfect.

Of course, North Beach was an early contender, having already been on Tony’s radar for a long time. As a Bay Area native, he had been coming to San Francisco since he was a child, and had long gravitated to the storied, Italian-inflected ‘Beach’.

“I was coming out here when I was eighteen years old,” Tony says. “Running around, going to Steps of Rome when it was still there. I’d go to the [Steps Of Rome] Trattoria when Michele, who owns Capannina on Union now, used to run it.”

The neighborhood was different then, but it has always been reliably libertine. “When I was twenty, I used to sneak in to the Hi-Ball Lounge on Broadway with my brother,” Tony says. “That’s probably the first time I tried Fernet–which I hated at the time!”

Of course, tastes change, and like most San Franciscans Tony came to love the stuff. Clearly, musical tastes change, too: “I was watching swing bands at the Hi-Ball before the Bamboo Hut was there,” Tony tells me. “And of course, we had our choice after Hi-Ball closed for the night. If it wasn’t Tosca, it was either Specs or Vesuvio.”

“Once I was legal (laughs), you’d typically find me at Gino & Carlo drinking a North Beach Cocktail.* You’ll still catch me there today,” Tony says. “They’ve kind of gotten to know what I like.”

Though a creature of habit, Tony has always spread the love around. “You’ll find me at Tony Nik’s, too. Just drinking….a lot!” Tony laughs. “They know that Chartreuse is my drink there.”

Tony has been a known quantity to the the neighborhood’s barkeeps for a very long time. Way back when he was still living in Fremont, the chef used to bring his dates to North Beach. “I was kind of known for that. I’d go to Victoria [Pastry], to Stinking Rose,” Tony remembers. “I know everybody says it’s a tourist trap now, but when we were young and coming out to North Beach, it was fun. We’d get the bagna cauda, which is garlic baked and bathed in oil, served with pesto and bread. Super delicious, and stinky as hell.

“Probably the worst thing you could have on a date,” Tony says.

And certainly no trip to Little Italy would be complete without a late night espresso. Tony’s preference? “I love Caffe Trieste. The whole team there is great,” the chef tells me. “I love the ambience. I feel like when you walk into Trieste, that’s North Beach. It’s anyone and everyone, writers, musicians, locals, tourists. A little bit sketchy, sometimes….but there’s just something about the place.”

The legendary Vesuvio Cafe, directly across the alley from City Lights Bookstore on North Beach's Columbus Avenue.

The legendary Vesuvio Cafe, directly across the alley from City Lights Bookstore on North Beach’s Columbus Avenue.

Of course, you can’t speak of Caffe Trieste without mentioning City Lights Bookstore and the Beat Museum. The Beat poets of the 1950s have long been associated with both, and as a young man Tony was fascinated with them. “When I was just getting into reading, eighteen and still not knowing what I was going to do, I was a big Burroughs fan, a big Kerouac fan. I especially liked Burroughs–there was just something that drew me to him,” Tony says. “At these places, you could find books that you just didn’t see anywhere else.

“There, and at the old Tower Records, down Columbus. We’d hang out there for half the day, just looking at the music and the magazines,” Tony recalls. “That’s kind of gone now, people don’t really do that: ‘let’s go out and look for music.’ You’d spend a day just doing that.”

There aren’t many people left in North Beach who remember that Tower Records location (it’s a Walgreens these days), but that’s par for the course. When you’re talking to Tony about North Beach, he comes off like someone who grew up here, dropping references to extinct nightspots like the leatheriest local: Frankie’s New Bohemian. The Black Cat. The New Pisa. That’s because when Tony was still living in Castro Valley, he and his brother Frank would come to the neighborhood constantly. “We were young, we were Italian, and we were bouncing around North Beach all the time,” Tony remembers. “We would literally jump into the car and come into the city three, four nights a week.”

And though they wandered, the action was always centered around their favorite stomping grounds: North Beach. “Oh, we’d go down to Pier 23, or over to Bus Stop or the Blue Light on Union,” Tony says. “But we’d always end up in North Beach.”

All things have their season though, and eighteen years ago, one of those Little Italy date nights finally paid off: Tony married his wife Julie in 2000. Again North Beach was the stage, the wedding ceremony taking place at the stately Saints Peter and Paul Church on Washington Square, right in the center of the neighborhood. For good measure, the rehearsal dinner was held steps away in the ‘Tony Bennett Room’ at the former location of Fior d’Italia–the same address where Original Joe’s does business today. The reception was held close by at the Italian American Athletic Club.

Now, at this point in the story, our hero’s North Beach frolic would typically be over; married and contented, he would retreat to the suburbs and live out his happy life. But as most of you already know, that’s not what happened. Instead, Tony went on to open his flagship restaurant, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, in North Beach nine years later– directly across the street from Original Joe’s and the old Fior.

Since then, Tony has doubled down on North Beach, opening two more restaurants, a pizza school and a retail store within blocks of one another. Naturally, the chef spends most of his time here–and as a result, he has become something of an authority on the neighborhood. If you want to keep it simple, don’t ask Tony where he eats; ask him where he doesn’t eat.

Original Joe’s is great. I love breakfast at Joe’s, I love it late night. I can order just about anything on the menu there. Tuesdays are the short ribs, if I remember right,” Tony says. “And Firenze is another one I like. They still make some of the best pasta in North Beach. Never had a bad meal there.

A few of Tony's favorites: Pete's, Sotto Mare and Gino & Carlo line up on North Beach's Green Street. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

A few of Tony’s favorites: Pete’s, Sotto Mare and Gino & Carlo line up on North Beach’s Green Street. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

“I’m a big fan of Sotto Mare, so you’ll see me there pretty often,” Tony says. “And I like Betty Lou’s too, who really followed in their footsteps. I just love sand dabs–and I hate it when they’re sold out!”

“I’m a regular at Sodini’s also. I love their food, and I especially like their Chianti. It’s the best!” Tony insists. “And Mark Sodini is a terrific guy.

“I’m always eating the chicken at Il Pollaio, too. I’m in there twice a week,” Tony tells me. “But there are so many places: La Trappe for the Belgian beer. Pastry at Mara’s.

“Of course, burgers at Sam’s on Broadway. And Pete’s…when I’m not at Gino & Carlo.”

Clearly not wanting to exclude anyone, Tony continues: “You’ll see me at Liguria [Bakery] pretty often. And I still love The House, so you’ll see me there, too. It’s always great, every time I make it in.”

“And Mama’s and Mo’s for breakfast,” Tony continues. “I’ll look over, and if the Mama’s line isn’t nuts, it’s like looking at Disneyland. I’ll stick my head in the door and say ‘Money, there’s no line!’ And we’ll literally drop everything and run. [Editor’s note: ‘Money’ is the nickname of Robvell, longtime bartender at Tony’s Pizza]

And we’ve got some cool new spots coming in. The guys at Palermo Deli, it’s great that they’re back,” Tony says. “And I like the new Mexican place that just opened, Barrio.”

Though it may be a little outside the neighborhood, it turns out one unlikely spot has had an impact on Tony’s restaurants: Scoma’s in Fisherman’s Wharf. “My dad always took me to Scoma’s as a kid. We’d get the calamari steak, that was his favorite dish,” Tony recalls. “We’d get it fried, but he’d get his pan-seared, and it was different. They told me the dish was actually named for one of their old chefs.

“So when I decided to open up my own restaurant, I wanted to have a couple things my dad would always get, and for them to be the best,” Tony explains. “And we’d always get calamari and lasagna.

“When I opened up Tony’s, I spent a lot of time on those items, trying to make them as good as they could be,” Tony says. “There’s a lot that goes into it. I do a buttermilk soak on my calamari, so the acids break it down, and make it tender.

“And you know, we sell a ton of calamari and lasagna,” Tony says with a smile. “And it really goes back to my dad taking me to eat in North Beach.

“I wanted those things to be an homage to my dad.”

*North Beach Cocktail: Campari and seltzer with a brandy float

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.