July 12, 2023

Team Becca: Rebecca Scaramuzzino Finds A Home At Tony’s

by Joe Bonadio

Like a lot of my fellow San Franciscans, I spend a good bit of time in restaurants. It’s a habit I picked up when I was living in New York, aided and abetted by a surprisingly generous expense account. And though I’m not quite the obsessed gastronome I once was, I still jump at the chance to dine out whenever I can. There’s just something about sharing a good table with people whose company you enjoy; it’s easily one of my favorite things.

Having worked on the edges of the restaurant business for many years, there’s one thing I’ve learned: it’s hard. Whether it’s bartending, serving, cooking or greeting the people, the energy required to produce a great restaurant experience is astounding. Generally speaking, I’ve found that quality people work in restaurants. I’ve made a lot of friends in the service biz, more than a few of them at Tony’s—on both sides of the bar.

Of course everyone has a story, and with that in mind, every so often we like to do employee interviews here on the blog. Over the past five years, I’ve interviewed everyone from Tony himself (here, here and here) to award-winning pizza makers Laura Meyer and Oscar Venegas, not to mention other key players like OG bartender Robvell Smith, Operations Manager Mario Acevedo and many more.

This week we’re talking with Tony’s Manager Rebecca Scaramuzzino, who recently competed at Pizza Expo for the very first time. Rebecca was kind enough to sit down with me just last week….and our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So where are you from, Rebecca?

Rebecca Scaramuzzino: I was actually born in Stockton.

JB: California girl.

RS: Yes, I am! We moved down to LA for a couple of years until I was three, then we moved up to San Leandro. I’ve been in the East Bay ever since.

JB: How did you first get into the restaurant business?

RS: Funny thing, in San Leandro there’s a pizza restaurant called Porky’s Pizza. It’s the local go to spot–it’s where all the high school kids work, it’s everyone’s first job. It’s where all the kids hung out then, and they had a little payphone in the back so we could keep in touch with our parents.

So it was a place that I was familiar with. A lot of the people I went to school with worked there, and they would tell me: You’ve gotta get in here, this is a great spot to work. So my first job: pizza place.

JB: A hyperlocal pizza place.

RS: Hyperlocal. It’s the biggest spot in town, in what they call the Manor of San Leandro. There’s a little grocery store there, a liquor store, a bar, and everyone kind of gathers there.

JB: Sort of the local square.

RS: Pretty much. So me and my best friend began working there, and right away I felt at home. I caught on quick.

I was working full-time, and I got to work side-by-side with the owners, the Valenziano family. Gary and Greg were the brothers, and their dad was still alive at the time. He passed a few years after, but I did get a chance to work with him, which was incredible to me. To be in such a tight group—it was an Italian family restaurant, so I felt like I was a part of the family.

I just thought, this is amazing. I come here, I’m with my best friends, I’m part of a big family. I get to see all the local people every day. I loved it!

JB: Not bad for a first job. How long were you with the Valenzianos?

RS: Twenty years. All the way up until I came to Tony’s.

JB: Wow.

RS: I left a couple of times and tried a few different things. I did a little retail, I worked at Sears.

JB: That’s a decision that sort of makes itself, huh?

RS: (Laughter) Yeah! I did a little fine dining, I worked at Horatio’s in the San Leandro Marina, just to get my feet wet in a couple of different areas. But I always came back. There was just something about that place, and that family—and I didn’t want to give it up.

Tony and Rebecca in the dining room at Tony's Pizza Napoletana

Tony and Rebecca in the dining room at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach. | Photo courtesy of Rebecca Scaramuzzino

JB: So how did you finally end up making the jump to Tony’s?

RS: I became a manager at Porky’s about seven years ago, and I got the opportunity to go to Pizza Expo for the first time. It opened my eyes to the pizza world—this whole world full of things you didn’t even know existed.

JB: I remember feeling the same way.

RS: My boss knows Tony, so I got to meet him there. And I remember watching him, and just being in complete awe. Look what this guy does. Look what is possible in this field of work I’ve chosen.

And at that point, I didn’t know if I was going to be in this business forever. I’d been doing it for 20 years, but was it going to be my career? I didn’t know yet—but watching Tony inspired me. I started reading Pizza Bible, and watching videos on Tony, and researching the restaurant.

It wasn’t until about five years ago until I came to the restaurant. Tony had popped into Porky’s, and he remembered who I was. We exchanged phone numbers, and he said Hey, I’d like to show you my place.  And I acted really cool about it, like it wasn’t a big deal—but inside, it was a huge deal. (Laughter)

I came out here with my mom and sister, and Tony treated us to an impeccable meal. I got to try every style of pizza, we had a couple of bottles of wine. The environment was just so….I was like Wow, I can see this for me. 

He took me on a tour through the kitchen, and introduced me to a few people. They all added me as friends on Facebook. And something told me that this was the direction I was going.

A couple of years went by, and I came back to Tony’s for their ten year anniversary party. At that point, I had decided to enroll in the pizza school. I wanted to make this a career, and that was my decision. I enrolled in the school, and gave my deposit to Laura.

My mom and I went together to the party. I got to meet Bill [Ginsburg, Tony’s VP of Operations) for the first time, and he spent a long time hanging out at the table with us. I loved him, though I didn’t really know who he was.

Then just after enrolling, I found out I was pregnant. I thought to myself: this is never going to work. How am I going to have a newborn child, commute out to the city, hire a babysitter….all the barriers you can think of.

So I decided my daughter had to come first, and I dropped out of the school. Then just before I had my daughter, Covid happened. In March of 2020, my doctor took me out of work, and my daughter was born in April. I was home with her for five months; they didn’t want me to go back to work because of all of the unknowns, and the chance of bringing Covid home to the baby.

JB: We were all terrified.

RS: Exactly. So I got to stay home with her, and I really had time to think about what I was going to do. Eventually I went back to work at Porky’s, for limited hours. Right about then I got a text message from Tony: Are you still looking for a job? 

He gave me a call, and we talked for about an hour and a half. I came in two weeks later, and met with Tony, Bill and Natale. They called me three days later, and said you’ve got the job. I didn’t even think twice—I took it.

JB: You had known years earlier that’s where you wanted to be.

RS: Yes. Since I was a little girl, I always thought it would be really cool to have a nice Italian restaurant. At the time I hadn’t started working yet, I was really young, but I remember telling my dad: one day, I’m going to work in a big famous Italian restaurant. And I’m going to make food for you and Grandma. Even as a little kid I remember saying this, because we were always so into cooking and food in my family.

JB: It took a while, but you wound up in the right spot.

RS: I did.

JB: And you already had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Once you began working here, what was the biggest surprise you found?

RS: It was definitely the learning: about all the styles, learning about the ovens, and the craft of the pizza. If you think about it, I went from a restaurant where we made one style of pizza, we had one oven, and we used the ingredients we used. Now I had worked sauté, and I’d worked the fryers, and every other aspect of our restaurant. But that’s all I really knew.

Coming to this restaurant, I found the crust of Tony’s pizza was the most important part of working here. When you are table touching, people want to talk to you about Tony’s. They want to ask you questions, they want to know about the ingredients. They want to know about the styles. It’s part of the experience.

JB: I imagine that built-in need to educate your customers really sustains you in this business, and keeps you engaged.

Rebecca showing off a little front-of-house style

Rebecca showing off a little front-of-house style. | Photo Courtesy of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

RS: Absolutely. There’s something to learn every day, and Tony is there so often that you get to watch the magic happen. Before something lands on the menu, before there’s a weird special release in Pizza Today, or whatever is going on, you get to see it happen. Watch him playing with things, and talking about what he’s working on. So few people ever get to do that. That’s incredible to me.

JB: The two years you’ve been here have been very transformative for food and beverage. What are some of the things you’ve noticed in terms of broader changes in the business?

RS: Well, when I first started, obviously masks were still a thing. Then the city began requiring everyone have their vaccination card. That was a troubling time; we had to have someone at the door, and we had people coming from all over the world, who didn’t know about all of these rules and policies.

Then as soon as that was lifted, you noticed: slowly but surely, more people out on the street, more people in the park. People began to be more comfortable sitting inside, and we’ve seen families coming back out again.

And honestly, people are starting to be kinder than they used to be. For a while during Covid there was a lot of anger, a lot of aggression—and now people are just being nicer. People are happy to be out, people are happy to see businesses striving.

JB: They’ve had the pressure taken off of them, the uncertainty was eliminated.

RS: Yeah. And it’s been hard being in the restaurant business, because the restaurants are really the one thing that stayed open during all of this. We saw everything.

JB: And you kept us all going. Our local restaurants were what allowed the locals to limp through that whole period.

So I want to talk to you about Pizza Expo. You just made your first appearance there as a competitor. Tell me how that came about. 

RS: Well, Tony noticed that I wanted to be in the kitchen a lot. In my previous job, I was in the kitchen on the line every day. That’s where my heart was—I loved making pizza. I love being on the line, I love when it gets busy and you have to hustle. It’s just a part of who I am.

So Tony started talking to me about what I wanted to do. He watched me make a few pizzas, and I filled in at Expo for Oscar a couple of times. Finally Tony said: I think it’s time. I’d like to take you to Expo—I think you can do it. I think you’d be great. And I said, Yeah. 

JB: What was it like hearing that from Tony?

RS: I was terrified.

JB: (Laughter)

RS: I took a deep breath and thought: what did I get myself into? I better step my game up!

So I started working with Oscar, and at first I focused on my hand stretching technique. I had used a rolling pin at my old restaurant, I didn’t hand stretch. I thought, I can’t walk up there and not know how to hand stretch. So I’d come in early, and I’d go in the kitchen, and I’d just be stretching, stretching, stretching. I still never got the full, proper technique down—but it was good enough for me.

JB: So what division did you start in?

RS: I started with traditional, because Tony said it was probably the best place to start. Non traditional is hard to judge, where they’re comparing an apple pizza to a lobster pizza.

So the one thing that was really important to me, I wanted to stick with my Calabrian roots. I wanted to do something with Calabrian chiles. So Tony said okay, that’s a good place to start— let’s work with that. We came up with this great vodka cream Calabrian chile sauce, and I had pepperoni and millionaire’s bacon, and it was just this incredible pizza. And my bake was perfect. We started coming in early on Saturday morning to practice, just me, Tony, Oscar and Adam. Make your pizza, make your pizza, make your pizza. Keep working on it. Tweak it.

Then about a month and a half before Expo, we found out I couldn’t use the ingredients that I had on my pizza.

JB: Why?

RS: You can’t use a cream sauce. It has to be a red traditional sauce. It changed my whole direction. I also had a basil ricotta on top—you can’t pipe cheese on top, they said. You could do it in previous years, but you can’t do it this year.

So okay, take away my sauce, take away my cheese….this is complicated.

JB: Meanwhile, this is a pie you had already made a hundred times. 

RS: Right! So I went with a classic American and a classic Italian sauce. I wanted the texture with the sweetness, and it was a good combination of the two sauces. It worked well with the pepperoni and a little bit of spice. I did the millionaire’s bacon—or as I called it at Expo, a maple spiced bacon. It’s the umami spice and maple syrup, like we make on the Smokeshow.

It was delicious. Tony said: Your pizza is actually great. Don’t change anything, you’ve got it. You’re better than you think you are. You can do it.

Anyway, I was like 74th on the list to go, and then they called me two hours late. My dough started getting really warm. But when I stepped up there, and I was finally ready to go, I actually felt good. I had sat there all day, and I watched everyone. All the technique, everything.

Finally I was like, you know what? I make pizza every day. What’s the difference? Just go up there and have fun.

Rebecca with her old boss at Pizza Expo

Rebecca with her old boss Gregg Valenziano and his son Nick at Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. | Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Scaramuzzino

JB: Just make pizza. You’ve done it a million times.

RS: Right! Meanwhile, I get up there and I start to scrape the dough out, and I’m like, Oh, No. 

But it was great. My old bosses came to support me, my sister came, Tony showed up, Natale, Oscar. Everybody stood right in front, to be there with me. I was like: Yes! Team Becca, this is awesome! (Laughter)

When I felt nervous, I’d look up at them, make contact and take a deep breath, and it was fine. The only thing: my pizza kind of came out looking like an egg, because it was too warm when I landed it in the oven.

But I got 13th in my region, for my first time. And everybody said that a couple of years ago, I would have placed with that score. A lot of big people competed this year, and everyone said the score I got was incredible for a first time.

And so many people came up to me, and told me they saw the posts that Tony put up about me: I’ve been following you, and rooting for you. It was crazy, I was almost like a celebrity already.

JB: So I’m guessing that you’re already working on your pizza for next year….

RS: I am! I’m going to venture out and go into nontraditional this time. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but there’s a pizza that I’ve always wanted to make. I went to Tony with it when I first started. And he said, that would actually work. I asked him, do you think I’d have a chance with it? He said, Yeah.

A little basil aioli, a little steak, a little red onion….but that’s enough details for now.

JB: Thank you, Rebecca. Hopefully I’ll be with you at Pizza Expo next year.

RS: I hope so. You can be on Team Becca!

The Seven Ovens Blog documents the many stories and personalities behind Tony Gemignani’s unique group of restaurants. Make sure to bookmark us, and come back to visit us again soon.