Category Archives: Tony’s Blog

Tony Takes Chicago: The Genesis Of Capo’s Chicago Pizza
July 21, 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.

02-Head-Chef-Matt-Molina

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.

The Birth of Tony’s Coal Fired Pizza & Slice House
June 27, 2018

The Birth of Tony’s Coal Fired Pizza & Slice House

With the opening of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco’s North Beach in 2009, Tony Gemignani had managed to parlay his unprecedented win at the World Pizza Cup in Naples two years earlier into a viable restaurant. For the most part he had charmed the critics, and more impressively, the Fremont-born pizzamaker had won over the guarded, often fussy locals of North Beach. His sweeping, multiple-style menu required a balancing act, but with his stellar opening crew, Tony had seemingly pulled it off.

The naysayers had been silenced, and Tony’s Pizza was a humming machine, with a line snaking out the front door. “You’ve got to prove yourself in this neighborhood,” Tony says now. “There are a lot of old-school guys here, with roots going way back. Just because you’re Italian, that doesn’t mean you get a pass.”

But the chef’s idea was the right one, and Tony and his team had doggedly pursued that vision. “We always improve, we can always be better,” he told me. “That’s something I’m constantly telling my guys. We’re always tweaking things, fine-tuning things, making them even better.

“My first crew here was so ideal, in terms of making this place right for North Beach,” the restaurateur explains. “Those are some of the people who are still with me. It’s so important to a restaurant…and to a neighborhood.”

But Tony was restless, and now that his place was queuing up the crowds, it was time to move on to the next challenge: the Slice House. “Eight months after Tony’s opened, I knew that it was going to be a big thing,” he recalls. “So I ended up buying the deli, La Spiaggia, the old Palermo’s.

“I was close to them, they needed out, and I saw a way to bring something to Tony’s that we didn’t have,” he says. “Fast-casual, quick and easy, by the slice, subs. Everything that Tony’s wasn’t.”

And the addition couldn’t have gone over better: Tony’s Coal Fired Pizza & Slice House addressed every gripe one could possibly muster about Tony’s flagship space. “It’s too long of a wait…you don’t have slices…can’t I get something quick?” the chef relates. “So we added two more ovens, and filled that gap.”

Slice House was quickly overrun by locals and tourists alike, and within days the new spot was generating a pretty respectable line of its own. Today, the sunny parklet that sits out front on Stockton Street is typically packed with happy, pizza-devouring devotees.

And why wouldn’t it be? To this day, the Slice House has the only coal fire oven in Northern California; that’s because Tony knew that was the only way to turn out letter-perfect New York/New Haven-style pies. By paying homage to the coal fired ovens that originated in the Northeast a century ago–and teaching the craft to students at his International School of Pizza–Tony has helped to revive the coal fire pizzeria in the United States.

And though pizza is the star, Slice House doesn’t stop there, offering a full menu of toothsome Italian specialties. And true to form, Tony takes no shortcuts: the sausage is made in-house, and they even slow-roast their own Chicago Italian beef. That means a sausage-and-peppers sub you simply can’t get anywhere else, and a spot-on Italian beef sandwich–dipped in au jus, and just as wet as you like.

tonys-pizza-napoletana-outsideOf course, as you may have heard, the Slice House also bakes the most authentic New York-style pizza in San Francisco. Enormous slices cut from a 20” pie, they’re served up hot on a sheet of wax paper and a paper plate, just like in the Big Apple. Fuhgeddaboutit!

Anyway, it’s coming up on lunchtime here in North Beach…and I’ll bet you can guess where I’m headed. Meanwhile, I’ll see you back here in a couple of weeks, when we’ll talk about the third iteration of Tony’s vision: Capo’s Chicago Pizza.

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.

Respect The Craft: The Tony’s Pizza Story Begins
June 12, 2018

Respect The Craft: The Tony’s Pizza Story Begins

Tony Gemignani – America’s Pizzamaker

In 2007, Tony Gemignani pulled off the unlikely and impressive feat of winning the venerated World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy. Unlikely, because not only was Tony the first American to ever take home the Cup: he was actually the first non-Neapolitan to win. Believe it or not, the chef had to be escorted from the venue by Italian police, who thought he might be attacked.

Yes, for the Italians (especially for the Neapolitans), pizza is a serious business. And as people all over the world would soon find out, no one was more serious about pizza than Tony Gemignani.

The Seven Ovens Blog
Today marks the first day of the Seven Ovens blog, created to tell the stories of Tony Gemignani and his growing circle of restaurants, and document his rare passion for the craft of pizzamaking. From Tony’s upbringing on an apricot and cherry orchard in Fremont to what has become no less than a modern pizza movement, a lot has transpired. This blog was created to bring some of those great stories–and that unique flavor–to you, our fellow pizza lovers.

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
tonys-pizza-napoletanaOf Tony Gemignani’s twenty-one concepts around the country, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana was the first. Most people don’t realize that by 2007, when Tony won the Cup in Naples, he had already been making first-rate pies for seventeen years–at his brother Frank Jr.’s place, Pyzano’s in Castro Valley, California. But the Naples win had given the chef serious street cred in food circles–along with a brand-new Cirigliano Forni pizza oven that came with the prize. And as Tony soon discovered, due to a permitting snafu you can’t have a wood-burning pizza oven in Castro Valley. As a result, the World Pizza Champ suddenly found himself looking for a restaurant space.

As he relates the story, Tony was initially unsure of where to park the new venture. “Well, I was on the front page of the Chronicle,” he told me. “So I’ve got everybody calling me, mayors, city officials–they’re saying come here, you can open up here.” Jack London Square in Oakland was one possibility, another was Pleasanton–and then there was North Beach. But how to choose?

Cut to the Alameda County Fair in 2008, where Tony was putting on his signature show of pizzamaking, pizza-throwing and acrobatics, the gonzo act that had put him on the map back in Castro Valley. As fate would have it, the chef slated to follow him that day was none other than legendary food writer Grace Ann Walden, original creator of the iconic Inside Scoop column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

“I mean, I did a giant show,” Tony explained. “There’d be someone sautéing something, meanwhile I’m over here doing aerials, everything. So I’m wrapping up, and here’s this lady, Grace Ann Walden. She looked at me and said ‘I’ve got to go on after you!?’

Afterwards they got to talking, and the writer asked Tony where he was from. When he replied, she didn’t skip a beat. “When the hell are you gonna get out of Castro Valley, kid?” she asked. Tony’s answer: “I’m working on it.”

When Tony was in North Beach a few months later scouting for a spot, he happened to run in to Walden again. She told him she had the perfect spot: the old La Felce on the corner of Union and Stockton Streets. And as Tony recalls, she was pretty persuasive: “You’ve got to be here,” Walden told him. “It’s North Beach. An Italian-American kid should be here.”

But this was late 2008, and there was plenty of other available space in the neighborhood. But the spots that were open were either too big or too small; even the La Felce location was a little bigger than what Tony was looking for. And for whatever reason, everybody was telling him the space was cursed–nothing would work there. But Grace Ann’s admonition stayed with him. And when the time came to sign a lease, Tony hewed to her advice, and chose 1570 Stockton Street as the address for his first restaurant: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana.

From the outset, Tony had a clear idea of what he wanted to do with the space. He wanted to make pizza, every kind of pizza, and the very best possible. But from the very beginning, there were naysayers, from every branch of the species. What are you going to do, Italian?….Really, here in North Beach?….We’ve got a lot of pizzerias here….Why not something different?

But in the three months it took to build the place, the aspiring restaurateur got to see the good side of the neighborhood. “Everyone said ‘Welcome to the neighborhood.’ I’ll never forget it,” Tony says now, almost ten years later. “I came from a small suburb in Castro Valley. Nobody ever said ‘Welcome to the neighborhood.'”

This encouragement was critical–because there was a lot of work to be done. Tony was used to making great pizza, and making it exceptionally fast. But Tony’s Pizza would be a monster of a restaurant, with an encyclopedic menu of thirteen regional styles, seven different ovens and a full bar and wine list to boot. The plan was to offer several styles of authentic pizza, eventually launching styles like Detroit, St Louis, Grandma and Coal Fire. Tony had never done anything like this before; in truth, no one really had. So how did he do it?

“I hired the right team,” Tony says. “I knew I had to be dependent on neighborhood people, and if you look at my first crew at Tony’s, it was very neighborhood-centric.” Richie, Tony’s beloved mixologist, had held down the bar at Tosca for years; Robvell, still behind the bar at Tony’s today, had been first-string behind the bar at the now-defunct Rose Pistola for over a decade.

And for this project, they were going to need all hands on deck: much of what Tony was creating here, San Francisco had never seen. “We brought things to San Francisco that never existed before,” he says. “From the school downstairs, to the flour we use, Roman pizza, Chicago Italian beef–there was so much coming out of here.”

And for North Beach, a neighborhood that had long been identified with Italian food, the place was a godsend. Because for as many Italian eateries as the neighborhood boasted, there was something missing in the pizza category. And naysayers be damned, Tony was ready to fill that void.

The restaurant opened in early 2009, starting out Wednesday through Sunday, five days a week. “It was such a hard model, that we had to do 5 days, then close,” Tony told me. “There was no B team, it was always the same bunch, day and night.

“Opening up this concept was really hard, because nobody believed me,” Tony stressed. “Nobody.” Whenever he tried to explain his idea to friends and other restaurateurs, they invariably questioned it. Eight or nine different doughs? Thirteen styles? “‘Sounds like a hassle,’ they would always say.”

But working with his superlative opening crew, Tony made it happen. “Was it chaotic? Yeah. Did people try and copy it? All the time!” Tony smiles, remembering. “Did our garbage can explode outside because there was too much raw dough in there? Yes it did.”

Of course, as we now know, that garbage can wasn’t the only thing to explode. Tony’s concept flourished; the neighborhood embraced the place, and the city all but canonized it. Best of all, foodies from all over the country made it into a destination….and North Beach was on the food map, once again. Tony was already well on his way to being a celebrity. And nine years later, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana has come to represent the very best of its kind.

In our next outing, we’ll be exploring the story behind another one of North Beach’s busiest storefronts: Slice House By Tony Gemignani.

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.