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August 20, 2020

Stephanie Danese Clocks Her Eleventh Year At Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

by Joe Bonadio

As anyone in the industry can tell you, the restaurant business is all about people. Study after study has confirmed that no matter how good the food may be, the most important factor in judging a restaurant is the way we are treated. Simply put, we go to the places that make us feel good—and that has everything to do with the staff.

Tony understands this well, and he’s spent a good part of his career recruiting some of the most capable men and women in the restaurant universe. This week we spoke with one of them: ace bartender Stephanie Danese, one of Tony’s first hires at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana way back in 2009.

Joe Bonadio: So tell me Stephanie, how did you get into the restaurant business?

Stephanie Danese: Well, I was in college, and a couple of my friends started working at Chili’s. They were meeting all sorts of people, and I was going with them to all of these parties. So I thought, I’m already friends with all these people, why don’t I just work there?

JB: Just bring your ID, and we’ll put you on the schedule!

SD: Totally! Everyone brought in their friends, it was all word of mouth. So I worked there for a couple of years as a server, then right before my 21st birthday they asked me if I wanted to bartend. I would train every night after we closed, and right after my birthday I started as a bartender there.

JB: Wow! Some people have their first drink when they turn 21. You got a roomful of people drunk.

Stephanie Danese - Bartending

Stephanie in her element behind the bar at San Francisco’s Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Michaela MacRostie

SD: Yeah, I was ready to go! I just sort of fell into it. So when I moved to San Francisco, I couldn’t find a job for a while, because everyone wanted San Francisco experience. But I knew that I wanted to either work in a restaurant or do event planning.

I was initially hired by the company that owned Steps Of Rome, Figaro and the Trattoria, back when Steps Of Rome was the place to be. I would book the private events at Figaro, and set up the birthday parties and things like that at Steps Of Rome. I worked there for a while, but I wanted to get back into bartending, so I started sending out my resumé.

I saw that Amanté was hiring a bartender, with a couple of cocktail waitress shifts. So I went over and met with [Amanté owner] Wiz. And instead, he told me they needed a cocktail server without bartending shifts—the opposite of what I saw online.

I left, and I was all irritated. I had been to the bar before, so I was excited to get a job there. Anyway, I came around the corner and there was Tony’s, which was under construction at the time. I saw the sign saying they were hiring, and I’m putting the number in my phone when Tony comes walking out.

JB: Timing!

SD: I know, right? So he comes out, and asks me if I’m looking for a job. And I had my resumé on me, because I just came from the other interview. So we talked a little bit, and then I went back later for a real interview. And a couple of days later they called me back, and said I was hired. I couldn’t believe it, because he never once asked me if I’d worked in the city.

Pizza

The mighty Coal-Fired New Yorker, as captured by one of our customers. | Photo: Tim S., Yelp.com

JB: You found the right guy.

SD: Yeah! I mean, I get it, people want to know that you’ve worked in the city and know how things run, but there are people all over the place who are good at what they do. It’s just irritating.

When I came in for orientation, I met Richie, Robvell and Noble—Noble was our first bar manager. l was so intimidated, because I’m like what, 26? And I worked at Chili’s. Robvell had worked at Rose Pistola for ten plus years, and Richie was this well-known mixologist in the city. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and I really didn’t know if I was qualified. I had never worked anywhere like this.

JB: But things clicked for you.

SD: Oh, yeah. Once we opened and we started working together, I learned so much from all of them. Robvell with his great customer service. And Richie with his crazy cocktails, and his stories: he introduced me to Kokkari, Brazenhead, Balboa. All of these places I never would have gone to, he took me to all of them, and we ordered classic cocktails I had never tried.

JB: Yeah, I miss that guy.

SD: Me too.

JB: Obviously, things have changed a lot for you since Covid began. What do you miss the most about being behind the bar?

SD: I just miss seeing all the locals, and everyone interacting with each other. Like the last night that we were open—you were there. All the regulars came in, to just unite one last time. And that’s when we thought this was only going to last three weeks!

JB: We really had no clue.

Washington Square

A recent afternoon at San Francisco’s Washington Square Park, home to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

SD: I know. I just miss seeing our locals, and laughing—knowing what’s going on in their lives, and vice versa, and talking about it. Sometimes I think we don’t realize how much we know about each other’s lives, and what’s going on in them. So it’s weird to have all that come to a halt. We can talk on the phone, and do it at a distance, but there’s nothing like sitting at a bar and interacting with someone you feel comfortable with.

I totally miss having people come in, and talking with them like I’m sitting in their house. So the community, definitely.

I’m looking forward to that. I know it’s not going to happen this month, but hopefully soon. It’ll be different, but that’s what I miss. It’ll be nice to get back into that.

JB: So what have you been doing to keep busy?

SD: Well, when it first started, I was going in and making cocktails to go, and we were doing that. Other than that, I get in my car and drive out, and go on a hike. I’m outdoors. I’ve never been someone who is inside during the day.

I’ve been on more hikes and bike rides in the past few months than ever before. Also I’ve been taking real estate courses online, because I’ve always been interested in that, but never pushed myself to do it.

——

When I spoke with Tony, he echoed Stephanie’s sentiments about the original bar staff at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. “I hand-picked that team, for good reasons,” he explained. “First off, I didn’t want to hire a bunch of kids. I hired young and old, Italian, non-Italian. We were trying to marry artisanal pizza to artisanal cocktails, and it had to be the right group.

“When it came to those four—Noble, Robvell, Richie and Stephanie—they were all different, and good at their own things,” Tony elaborated. “So they learned from each other. Stephanie was from more of a corporate environment at Chili’s, and she wasn’t from the city originally. So she brought her own qualities to the mix.

“You can teach people lots of things, but teaching someone to smile can be a challenge,” Tony added. “Stephanie has always had that beautiful, charismatic smile. Working the bar at Tony’s is tough. It gets so hectic at times—and she makes it look easy. She is super talented.”

 

My thanks to Stephanie Danese, and of course Tony Gemignani, for taking the time to talk with me. Speaking for myself, I can’t wait until Steph’s back at her day job. Meanwhile, I’ll have more to report soon!