July 30, 2021

Sweet Spot: Lisa Lu & The Opening Of Antonio’s Pastries

by Joe Bonadio

When Toscano Brothers and Dago Bagel opened in North Beach this May, they were instantly embraced by the neighborhood, generating blocks-long lines on their first day of business. Happily the press was also quick to react, and the little bakery’s rapid success was almost startling—and after a year of Covid worries, more than welcome.

Timing is everything though, and North Beach had suffered without a real bread bakery for several years after the loss of Grant Avenue’s timeworn Italian French Bakery. And we’ve never had a proper bagel shop around here, so that was a pretty safe bet.

Of course the quality had to be right, and as we wrote about in May, Tony spared no effort. Both bread and bagels are baking disciplines in their own right, which means a lot of education—and even more trial and error—was required to pull it off. Simply put, it took a massive amount of work to get this humble neighborhood bakery off the ground.

But as you may have guessed, Tony wasn’t quite finished. From the beginning, he’s had plans for a third component that would address another of his obsessions: pasticcini, or Italian sweets. It would be called Antonio’s Pastries, and Tony knew almost exactly what he wanted to do. But in order to make it happen, he needed to sign up a serious pastry chef. Enter Lisa Lu.

Lisa Lu Pastry Chef

Lisa Lu works on another amazing creation at Antonio’s Pastries in San Francisco.

A longtime customer of Tony’s, Lu also has a resumé that reads like the Michelin guide, with stints at standard bearers like Jardinière, Quince and Boulevard. Never one to keep still, today Lu heads up production at San Francisco’s celebrated Recchiuti Confections. Lisa’s got a lot going on, but she was kind enough to talk with me ahead of last week’s opening of Antonio’s—and our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So you have an impressive background in baking. Where did you start?

Lisa Lu: At Aqua. Do you remember it?

JB: Yes, I do remember Aqua. I came to San Francisco the first time back in 1997. How did you hook up with Tony?

LL: We knew each other from the neighborhood. Even though I lived in Russian Hill, this has always been my neighborhood.

JB: So you’re a customer at Tony’s?

LL: Yes, and I know a lot of the people who work there.

JB: So how did you guys end up coming together on this project?

LL: I have to give Dave Asher credit. He texted me and said, Tony needs some help with desserts. I thought, that sounds like fun.

JB: You know Dave is a friend of mine, and I was there when the subject came up at Hole In the Wall [Coffee]. I mentioned that Tony was looking, and Dave brought your name up.

So David Asher, another Tony’s regular, ended up putting you together.

LL: That’s right.

Italian cookie, spumoni shortbread cookie and fruit tart

Clockwise from left: the Italian cookie, spumoni shortbread cookie and fruit tart at Antonio’s Pastries, which opened in San Francisco last week. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: That’s great. Why don’t you tell me a little about what you’re working on?

LL: Well, we’re doing five pastries, and they’re all Italian-inspired. One of them is the budino, which is basically a butterscotch pudding. Then there are pieces of toffee and crunchy little wafer bits covered in chocolate on top of it.

JB: That’s the feuilletine I heard you mention.*

LL: Yes! Then a little olive oil ganache….and a little chantilly, too.

JB: Chantilly?

LL: Whipped cream. Fancy whipped cream.

JB: You have all the fancy words! Bakers typically do.

LL: [Laughs]. We’ve also got a spumoni cookie, a cookie that is a play on the flavors of spumoni ice cream: cherry, pistachio and vanilla. But we have it in the form of a shortbread cookie.

JB: I used to love spumoni as a kid. My father would always ask me to get that.

LL: Yeah, I love pistachio. With the candied cherries? It’s delicious. All in a shortbread cookie.

Then there’s the Italian rainbow cookie which we’re doing with almond, raspberry jam, and some chocolate on top.

We’ve also got a sfogliatelle, which I know I’m not pronouncing correctly.

Sfogliatelle at Antonio's are stuffed with mascarpone cheese

You can’t spell it without SFO: the sfogliatelle at Antonio’s are stuffed with mascarpone cheese, Blenheim apricots and lemon. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Sfo-gli-a-telle. It’s got that tricky G, just like ‘Gemignani.’

LL: Yes! [Laughter] And that has a mascarpone-apricot filling.

JB: Wow, an apricot sfogliatelle, I’ve never had that. It sounds wonderful.

LL: Yes, if I do say so. What else do we have? A fruit tart, which will be filled with vanilla cream, with some fresh berries on top right now.

JB: It’s a good time of year for berries.

LL: Yeah, and we’ve got all of them.

JB: That’s a hell of a lineup. So what has it been like working with Tony?

LL: It’s great. It’s a fun collaboration. Just making it happen, and getting all this stuff together….it’s really fun. Figuring everything out, what works for each of the recipes.

JB: The creative part, when every day is brand-new.

LL: Yes. And you have to make sure there’s a consistency to everything, so that each day is just as good as every other day.

I moved out of the city about a month ago, so I’m really excited to be back in North Beach. This will always be my neighborhood, so it’s just nice to be integrated back into everything. That makes me really happy.


I also spoke with Tony briefly about the new project, and he had this to say:

Joe Bonadio: I’ve got to ask: what’s your favorite?

Tony Gemignani: The budino is my favorite. I’ve tried different ones at fine dining Italian spots in New York and L.A., so that was one of the items I really wanted to have. I don’t know if you see it anywhere else in the neighborhood.

Once you have that, you just want to keep eating it. You can’t get enough….it’s
dangerous. [Laughter]

Budino at Antonio's Pastries

The sublime budino at Antonio’s Pastries, made from scratch using butter, brown sugar and scotch (Johnny Walker Red). | Photo: Joe Bonadio

But I think the hardest one to make, and Lisa would probably attest to that, is the sfogliatelle.

I dried apricots on the farm with my grandpa when I was growing up. We grew Blenheims, and I sourced the same kind we used to dry. It’s called a squeezepit. It’s a Blenheim that’s overly ripe, and they dry it with the pit inside to preserve the juice, then squeeze it out. I found a source, a guy named Spencer, that uses Blenheims. They’re very hard to find now—and he dries them just like we did.

They’re the perfect consistency when you’re blending them with the mascarpone and lemon that goes into the sfogliatelle. And they’re kind of a throwback for me, because when I’m eating these Blenheims, it reminds me of being on the farm with my grandpa.

JB: And it seems like you and Lisa are working very well together.

TG: She can do anything. She’s one of the most talented pastry chefs that I’ve ever worked with. So if l say Hey, can you make a budino? she’ll say Of course, how do you want it made?

When we first met, she brought me a bag of caramels. In all these different flavors, green tea and things like that. So we’re also doing those, and it’s her own line of caramels—they’re delicious.

Tony shows off his fruit tart

Tony shows off his fruit tart at the opening of Antonio’s Pastries in San Francisco’s North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

We’re still small batch, and we’re only making certain things: only so many kinds of bread, so many types of bagels. These are the items I wanted to do. With Antonio’s I brought in my cannoli and my tiramisu, the items I sell at Tony’s, so I have a little piece of the menu. But the highlights are really Lisa’s specialties.

There are a few things we’re talking about doing in the future: one is a cucidati, which is a fig cookie. It’s something my wife Julie and I always have during the holidays; she used to make them with her grandmother. We actually had them at our wedding. It’s sort of a tradition in our family, so we’re going to collaborate on that, and you’ll probably see a cucidati here during the holiday season.

And then torrone, which is a nougat-type candy that you’ll also see during the holidays. Usually imported from Italy, but we’re probably going to make them here as a seasonal item.

JB: So how has the response been so far?

TG: Great. The sfogliatelle, we sell out every day. As soon as somebody sees it, they‘ve got to have it. It’s different, the texture when you bite into it. If you haven’t had it—it may look layered like a croissant, but they’re crispy, and pliable and chewy.

But if you have had one—like Michele and Natale**, for instance—they say it’s spot on. I go to Napoli all the time, and I try them at gas stations, I try them everywhere. But they were the true testers.

*Or paillete feuilletine, a French culinary term that translates roughly as “tiny pieces of leaves.”
**Managers at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, Natale and Michele are both Italian by birth.

Specialty sourdough batard bread

Toscano Brothers also features one specialty bread every Sunday. Pictured is the sourdough batard with candied lemon and orange, dates and walnuts. | Photo: Joe Bonadio