February 25, 2019

Tony In Tight Quarters: Vegas Baby, Part Two

by Joe Bonadio

We put a lot of time into the blog these days, and it’s always gratifying to get positive reactions from our audience. Last month, we wrote about Tony’s first exposure to Las Vegas’ Pizza Expo, an event that wound up becoming a critical turning point in his career. The response to the story was great, and the thing most people seemed curious about was Tony’s training regimen back then.

It’s a good question, so this week, we thought we’d address it. How did the young Tony Gemignani prepare to compete in his first pizza championship?

“People ask me how I practiced,” Tony explains. “There are a couple of things that I’ll say about that. First: your release is important when you go to do a trick. But the most important thing is actually the catch and release–that is, the transition from one trick to another trick.

“Guys would always say to me, ‘Man, you’re fast! How do you do it?’ I’m still fast, and I don’t really even do it anymore,” Tony chuckles. “But again, it’s that transition from catch to release that’s important.”

And how did he develop that breakneck speed? “Well, I still lived with my parents then. And in my bedroom, I remember moving the dresser close to the wall, and moving the bedposts,” Tony recounts. “Basically, I made these really tight quarters, so that if I went five inches–left, right, forwards or backwards–when I pivoted, I’d nail my hand.

“So here I was in my bedroom, and I’ve got everything moved into this rectangular box,” Tony recounts. “The point was, making the space tighter made me faster to release. You had to be fast at it, or you’d smash your knuckles.”

And smash them he did. “Oh yeah, I did it all the time.”

But Tony wouldn’t let that deter him, and the technique made him faster, and faster yet. “So I got into tight quarters. Then I started practicing it in the dark,” Tony tells me. “And eventually, it became seamless.”

Another trick that Tony remembers using to train in the early days might just surprise you: switching out the dough, and tossing pizza pans instead. “You see, pizza pans don’t flex,” Tony says. “So I used to spin pizza pans, because it made me do the proper motions–you couldn’t cheat.

“Dough flexes, so you can manipulate it,” Tony clarifies. “Pizza pans are less forgiving; they made me follow through on the motions.”

Tony laughs. “And they made a hell of a lot of noise when you dropped them!”

Keep in mind, all of this is nearly twenty-five years ago. “There are certain things about the training side that I’d almost forgotten,” Tony says. “I’d train in my garage until 3:00 AM. I’d bring home a 50-pound batch of dough, and I’d work on it.

“At one time, I wouldn’t allow myself to practice with rubber doughs, because rubber doughs aren’t totally realistic,” Tony elaborates. “It’s almost like when you’re playing in college, and you’re hitting a baseball with an aluminum bat, and now you’re in the major leagues using a wooden bat. You have to make an adjustment to your swing. It’s very much like that.

“So there was a point when, going into competition, I’d never touch rubber doughs.”

A natural showman from the beginning, Tony quickly figured out a few tricks to distinguish himself on competition day. “I never wanted it to look hard. I always tried to make it look easy,” Tony says. “The Italian way of doing it, they would slap their dough out, and come out and do some tricks. And then go back to the table and slap some more dough out, and do some more tricks.

“Me, I’d roll the dough out, and position it in front of the judges. I’d have my first dough in hand, and press play on the music,” Tony says, his hands illustrating the scene. “I’d never turn my back on the crowd. I’d go from one trick, to the next one, to the next one.

“And I’d arrange it so everything would build and build, up to the finale: the hardest trick I did.” Tony explains. “And I’d never bust out my biggest trick right away–because what the hell are you gonna do then?”

These competitions were still relatively new, and Tony brought a whole new level of stagecraft to his performances. “Guys back then didn’t realize that there were things to think about, other than just doing a great trick,” he points out. “Working the crowd, making eye contact, I knew it was all important.

“I used to watch these guys compete, and they’d just be lost in their own thing. For them, it was all about the hardest trick they could do,” Tony says. “Where I’d be going across the shoulders, doing this, kicking it out….you know, getting the crowd into it.”

Being the perfectionist he is, Tony broke down every last detail in his preparations for competition. “I’d listen to music and think ‘Is this too fast for me? Or is it too slow? And is the crowd gonna be awake, are they gonna be interested?’ Keep in mind, back then these judges would see forty guys, fifty guys!” Tony says. “Now, it’s more like twenty.”

“So, there are a lot of things to competition. People don’t realize.”

Tony Celebrating

Tony celebrating his victory with Ty DuPuis (at the time the world’s fastest pizza maker) and Pasi Rujala of Koti Pizza (who won for highest toss).

Tony knew that to have a chance in Vegas, he would need to score on every front. After all, the young chef would be going up against Emilio Giacometti, who was now the two-time World Pizza Champion. Tony had watched Giacometti win at Pizza Expo the year before, and the pizzaiolo’s expert performance had galvanized him. Indeed, it had been while watching Giacometti perform that Tony had decided to return, and not just compete, but win.

“There were a lot of good guys in that competition,” Tony recalls. “Randy Huffmeier, he was the guy from the U.S. that was among the top five in the world. Graziano Bertuzzo was there. Another guy named Michele something, he was famous at the time.

“It was a big deal. Sha Na Na was there, and I think the Four Tops played. Buzz Aldrin was there. I remember, I have signatures from all of them on my number, somewhere,” Tony says, shaking his head. “It was such a production. It was held at MGM Grand, where the boxing matches are normally set up. You had to compete on the stage. It was nerve-wracking!

Tony recently had a look at some rare video footage of the competition for the first time. “You look at the moves now, and it’s funny,” he confides. “I wasn’t that good.”

That being said, Tony still managed to overcome the considerable competition in Vegas–and to walk away with First Prize. Remarkably, the chef had fulfilled the goal he set exactly one year before, and earned his first World Championship. “My Dad was there that night, my brother was there,” Tony says, smiling at the memory. “We celebrated.”

And Tony didn’t wait for the win to get the party started, either. “What people don’t realize is that at almost every championship I’ve won, I’ve partied the night before,” he confesses. “The tradition started that first night in Vegas, the night before the competition. I told my brother ‘I’m nervous as hell. What am I going to do?’ And he said ‘Let’s go out.’

“And we did.”

This being Vegas, the brothers stayed out late, well into the wee hours. Tony still managed to attend the convention the next day. And of course, he competed the next night. And it didn’t hurt his performance–at least the judges didn’t seem to think so.

Though he didn’t realize it at the time, in the ensuing years Tony would have plenty of chances to test out this questionable pregaming ritual. Meanwhile, the young chef now had a brand-new challenge to conquer: the formidable pizza judges of Italy.

We’ll be back with the next chapter soon, so don’t forget to bookmark us and come back often. Ciao!