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Edwin Huete’s Winding Path To Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
June 19, 2023

Edwin Huete’s Winding Path To Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

by Joe Bonadio

It has been nearly five years since we started the Seven Ovens blog, and in that  time I’ve had the chance to interview over a dozen of the major players on the Tony’s Pizza Napoletana staff. From bartenders to pizza makers, from servers to  managers and more, in these pages I’ve explored the stories behind some of the  most talented people working in the service industry today.

I really enjoy conducting these staff interviews, because they give readers a closer, more personal look at the work that underpins a category-defining  restaurant like Tony’s. The skill, the dedication, the sheer commitment of energy  is always inspiring to me, and that resonates with our readers. Perhaps best of all, in the process of writing these articles I’ve gotten to know the staff very well  indeed.

This time around, we’ll be talking to Tony’s Manager Edwin Huete. Part of the Tony’s managerial team since 2019, Edwin is one of the most familiar faces on the floor at Tony’s, and I’ve known him since his first days here. Suffice to say, this interview is a long time in coming. Edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: I’ve never asked you where you’re from.  

Edwin Huete: Nicaragua. I went through the revolution in Nicaragua fighting for the Sandinistas. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

JB: Sure.

EH: So I went to the fields, and started fighting [former Nicaraguan President Anastasio] Somoza. And I ended up in jail.

JB: How did that happen?

EH: After the end of the revolution, they kicked out the Somoza government. And I didn’t like the situation, what they were telling us. From what my boss was telling me, I wasn’t going to be happy with the country that we were becoming.

Everything changed. But not the way I expected. I grew up with my grandmother and grandfather, and they had a lot of money. A lot of property, like 400 acres, and a lot of livestock. When the Sandinistas won, they took all that my family  had. They thought it was connected to Somoza, that’s what they said.

And I was still in the military, working for the Sandinistas. I fought in the mountains for two and a half years—and that’s not what I fought for. So I left, and I started working with the organization that formed from the families that were unhappy with the situation—the Contras.

Edwin Huete in front of Tony's Pizza

Edwin Huete in front of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, his home of four years. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: How old were you when you started fighting for the Sandinistas?

EH: Sixteen years old.

JB: Wow. So did they put you in jail for working with the Contras? 

EH: Yes.

JB: You were a political prisoner.

EH: Yes. I was a political prisoner for seven years. The sentence was fourteen years, but they ended up counting the time night and day.

JB: Seven years of your life.

EH: I was 18 years old when I went in, and I was almost 26 when I got out. And after I was released, I found out that the Sandinistas were looking for me—to put me back in jail.

So I came to the United States.

JB: You didn’t really have a choice.

EH: Yeah. So I came up through Texas. They arrested me at the border, and they held me for 24 hours. They asked me “What do you have?” I had my letters, and I gave them to the officer. Big, tall guy, military guy. I said “Here are my papers,  and this is who I am.”

JB: Your papers showed that you were military, too.

EH: Right. So he asked me why I came to the United States. And I told him I was looking for protection, to get away from the Sandinistas.

He looked at my papers, and he said “Okay. Good.” And they gave me political asylum in the United States.

A fifteen-year-old Edwin

A fifteen-year-old Edwin at his grandparents’ home in Nicaragua. | Photo Courtesy of Edwin Huete

JB: That same day?

EH: The same day. They let me go, and said You can go wherever you want to go in the United States of America.

JB: That’s fantastic! That’s not usually how things go down. 

EH: At the border? Are you kidding me? [Laughter] 

JB: You must have done something really good in a past life. Okay, so now you’re in Texas. How did you get into the restaurant business?

EH: Well, first I came straight to San Francisco.

JB: Why San Francisco?

EH: Because the person who helped me to come to the U.S., I owed her $1,500. And she lived here. She was very close with my grandparents.

So when I got here, I went to the Social Security Department, and said I’m looking for a job. They said Yes, let me help you.

But you know, it was a difficult time to be speaking only Spanish. San Francisco is a beautiful city, the people are beautiful, just lovely people.

JB: But it’s difficult if you can’t speak the language.

EH: Correct. So I went down to the Social Security office at Mission and Cesar Chavez. I went in, and they said ‘We have a job right here. They need a dishwasher.” Down in Fisherman’s Wharf. I was like, What’s Fisherman’s Wharf? 

That was a TGI Friday’s. That was right when they opened, at the end of Powell Street. And I met a guy named Doug Blosser, the General Manager. American guy. He led me into the kitchen, and he did this [Makes dishwashing motions with his hands]. 

And I said, Okay. And I started working there from 7:30 AM to Midnight. I did it seven days a week for the first three weeks. And I loved it. The kitchen staff at that time was African Americans and whites, no Latinos. I was the only Latino.

$2.37 an hour. Damn good money! [Laughs]

JB: Want to hear something funny? My first job was dishwasher. I made $2.75!

EH: Wow, that’s a lot!

JB: So how long were you at Friday’s?

EH: I worked there for over a year and a half. But while I was there, the GM not only trained me, but he told me to bring in a second person. And one day a big tall guy came in, and I told him, I have a job for you. So now I’m recruiting. I taught him—and now we had two Latinos in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, the Director of Operations for TGI Friday’s was a woman named Maureen Tramontana. She had a sister named Susan who worked as a  bartender. These were the two people who helped me to grow in the business. They taught me so many things about the kitchen. Prepping, cooking, everything  you need to know in a restaurant.

Then one day, they were gone. When I got back home, I received a call from Maureen. I had a little more English at this point, and I asked her where she  went. She told me Red Robin. She asked me to meet her at a location over in  San Bruno: “I’ll see you there at 3:00 on Friday.”

And I said, Okay.

JB: And you followed her.

EH: Yes. I left TGI Friday’s, and I started working for her at Red Robin. And I was  there for over seventeen years.

JB: Seventeen years! What were you doing for them?

EH: I started cooking, and I learned all the basics, and all the things I didn’t already know. In a year and a half, I was Supervisor in the kitchen. Two years  later, I was Kitchen Manager.

JB: And these are very big restaurants. What, 200 seats?

EH: Yes, about 200. Pretty soon they put me to work on controlling costs, and fixing problems in the kitchen. The franchise owner had seven restaurants, and I would help the other locations sometimes.

One day, Red Robin International came in for an inspection. Out of hundreds of stores, I ended up earning the highest ratings in the company. I did that three years in a row. So when it came time for Red Robin to choose one restaurant as the training center for the company, they picked my location.

JB: That’s a game changer.

EH: Yes. They took good care of me—and I trained a lot of managers. Anywhere in the United States, I can find someone who used to work for me, someone that I trained.

So I learned a lot from them. But after seventeen years, the franchise sold. You know who bought it? Red Robin International—they bought it back. At that point, I was the Regional Kitchen Manager for fourteen restaurants.

Maureen Tramontano came to me then, and said Edwin, it’s time to go.

JB: Wow, she still had your back. So how did you finally end up with Tony?

EH: Well, at that time, I realized that I knew what I was doing. I was working for a few years at California Pizza Kitchen. I took a couple of months off, and found that I was starting to get bored doing nothing. So I put my resumé online, and I went down to see my mom in Nicaragua.

When I got back I checked my email, and I’ve got a bunch of responses. The first one is from a Buffalo Wings place. The second is from Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. And there was one from Buca di Beppo.

Now I’m coming from the world of wings and burgers, so I knew that would be an easy step. But I wanted to learn more about Italian food. I ended up interviewing at Buca Di Beppo, and they hired me. So I was off to San Mateo.

I learned a lot there. I learned how to make pizza, everything about the dough. I worked there for a year and half—and I loved it. But I wanted to do something better, and I was tired of living in San Mateo. I’d been in the Bay Area for 30 years! I needed to be in the city.

Edwin enjoying a moment at Tony's

Edwin enjoying a moment with the sailors at Tony’s during a recent Fleet Week celebration. | Photo Courtesy of Edwin Huete

JB: So that’s where Tony’s comes in.

EH: Yes. First I spoke with Bill (Ginsburg, VP of Operations at Slice House by Tony Gemignani). He brought me in to meet with Natale (Cardamone, Tony’s GM), and we spoke for 20 or 30 minutes.

Natale said “I’m looking for someone to help me keep this thing together.” He  told me he was brand-new, and that he liked that I had a lot of experience dealing with customers and fixing problems. He asked me lots of questions about my other positions, and told me they’d let me know the next day.

Before I left, I explained to him that Buca di Beppo was pushing me to stay, but that I really wanted something in the city. Finally, I told Natale I wanted a position that I could retire from.

He said, I think this is your position. Twelve hours later, he called me back and said “We’ll see you tomorrow.”

JB: So that was four and a half years ago. As someone who has been in the restaurant industry for a long time, let me ask you: What do you think makes Tony’s different?

EH: Well, I can answer this way. One of the things that made me decide to work here was Tony himself. I saw this guy in an apron with flour all over it, wearing  kitchen shoes. And I thought: you’re the owner?

Let me tell you something. A restaurant is a hard place to work, and when I see this guy working as hard as anybody, that’s all it took—that was the guy I  wanted to work for.

Cigars, Music & Glamour: A Holiday Event To Remember
November 24, 2021

Cigars, Music & Glamour: A Holiday Event To Remember

by Joe Bonadio

It seems like the holidays really crept up on us this year, and somehow Thanksgiving is almost here. For all the obvious reasons, this is going to be a particularly special holiday, and parties are already gearing up all over town. Naturally North Beach is no exception, and the folks over at San Francisco Italian Athletic Club (SFIAC) have got a doozy lined up for December 19th: the San Francisco Cigar Black and White Dinner Gala.

The holidays are all about tradition, and this event might be one of the most traditional of all. Harkening back to the days when going out and dressing up were synonymous, the evening is billed as “a throwback to the glamorous days gone by when men and women dressed to the nines and danced the night away.”

The event’s black-and-white theme calls for semi formal dress—and they’re pretty serious about it. Here are just a few pointers from the event’s guidelines for attire: “Men sport proper suits, dress shirts, straight or bow ties and black leather shoes. Women wear gowns, evening dresses, cocktail dresses or elegant separates….when in doubt, overdress. It is better to err on the side of formality.”

Jim Ervin and Pasquale Esposito

Jim Ervin and Pasquale Esposito share the stage for another sold-out performance.

It’s all in pursuit of classic, timeless elegance–and according to the event’s host, San Francisco Cigar Company‘s Jim Ervin, you shouldn’t get the wrong idea. “It’s supposed to be a fun night, and I don’t want people to feel like they’ve got to go out and buy new clothes,” he told me. “I think we all have something in the closet that will fit the color guidelines.”

Of course, San Franciscans are casual by default, and the last twenty months of Covid strangeness has only exacerbated this unfortunate tendency toward pajama-like attire. You might think this would be an obstacle to someone organizing an event like this one, but it doesn’t slow Ervin down a bit. “Sure, it’s a challenge,” he says. “But there are some people who just can’t wait to get dressed up.”

It promises to be a handsome crowd, and Jim has lined up some talent befitting the season. Recording star and Italian tenor Pasquale Esposito will be closing out his 2021 world tour at the event, performing his holiday show which is slated for broadcast locally on PBS. Pasquale will be singing more than a few of the Italian favorites he’s well known for—and if past events are any indication, the dance floor should be lively.

You might be saying, with a last name like Ervin, what’s Jim doing promoting this very Italian event? Well, Jim’s half Italian on his mother’s side; her maiden name was Lauferini. A Bay Area business owner for over three decades, he has been hosting regular events throughout the last year to support entertainers like Esposito, and get them back to work after the lockdown. Likewise, the events have helped to engage the local Italian fraternal clubs like Fratellanza and the SFIAC, which have been saddled with Covid restrictions.

PBS recording artist Pasquale

PBS recording artist and Italian tenor Pasquale Esposito performs at San Francisco Cigar Company’s Summer event.

Ervin’s events are typically closer to his shop in San Leandro, though; this will be the first his company has held at the SFIAC. The evening will serve to spotlight four companies, all of which will be in attendance: Community Bank of the Bay in Oakland, LaStrada Restaurant in San Pablo, Lyal Nickals Florist in San Leandro and the Tony Gemignani companies.

“I’ve been to the Italian Athletic Club many times for events over the years, and a lot of my friends are members,” he told me. “I’ve known Tony since Pyzano’s in Castro Valley, and like me, he’s a member of the Fratellanza Club. When I held an event two months ago, Tony asked me if I’d ever considered the SFIAC for an event.

“I said sure, I’d love to. I took a chance, because my crowd is in the East Bay—and you know how long that bridge is,” Ervin said. “The people at the SFIAC have been extremely kind. I’ve been working with Nico, who is in charge of events there, and he has been just great.”

Nicholas Figone, COO at the Italian Athletic Club, is eagerly looking forward to the event. “The SFIAC and North Beach at large are excited to welcome Pasquale Esposito back to perform at the club,” he told me. “We had him at the Festa Coloniale years ago as a headliner, and he brought the house down. But after his KQED fame and all the TV specials, we can’t afford him!”


For more information about Pasquale Esposito, click here. To inquire about tickets, email sales@SanFranciscoCigar.com, and you can learn more about Jim Ervin and the San Francisco Cigar Company here.

Piping Hot Praise: Wine Spectator Loves Tony’s
March 23, 2021

Piping Hot Praise: Wine Spectator Loves Tony’s

by Joe Bonadio

Although it seems like a lot of people out there are just now catching on to this, I’ve always felt wine and pizza are one of the most perfect combinations in the food world. Both essentially humble products, at their best they approach the sublime–and when you put them together, they’re a guaranteed party.

Of course, there have been pizzerias that pour serious wines for decades. The wine press typically points to Shelley Lindgren for starting the trend when she opened her Marina restaurant, A-16, back in 2004. More than a year before, however, I was already a regular at Mario Batali’s Otto in New York City, enjoying one of the most comprehensive Italian wine lists I’d ever seen, alongside a menu of griddled pizzas, dried pasta dishes and contorni. Ed LaDou at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago’s was turning out category-defying pizzas fully twenty years before that, and they were certainly no slouch in the wine department.

Jules Gregg in front of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, recently featured by Wine Spectator as one of 8 pizzerias with outstanding wine programs. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana has been on top of its wine game from its inception in 2009, and that work has borne serious fruit over recent years. Since shortly after the appointment of Jules Gregg as Wine Director, the restaurant has won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year–six years straight.

Wine Spectator likes us a lot, so much so that the publication recently featured Tony’s Pizza Napoletana as one of just eight distinguished pizzerias across the country. You can read their article “Eight Piping Hot Pizza-Places With Terrific Wine Lists” here.

I spoke with Jules about the honor, and she had this to say: “I was surprised and honored to be in the new Wine Spectator article. When we received our first award of excellence seven years ago, we were one of only three pizzerias in the country to get an award,” she explains. “One of the best parts is that two of my friends were also on that list of eight: Shelley from A-16 and Whitney Asher from Brava in the Berkshires.”

Jules was also kind enough to provide us with her wine pairings for five of Tony’s most popular items. Here are her recommendations:

Coccoli with Prosciutto and Burrata
Pinot Nero/Chardonnay, Rosé, Ferrari, Trento, NV $12/$36
A great sparkling Rosé from the north of Italy, made in the champagne method. Not a lot is better than fried dough and bubbles.

The meatball gigante at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, just as luscious as it looks. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Margherita Pizza
Nero d’Avola/Frappato, Planeta, Ceresuolo, Sicilia, 2017 $13/$52
This lighter red wine is full of delicate red fruit flavors with a bit of ‘funk’ from the terroir of Sicilia. Enough body to pair with other foods, but not so overpowering as to mask the delicious fresh taste of the Margherita.

Cal-Italia Pizza
Sangiovese/Merlot, Rosato, Fattoria Sardi, Toscana, 2019 $12/$48
100% organic grapes from Tuscany. A great Spring wine with enough acidity to cut through the cheese, but still pair beautifully with the fig and prosciutto.

Bucatini Pasta
Cab Sauv/Sangiovese/Merlot/Syrah, Gemignani, Napa Valley, 2018 $15/$60
This signature pasta pairs perfectly with Chef/Owner Tony Gemignani’s wine! The spicy sausage and creamy tomato sauce are great with this fruity blend, the syrah calming the spicy flavors. A delicious ‘Super Tuscan’ from our own backyard in Napa, well-balanced with medium tannins and bright red fruit.

Coal Fired New Yorker Pizza
Cesanese, Casale di Giglio, Lazio, 2016 $11/$44
Cesanese, my favorite red sauce pizza wine, goes perfectly with the New Yorker. Medium-bodied with spice and fruit that pairs well with meat dishes and tomato sauce, this traditional varietal from the region just south of Rome just screams pizza.

The takeaway? Next time you’re trying to decide on a pizza (or two) at Tony’s,
save a few minutes for the wine list, and make sure to ask for Julie. She’s
usually on the floor at least four days a week, and happy to pair wine to your
personal picks. Enjoy!

 

There’s more to come on the Seven Ovens Blog, so make sure to bookmark us, and don’t be a stranger. See you soon!

With Detroit-Style On The Rise, Pizza Hut Grabs A Slice: Tony’s Take On It
March 2, 2021

With Detroit-Style On The Rise, Pizza Hut Grabs A Slice: Tony’s Take On It

by Joe Bonadio

There are all kinds of pizza out there. As America’s favorite food, the wide range of products that are sold as “pizza” today is no less than astonishing. To begin with, the U.S. is home to approximately 78,000 pizzerias, or one for every 4,879 of us. And that’s leaving a lot of pizza unaccounted for.

Think of all the non-pizzeria restaurants that sell pizza. And don’t forget all of those convenience store slices Americans scarf down every day (anyone who has ever digested one certainly won’t). That’s without even getting into frozen pizza. But let’s do: a category unto itself, equally beloved and maligned, frozen pizza generated nearly 5 1/2 billion dollars in revenue last year. Americans eat 350 million tons of the stuff every year, some two billion slices.

It’s clear that pizza is more popular than ever, so it’s not surprising to hear restaurant sales have been strong during the pandemic. And restaurants sell a lot more pizza than supermarkets do: according to Restaurant Dive, Americans consumed over $46 billion worth of pizza from restaurants in 2020.

About half of the U.S. pizzeria market is controlled by the major chains, the other half by independent operators. And with billions on the line, it’s a bitterly contested market. Local operators often find themselves outgunned—or just bought out—in the face of the major chains’ sheer buying power. This dynamic has created a stark divide between pizza chains and independents, something akin to the animosity between indie labels and the majors.

And much like the music world, the ‘big guys’ have all the money—but their product isn’t always what it could be.

When you talk with a real independent pizza maker about companies like Domino’s, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut, you’ll typically get an earful–and Tony Gemignani is no exception to this rule. But unlike most pizzaioli out there, Tony has had close personal experience with the ‘big guys’: specifically Yum Brands, parent company of Pizza Hut, which has been making news in the pizza world just lately. I spoke with him about it this week, and our conversation is below.
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Tony - Detroit Style

When it comes to Detroit Style pizza, Tony Gemignani is a slave to the details.

Joe Bonadio: So the big story in the pizza world right now: Pizza Hut is doing Detroit.

Tony Gemignani: Yeah. Recently a lot of people have jumped on the Detroit bandwagon. We were the first to bring it to California, about 2011, 2012. And there are some concepts coming out of Detroit that are bigger, that are multiple units.

But it’s funny, the chains always copy what the independents have done. And when you see a Pizza Hut or Domino’s grab a style, you kind of cringe. You don’t want them to screw it up. For instance, there were a lot of pizza shows at one time, and of course there’s Pizza Expo, which is like the Super Bowl of pizza— it’s the show of shows.

When you talk to the guys that organize it, some would say: We don’t care about the other shows. If it’s a bad experience, and they never come back to another pizza show—that’s what bothers us.

JB: Because it hurts everybody.

TG: Yes. So as a consumer, if you try a Detroit Style at a chain and you don’t like it, you might never come back to it. Even if you see it on an independent pizzeria’s menu, you might shy away.

So….did they do it right? That’s the kind of thing you think about.

JB: So what’s the word?

TG: Well, there are independents out there who’ve tried it, and there are some guys who say it’s not that bad. But pizza, even when it’s not good it’s still pretty good, so….

JB: There’s a lot of negative feedback out there, too.

TG: There is.

JB: But for you, the pandemic played a big role in the explosion of Detroit style.

TG: Covid was good for Detroit. People were stuck at home, They wanted to try different things. They were looking at their Doordash menu, trying to find something new.

So suddenly a few people try Detroit, and it becomes their favorite. Then more people know about it, and though it initially wasn’t people’s first or second choice when they could choose from multiple styles, people were trying it—and liking it. And it got more and more popular.

It travels well. It’s delicious. And while you might be used to seeing Chicago or New York on the menu, Detroit wasn’t so familiar, unless you were into the pizza scene. So it was interesting to people. Ten years ago, hardly anyone outside of Detroit knew what this style was.

Meanwhile, pizza makers out in San Francisco have jumped on the style. They saw us get creative with it. I published what might have been the first Detroit-style recipe in an actual cookbook, in the Pizza Bible back in 2014. If you look at some of the recipes out there, even in San Francisco, they mirror what’s in that book: Cheddar around the edge. Brick cheese, which some might shy away from.

JB: And when Detroit style blew up, it forced a big change for your restaurants.

TG: We were so busy at Tony’s with to-go and delivery—and Detroit sales just skyrocketed. So in the middle of the pandemic, I moved it to Capo’s.

It needed a brick and mortar of its own, and I had to take some pressure off of Tony’s kitchen. Tony’s has all these styles, all these lines. It’s a juggling act, and we like to sell a lot of pizzas, of all kinds.

When things come back to normal, I don’t want to just sell 500 Detroits and 500 Neapolitans. Tony’s is about everything. And the Margherita and the New Yorker have always been #1, but too many of one style….

JB: It throws things out of balance.

TG: Yes. I already did pan pizza at Capo’s. Deep-Dish, and Cast-Iron. They go hand in hand with Detroit. If you’ve had the Deep-Dish and Cast-Iron at Capo’s, you’re going to love the Detroit even more.

Detroit Style Pizza

A proper Detroit Style pizza, in all its glory.

Now we offer maybe three times the number of Detroit combinations at Capo’s. Because the style deserves it. I was able to up it, and do a lot more with it. So yes, Covid has been very good for Detroit style. There have been stories in the national press about how the style rose during the pandemic, and we’ve been featured in a lot of them.

JB: So it was really 2019, 2020 when the style really began to come into its own?

TG: Well, it was already coming around. And after Shawn Randazzo—may he rest in peace—after he won, people looked at Detroit in a different way. I brought it in here just before he won, and there were a few places that had opened.

But in the last two or three years, Detroit really exploded. Shawn led the way, paying homage to places like Buddy’s and Cloverleaf.

JB: It’s in the freezer case now.

TG: Right, now you see it everywhere. Via 313, Blue Pan and Tony’s were all a big part of that. The Hunt brothers from Via 313 spoke highly about Shawn back then, and I flew out to Detroit with my wife Julie to meet him, and to research Detroit style. It was an amazing trip.

So sooner or later, one of the big four—a Papa John’s or a Pizza Hut—was going to jump on it. And they did. And when you talk about Yum Brands, I’m always interested when I hear from them.

They reached out to me in August of last year, their culinary innovation team. They were asking for a call to, quote: “connect and talk pizza expertise-building and innovation.”

So I got on a phone call with them, and we ended up talking about Grandma and Detroit styles. They asked me what was coming up right now, what was popular. When I brought up those styles, they said that was exactly what they were thinking about.

In our conversation, I generalized it. I said, okay: this is Pizza Hut. I have multiple stores, and even for me it’s hard to roll out new styles. I asked them, is it going to be the same dough you use in your pan pizza? Or are you going to do a whole new dough recipe? Is it a different sauce? Are you going to use the same ovens?

There’s a lot to it, and things you need to consider. And those were the questions they were already kind of thinking about. But we got into talking, and I shared my two cents with them, just like I do with industry folks all the time.

It was a lengthy call, maybe an hour. I should have charged them for the call, but at the same time, they were thinking about hiring me to start the R&D with their group, and we discussed that a little bit. But we never moved forward on it.

Tony Yum Email

The email that Tony received from Yum Brands’ culinary innovation team in August of 2020.

JB: It was also a hell of a time for them to be calling you. You were right in the middle of this pandemic––you had a lot going on.

TG: Well, they needed to change, they needed to innovate. And for all they knew, I could have been one of these operators who was losing all of his businesses. And if that’s the case, you’re going to pay attention to any opportunity.

Even though it’s like Big Brother calling you—I’ve got a mortgage to pay. I’ve got to do whatever I have to do.

In any case, on the call, I said as much as I would to anyone at the time. It wasn’t like I gave them recipes. We talked about cheese, and if they were going to bring something different in. They had different ovens in some locations, and that’s a lot to deal with. Also, I‘m not a big fan of conveyor ovens, and they are conveyor-centric.

But when I talked to them, I felt that they were in the very early stages. So they rolled it out pretty quick.

JB: When did it come out?

TG: Right after the first of the year, I believe. So it took them three of four months. They needed to do something, they said. What does that mean: Were they getting killed? Did Covid hurt them? I don’t know for sure. They needed to be a part of the trend.

JB: This isn’t the first time you’ve talked to the Yum Brands people, either.

TG: No, they called me years ago. I was on the ABC Master of Champions competition, and it was a rival pizza team against my new team, the World Pizza Champions.

It was team against team, and it was an acrobatic competition. We ended up winning, and the next day I got a call; it was from somebody representing Yum Brands. The guy congratulated me and my team for winning at the Master of Champions….and asked if we would like to be in a commercial for Pizza Hut.

Of course, this is a long time ago, and I’m thinking about my guys. 18-year-old Siler….we were all young then, and we could have used the money.

But I told the guy: You know, I don’t think we can just win as independent operators, and then be in a commercial for Pizza Hut. And he said, Would six figures change your mind? I told him it could change somebody’s mind, but it’s not going to change mine.

I had to get on a call with the guys afterwards, and tell them I turned down a Pizza Hut commercial. All the guys said “Yeah, fuck them! We’re not gonna do that!”

Then I told them, by the way….it was a hundred thousand dollars. Siler was like, Whaaat, Coach? (Laughs)

So they went to the second place team. I don’t even know if they got paid to be on it. I think the commercial ended up being terrible. I barely recall it now, but from what people told me, it was really bad.

JB: Now the obvious question: have you tried their Detroit yet?

TG: I haven’t, not yet. I’ve heard it’s okay. I’ve heard it’s really not bad.

I admit, I’m curious. Is it heavy? Does it digest well? Is it a sweet sauce? Are the corners right? Does it have a commercial flavor to it, or does it taste like real Detroit?

It’s funny, they came out with one that’s double pepperoni, thick and thin, and one cup-and-char. And we have a pizza, our Detroit Rosa, which has double pepperoni, cup-and-char. You don’t really see that, but they came out with it.

So as an independent operator, you see these guys coming out with a $10.99 pizza….when you are using authentic ingredients, or anything that’s better than the commercial products they could be using. And you think of what you’re paying for ingredients as an independent operator, versus what they pay as such a big buying group. You can’t compete against those deals.

JB: So I have to ask, are you going to try their Detroit?

TG: I won’t admit it, but I probably will. I can’t really see myself literally walking into a Pizza Hut, though. I’ll make Julie go.

JB: (Laughs) Yeah, I was thinking—how does this play out?!

TG: Yeah….Julie, don’t give them your last name!

 

Editor’s Note: While I also haven’t tried the P.H. iteration of Detroit Style (is there even a Pizza Hut in San Francisco?), a gander at the online reviews reveals many are pleasantly surprised. However, most of the reviews seem to boil down to “Not Bad For Pizza Hut.”

Love Us On Yelp: Some Of Tony’s Favorite Reviews
February 3, 2021

Love Us On Yelp: Some Of Tony’s Favorite Reviews

When it comes to restaurants, Yelp holds a unique position in the online marketplace. As most consumers’ first stop for food reviews, they have an undeniably powerful voice, and are searched literally millions of times every day. Despite (or perhaps because) of this, their relationship with restaurant owners is often a rocky one. But aside from a handful of cranky customers, Tony’s restaurants have always done well on Yelp, particularly Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. With 5,246 reviews to date, Tony Gemignani’s North Beach flagship has a solid 4-star rating.

We spend a lot of time reaching out to our fans on the platform, so we thought it would be fun to highlight a few of them–and of course, to show off the extremely nice things they say about us.

Mikey V. of Foster City, pizza fan and very emphatic guy, had this to say: “The best! I mean THE BEST PIZZA I HAVE EVER HAD in the U.S.” In fact, Mikey claims he would “drive miles and miles” for the Cal Italia.

Elite Reviewer Leslie W. hails from Castro Valley, CA, just like Tony, and is an avowed fan of our Coal-Fired New Yorker. “We ordered the New Yorker, which came with the ooey gooey mozzarella, ricotta, pepperoni, and sausage. You can tell a good bake if the toppings don’t slide off when you lift it up for a bite. The crust was cooked perfectly. Every bite I had reminded me of my favorite joint in NY.” (My guess: she’s talking about Lombardi’s.)

Review: Leslie W.

Yelper Leslie W. loves her Tony’s Pizza….and she is apparently not sharing.

San Franciscan Gabriela W., meanwhile, is beyond smitten with our gluten-free pie: “How is it possible that gluten-free pizza tastes this amazing? Tony’s has made my pizza dreams come true. Each time we order delivery, it’s a literal ******* feast in my mouth….I’ve had many GF pizzas before, but Tony’s beats them all.”

Though a man of few words, Gary R. of Hanford, CA, has evidently had his share of authentic Italian pizza, and was no less enthusiastic. “Best pizza outside of Italy. The coal-fired Margherita was just as good as pizzas I enjoyed in Naples.”

Review photo: Gary R

Tony’s award-winning Margherita pizza, which Yelper Gary R. calls the “Best pizza outside of Italy.”

It’s no secret that people come from far and wide to get their Tony’s on. K B. of Oregon City, OR, was especially impressed. “MEAT BALLS!!! Pizza!!! And friendly, accommodating staff….North Beach is ALIVE.”

Likewise Adrie H., who came all the way from Lehi, Utah. “Divine! My husband is kind of hard to please when it comes to any food, let alone pizza….I suggested we eat here (I ate here a few years ago with friends without him)…”BEST PIZZA HE’S EVER HAD!” We had the garlic bread with cheese, Margherita, New Yorker, and the Hot Tony, all delicious!”

Though not quite as faraway, Erica L. makes the pilgrimage from San Mateo as often as she can. “Best pizza ever! We live an hour and a half south but come up to the city regularly just for Tony’s! The New Yorker pizza is the pizza of my dreams.”

Zoey C. traveled from Roseville, just over a hundred miles as the crow flies, and found the trip was more than justified. “This was seriously the best pizza I’ve ever had. Had just a simple olive and mushroom pizza and it was delectable.”

San Francisco local Joe T. concurs. “Easily the best pizza in California and arguably the world….Our favorite pies are the New Yorker, Margherita, and the New Haven Lou. Special shout out to a manager there named Ro for her impeccable customer service.”

Of course, Yelp has more than its share of skeptics. But when people show up ready to be unimpressed, the people at Tony’s turn them around. Kelly M. of Los Angeles writes “When a place is an institution like Tony’s, it’s sometimes hard for the restaurant to match this reputation….the [Diavolo] pizza was fantastic. So good I want to order it tonight.”

Elite Reviewer Paul B. of Berkeley also came with preconceived ideas, and was pleasantly surprised. “I’m usually skeptical about trying famous/award winning places like this–normally, it’s a letdown. However, this place exceeded my cynical expectations.”

And what was Paul’s favorite? “Spaghetti and Meatballs: This was the BEST I’ve ever had. The homemade pasta was a perfect al dente, the meatballs were juicy and cooked perfectly….And the portion size was massive.”

Of course, there are lots of people out there who just can’t get to San Francisco, especially with travel being curtailed of late. But thanks to Goldbelly, you can have Tony’s Pizza Napoletana anytime, anywhere.

And according to the customers, the quality is there. Just listen to c k of Los Angeles: “This has got to be, no competition, the best reheated pie. Ever. Wait until the abundant cheese is bubbling and the pepperoni dancing and you’re there. Shockingly good. So, if you live within an hour drive, get your pizza here. If you don’t, get it shipped.”

———

Washington Square Park

When it comes to scenery, it’s hard to beat Washington Square Park, home to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

I spoke with Tony about Yelp last week, and not surprisingly, he had a lot to say on the subject.

Joe Bonadio: Clearly, you’ve got a lot of admirers on Yelp. But even with good reviews, some restaurants are ambivalent about the platform. What’s your take on it?

Tony Gemignani: Yes, we’ve got a lot of great reviews on Yelp. But there’s also a lot of bad stuff on there. When it comes to Yelp, everyone has a voice. But unfortunately, not every consumer understands what happens during the process.

A perfect example is a third party foul-up, which happens a lot—a LOT. From drivers mishandling the order, to not picking it up, to being late. Maybe a driver ends up leaving because it isn’t ready, when it would only be five more minutes–and another driver isn’t coming for 25 minutes.

There are a lot of things that happen like that, where we’re getting reviewed on things that are outside our control. We literally got a 1-star review because there was no parking in North Beach! That’s not our fault.

JB: Really, that review doesn’t even belong there.

TG: It doesn’t. Then you have to go to Yelp and try to get it taken off, and they may fluff it and take it off, or not.

There are a lot of things you’ll read on Yelp that can be misleading. It might be an angry neighborhooder that doesn’t want us here, or is mad because we’re busy. Or a restaurateur down the street who doesn’t like you. You’ve got to watch what you read.

It’s good and bad. A lot of owners and operators hate Yelp. But people go into a neighborhood, into a city, and their deciding factor on where to go is what place on Yelp has a four or a five star. And if you’re not in that category, then they might not come to you.

That can get to some owners and operators. And we take it personally. If you’re in operations every day like I am, when you see something negative about your place, it bothers you.

This is a good example: I always tell my employees that the Margherita isn’t for everyone. It’s the pizza that’s at the top of the menu, it’s the Gold Medal winner, it’s won everything. It’s the best pizza in the world–but that doesn’t mean that everyone will like it.

Neapolitan pizza is 90 seconds in the oven: it’s charred, chewy, wet. It’s soft, it’s pillow like. It’s not crispy. So make sure you understand your customer, what they want.

What kind of pizza do you like, do you like it crispy and thin? Yeah! Well, that’s not Neapolitan.

JB: And of course, in your case people often come looking specifically for that Margherita.

TG: Yeah, and sometimes they think it’s the pizza that they’re going to fall in love with, but it isn’t. So, sometimes we sell the wrong pizza to a customer. We have so many varieties here, it’s not just one style. There are so many different styles.

Sometimes you’ll hear somebody talking bad about the Margherita: It’s soft, and too wet….I don’t get it. And right next to him there’s another guy saying: This is the best pizza in the world, every bite made me feel like I was in Naples! Perfect!

There have been a lot of gracious Yelpers out there, from other cities and countries and our own neighborhood, who have said some amazing things about us. And we appreciate it, and we love them for it.

JB: Have the pandemic restrictions had an impact on your reviews?

Well, we’re constantly trying to deal with Covid, and there is so much protocol that people don’t even know about. From not being able to give tableware away, plastic forks and knives, to the Health Department telling us we can’t give out a napkin.

We have to tell our customers: You have to go home now. You can’t eat it here. And it looks like we’re the mean ones, rather than the city and state, the ones that mandated it. We’re getting Yelped about those kinds of things, which are totally beyond our control.

It kills us to see that. If I make a bad pizza, then sure, we screwed up. If an order was really late, or some other problem: hopefully we comped it, or we got you the next time.

But when it has to do with rules that are entirely outside your control, and you’re getting Yelped about it, and being called a piece of shit because you’re so mean, or you’re racist, or whatever….it can be a lot.

People don’t know what our staff is going through here as we try to keep things going. The Yelpers now compared to pre-Covid are a little bit different, but all we want is for people to be generally correct, and to be fair.

JB: Despite all that, you’ve got a very solid rating and well over 5,000 reviews, and few people can say that.

TG: Yes. But it’s a busy time, and it’s crazy and hectic. Everything is to-go, and everyone is eating at the same time. It’s an hour wait, and an hour-and-a-half, and it’s going to take a little bit of time.

There is so much going on, and so many things being packaged, not just plated. And making sure everything is tight and sealed, and putting the sticker on the box—so many things that people don’t realize.

Just being able to have jobs for our employees right now is a grind. Trying to figure out how to schedule this guy so he gets two days, and this person wants these hours….I’ve had more people come to me for jobs. And I’m not hiring right now, I don’t have anything.

 

Outdoor dining is back in San Francisco! For the most part, all of the items mentioned above are available for outdoor dining, takeout and delivery, seven days a week. So while we’re all waiting for things to get fully back to normal, you know what to do–and your business is appreciated.

“Yelp can be your best, worst thing.”
–Tony Gemignani

Tony’s Trending Recipe: Asparagus Pizza
July 31, 2019

Tony’s Trending Recipe: Asparagus Pizza

It’s just about that time of year for Asparagus. I have made this recipe using all types of asparagus such as white, pencil, purple passion, Mary Washington’s and Jersey types. This is one of my favorite pizzas and I’ve used it in competition. It’s super delicious. Enjoy.

Author: Pizza Today
Recipe type: pizza

Ingredients

  • 1 9- to 13-ounce dough ball
  • 7 ounces whole milk shredded mozzarella
  • 6 asparagus (trimmed to 5½ inches, blanched then sautéed in olive oil, salt & black pepper
  • 6 5-ounce slices smoked pancetta
  • Pinch crushed red pepper
  • ½ 1-ounce graded Asiago cheese
  • Lemon wedge

Instructions

  1. Preparing your asparagus, blanch asparagus. You want to make sure your asparagus is still firm so do not blanch too long. Depending on how thick the asparagus is will determine the length of time to blanch.
  2. Transfer your asparagus into an olive oiled sauté pan on medium heat.
  3. Sauté asparagus for 2 minutes and season with sea salt and pepper.
  4. Let cool and set aside.
  5. Once cooled wrap each asparagus with pancetta.
  6. Shape and stretch your dough into a 12-inch circle.
  7. Evenly place your mozzarella over your pizza leaving a ¼-inch border.
  8. Place your pancetta wrapped asparagus in a star pattern.
  9. Carefully place your pizza in the oven.
  10. Carefully take your pizza out of the oven when ready.
  11. Cut into six slices in between each asparagus.
  12. Top your pizza with a drizzle of olive oil, grated Asiago, crushed red pepper and a squeeze of lemon.
  13. Serve.

RESPECTING THE CRAFT features World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Pizza Rock in Sacramento.  Tony compiles the column with the help of his trusty assistants, Laura Meyer and Thiago Vasconcelos. If you have questions on any kitchen topic ranging from prep to finish, Tony’s your guy. Send questions via Twitter @PizzaToday, Facebook (search: Pizza Today) or e-mail jwhite@pizzatoday.com and we’ll pass the best ones on to Tony.

Treat your taste buds to an award-winning pizza with Port reduction
June 7, 2019

Treat your taste buds to an award-winning pizza with Port reduction

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — Bay Area diners will be able to try a new award-winning pizza from San Francisco’s top pizzaiolo.

Tony Gemignani, founder of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, will start featuring the pizza that won the Port Category at the first-ever Antonio Mezzero All-Stars Pizza Championship in Porto, Portugal……

Click here to read full article

8 Best Restaurants in San Francisco’s North Beach
June 7, 2019

8 Best Restaurants in San Francisco’s North Beach

North Beach draws people from near and afar and its dining scene can dazzle if you know the right places to go.

Pizza pro Tony Gemignani slings excellent pies here. Given the name, it would be understandable to assume Tony’s mainly does the Neapolitan-style pizza here (he does and they are incredible) but there’s a much bigger variety on offer, such as Roman, Sicilian, New York, Californian, Detroit, St. Louis, and others. It’s a serious study in regional pizza varieties…..

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From New York to Neapolitan, Pizza Rock serves world-class pies
June 7, 2019

From New York to Neapolitan, Pizza Rock serves world-class pies

The scene: Pizza is one of America’s favorite comfort foods, and there are thousands of pizzerias, good and bad, dotting the nation’s cities and highways. Great American Bites has been to a lot of the most famous and highly rated pizzerias from coast to coast, but I have proclaimed one single San Francisco establishment, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, to be the nation’s best pizzeria.

Tony Gemignani was the first American to win the title of world champion pizza maker at the World Pizza Cup in Naples, but he goes way beyond traditional Neapolitan pizza and creates delicious versions of the most popular global styles, all under one roof. His temple to pizza-making has seven different ovens – including coal, wood, gas and electric, at temperatures from 550 to 1,000 degrees – all so he can turn out authentic versions of nine distinctly different regional pizza styles…..

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