July 20, 2018

Tony Takes Chicago: The Genesis Of Capo’s Chicago Pizza

by Joe Bonadio

With the opening of Tony’s Coal Fire Pizza & Slice House in 2010, Tony Gemignani had furthered the grand experiment he began with Tony’s Pizza Napoletana the year before, adding slices, authentic coal fired pies, NY-style slices and grab-and-go to his already expansive offerings. The pizzaiolo had scored two big wins out of the gate, and San Francisco food critics weren’t so much satisfied as stupefied.

In the process, Tony had also won the hearts of the wily, opinionated locals of North Beach, the idyllic neighborhood he had loved for so long. And many of the same folks who had questioned the need for “another pizza place” a year earlier now happily queued up with the tourists for lunch. The picturesque corner of Stockton and Union Streets was sleepy no more.

But as we know now, Tony Gemignani was only getting started. And with his next project, Tony intended to tackle one of the toughest challenges in pizzamaking: Chicago Style. To be called Capo’s Chicago Pizza & Italian Dinners, it would be a place where you could get not just ‘Chicago Style’ deep dish, but all four styles of Chicago pizza, along with old-school Chi-town specialties like Chicken Vesuvio and Pasta Mostaccioli. It would be an homage to everything Tony loved about Chicago Italian food, and it would be named after Capo’s in Las Vegas, one of Tony’s favorite restaurants. But where to put it?

Enter Mauro Caputo, owner of Pulcinella, one of the many restaurants that used to occupy the space where Capo’s now sits. Mauro (part of the Caputo Flour family in Naples), had come to San Francisco only to be abandoned by his partner in the restaurant, who went back to Italy; now, he was over his head on the lease. Tony, who knew Mauro’s father from Naples, agreed to take a look at the place and help out. The chef took one look around the North Beach space–scarcely three blocks away from his other restaurants–and knew he had found his next place. He soon took over the lease.

When I talked with Tony about Capo’s, my first question was the obvious one. With a fine-tuned operation and seven different ovens at Tony’s and Slice House right around the corner, why not just offer Chicago-style there? The answer: fire time.

“It would have screwed up Tony’s. The fire time in the kitchen would have been all wrong,” Tony explained. That’s because most of the pizzas at Tony’s cook within less than ten minutes, while deep dish pies can have bake times of up to 30-35 minutes. “Plus, Chicago Style needed to be a restaurant in itself, because there are so many predominant styles there,” Tony added.

“People tend to think it’s only deep dish, but it’s not.”

Though Tony hails from Fremont, California, he actually knows the Windy City well. “People don’t understand that I’ve been going there for years,” the chef told me. “I judged the Chicago Pizza Wars. I threw pizzas on Wrigley Field! (for Connie’s Pizza).”

And as often as he visited Chicago, Tony never missed a chance to sample the pizza giants of the realm: Malnati’s, Giordano’s, Uno, all of them. The best of what he found, the chef was determined to bring to San Francisco.

But naturally, Tony wanted to do it his way. And that meant starting at the beginning: with the ingredients. “When I looked around out here, I didn’t think people were really doing Chicago pizza right,” he remembered. “The first thing was the flour. There’s a flour called Ceresota (pronounced like Sarasota) that comes from one of the oldest flour mills in the Midwest.” In Chicago, most of the pizzerias used Ceresota.

“I started looking into it, and the distributors out here just didn’t have it,” Tony recalled. “If the distributors didn’t have it, no one was using it.”

After a little bit of wrestling with his suppliers, the exacting chef had the flour he needed to begin. The all-important recipe was next. “It’s not something that was thought of overnight,” Tony explained. “If you look at my recipe, it’s high butterfat–the fat content is almost 9%. It’s a combination of butter and lard; I actually just switched from English butter to a French style that’s even more rich.”

“When you look at Chicago Style, you can go one of two routes,” the pizzaiolo elaborated. “The cornmeal route, which is kind of a cornbread, or the butter or butter-and-maybe-cornmeal route. I went down the butter route, which not many people out here did.”

And that difference is apparent, the very first moment you bite into one of Capo’s pies. The dough is the central element in any pizza, and in the case of Chicago Style, that’s doubly true. No question, the decadent richness and flavor of this crust is what sets it apart. I’m convinced they could literally serve these pies naked–drizzle it with a little olive oil, nobody would bat an eye. Really, the crust is that good.

“When you have our deep dish, when you have our cracker-thin, it’s definitely different from anything they’re doing out here,” Tony explained. “I’d like to think it’s a hybrid of the greats. It’s a little bit of Giordano’s mixed with Malnati’s, a touch of Nancy’s.” And there is so much more going on at this restaurant than just pizza. “When you look at Capo’s, it’s not just a pizzeria that makes deep dish. It’s house-made sausage and peppers, it’s baked mostaccioli, it’s a full whiskey bar.”

“It’s like every perfect detail from every spot I loved in Chicago, I wanted to incorporate them all into one restaurant,” Tony added. Indeed, the chef designed every element of the place, from the cork floors (to dampen noise) to the stamped tin ceilings–which Tony hand-painted himself, with the able assistance of Capo’s head chef Matt Molina.

Capo’s was a long time in coming. The speakeasy element is just something that I always wanted to do,” Tony told me. “I love that kind of feel, and I think when you step into Capo’s, it’s almost like you’re stepping back in time in Chicago.

“I wanted it to feel like that restaurant that’s been here for sixty years,” the chef related. “That neighborhood restaurant off the beaten path, old-school vibe, where if you’re not from here you wonder: ‘What’s that place?’ I picked this area off Columbus for a reason.”

A Heileman's Old Style mural adds a touch of Old Chicago to the brick face in Capo's dining room. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

A Heileman’s Old Style mural adds a touch of Old Chicago to the brick face in Capo’s dining room. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Tony knew exactly what he wanted to create, but it wouldn’t be easy, and the build out for the space would prove to be exhaustive. “The place didn’t have any brick in it, didn’t have a tin ceiling, none of it,” he described. Now, looking around at the carefully appointed space with its plush red banquettes, it’s difficult to imagine. But fully seven tons of century-old Chicago brick were used to create Capo’s ‘vintage’ interior. And five tons of that came from from the Fillmore backyard of Claudio Barone–which leads to yet another story.

“When I took the this space over, there were these two paintings on the wall. Maro had put a $5 price tag on them, and nobody bought them. Ugly, terrible.” Tony told me, grimacing. “So we gut the place, and the haulers come, and I say take the pictures for yourselves, guys.” Of course, as these things happen, the next day a gentleman name Claudio Barone came in and asked for the paintings. He had loaned them to the old owners, and they had never given them back. “They’re really expensive,” Barone told the dismayed restaurateur.

Thankfully, Tony was somehow able to reach the haulers in time to get the pieces back. Barone was nothing but grateful; the paintings, he told the chef, were worth thousands. “What do you want?” Barone asked. “Let me give you something.” Tony told Barone he was just happy he got his paintings back, but the man persisted. “Do you need wood? Do you need brick?” he finally asked.

That got Tony’s attention. “How much brick do you have?” he asked. Barone just nodded. “Oh, I’ve got a lot of brick.” Turns out, he had a backyard full of the stuff at his place on Fillmore Street–almost enough to do the entire Capo’s interior.

“He still eats in my place,” Tony told me happily. “He’s from Naples.”

Meanwhile, the build out was slowly coming together, and it seemed for every setback there was a win. Just as the brick had materialized when it was needed, the mural that now hangs over the door to the kitchen was also a surprise, found rolled up and forgotten inside of a wall. The 13′ x 4′ panorama depicts Vallejo Street in the Sixties, and shows both Little City Meats and Adolph’s–the renowned restaurant which also once occupied the Capo’s space, owned by celebrated chef Adolfo Veronese.


Capo’s Head Chef Matt Molina stands in front of his imposing array of trophies in the pizza craft. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

When it came to bringing Tony’s vision for Capo’s kitchen together though, Tony had an ace-in-the-hole: Head Chef Matt Molina. Again, Tony was planning to make four separate styles of Chicago pie: Classic Chicago Deep Dish, Cast Iron Pan (with a signature crispy buttered-cheese crust), Cracker Thin, and Stuffed Crust. (Cracker Thin, a square pie, is actually considered the true ‘Chicago Style’ to most Chicagoans; Tony’s Stuffed Crust is based on Scarciedda, a pie traditionally made for Easter celebrations in Italy.)

To pull this off, Tony would need a true peer in the kitchen–and Molina would prove to be the guy. He came from Arizona specifically to make Chicago Style pizza, and hit the ground running as Capo’s Head Chef. And while Tony (and San Francisco) quickly learned Molina was the real deal, it would take until 2014 until the rest of the world found out. That was the year Matt won at the International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas, taking two titles at one competition–and he did it with The Dillinger, Capo’s signature Cast Iron pie, named for the notorious Chicago mobster.

Astoundingly, competing against the world’s best pizzaiolos, Molina then went on to win the Best of the Best Challenge in Vegas just two years later. “I only helped him a little,” Tony conceded. “I mean, was he using my dough recipe? Yeah. But did he do it on his own? He pretty much did.”

A happy patron prepares to devour a Margherita-style Cast Iron Pan pizza at Capo's. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

A happy patron prepares to devour a Margherita-style Cast Iron Pan pizza at Capo’s. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

In 2016, Molina won with another of Capo’s signature Cast Iron pies, The Crown Point, a tour de force combining sharp cheddar, mozzarella, broccolini, mushrooms, arugula, peppadew peppers, balsamic reduction and shaved parmigiano. This one the chef named for the Crown Point, Indiana jail from which John Dillinger escaped in 1934. This pizza has a lot going on–and it was enough to convince the Vegas judges for a record third time.

As a longtime pizza competitor (and big winner in both Las Vegas and Naples), Tony was duly impressed. “For your first time going, it was awesome,” the chef told me. “When he was competing in front of the the judges, I would tell him: bring the Cast Iron pan out, and take the pie out in front of them. There were pizza judges that just didn’t know what it was. What is this style?

“And he won the whole thing. And nobody ever competed with a Cast Iron before.”

Watching his acolyte win, and in a pizza category he had pioneered, was like a victory for Tony as well. “We made a movement of Cast Iron in the industry. It was in my book, and we brought it out to the West Coast,” Tony reminded me. “It hails from a couple of places called Burt’s and Pequod’s in Illinois. A guy named Burt Katz started doing it, and he passed. That style is almost nonexistent even in Chicago now.”

While that’s sad for our Chicago brethren, here in San Francisco, the Cast Iron pizza is very much alive. At Capo’s, the uniquely talented team has managed to create a paean to all things Chicago. And as every visit demonstrates, Tony’s dogged emphasis on craft and fresh, artisanal ingredients had paid off in spades.

With the success of Capo’s, Tony Gemignani had a nascent pizza empire on his hands–and San Francisco’s North Beach would be its headquarters.

Meanwhile, the story continues in a couple of weeks, when we’ll be exploring Tony Gemignani’s newest project in San Francisco’s historic North Beach: Giovanni Italian Specialties. See you then!

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.