May 20, 2019

Foraging For Inspiration: Tony Heads To Italy

by Joe Bonadio

Among all international destinations, Italy holds a unique and enduring charm for Americans. It stands to reason: according to the latest census, nearly sixteen million people in the U.S. identify as Italian-American. And alongside Mexican and Chinese food, Italian has long been one of America’s favorite ethnic cuisines. It doesn’t hurt that Hollywood has always portrayed the nation as a place of mystique and allure, a Mediterranean paradise trapped in amber.

Tony Gemignani is not immune to Italy’s charm, and over the years, he’s had plenty of chances to visit. Since his first trip to the old country in 2000, Tony has been back 30 times, and he recently traveled there with his team for a lengthy stay. Upon Tony’s return to San Francisco, he sat down with me for the below interview.

Joe Bonadio: So Tony, tell me about your trip.

Tony Gemignani: Every time I go to Italy to compete, I bring a team. It can be three people, all the way up to twenty-two. I’ve been going there for twenty years now to compete. I always try to make it educational, and each year it’s gotten more that way. If you follow us on Facebook or Instagram, it’s insane.

JB: What were some of the highlights?

Well, we flew into Rome, and we hit a couple of different pizzerias there. We went to Gabriele Bonci’s place, he’s a famous pizzaiolo who makes Roman-style pizza.

My favorite spot is Forno Campo de’ Fiori. It’s a very famous pizzeria, and I actually ended up working in the kitchen! The owner couldn’t believe I was there with my team. He was really excited–and I got to make pizzas in the Campo de’ Fiori, which is crazy! They make Roman- style pizzas that are longer than anything you’ve ever seen. Twelve feet long, maybe more. Giant, high-hydrated doughs.

Tony Gemignani and wife Julie with Sergio Dondoli at Gelateria Dondoli.

JB: Did you spend a lot of time in Rome?

We were in Rome for a few days, working our way down. We hit a few great spots there, and one of my favorites was [Gelateria] Dondoli. Sergio Dondoli is a world-champion gelato maker in San Gimignano, in Tuscany.

San Gimignano is just amazing, I have family that lives near there. And I’ve always wanted to learn how to make gelato from this guy. So we ended up having a twenty-person gelato course–and Dondoli isn’t your typical ice cream man. He has his own cows, and uses unpasteurized milk. He had us all try the milk, so we could taste the difference between that and the pasteurized stuff.

He literally has names for his cows, and knows them all. His mint is not super green–it’s the color of mint. His strawberry isn’t fluorescent, it’s the color of strawberries. And his gelato isn’t aerated–a lot of times they pump it full of air to increase the volume. He doesn’t do that.

It’s just amazing, the best gelato you’ll ever have. Organic, simple and pure. To give you some idea, there were probably fifty people in line when we were there.

Another day in San Gimignano, we went truffle hunting at Savini. We met the truffle hunters and the dogs, they had two dogs. You know, they used to go out with pigs, but the pigs would eat the truffles too quickly. They weren’t as smart as the dogs. So they trained the dogs, and the moment they unearth a truffle, the hunters are there to give them a truffle-flavored dog biscuit.

JB: That sounds like an incredible experience.

Yeah, going through the forest with Savini and a couple of truffle hunters, foraging for truffle– that was pretty amazing. We found five. Not giant ones; they were almost golf ball-sized. Their smell is just indescribable. Afterwards, we had a seven-course truffle lunch in Tuscany, all the truffle you could possibly eat. Unreal.

It was the first time I’ve ever done it. Interestingly, I found out that if you have a truffle hunting license in Italy, you can go on almost anyone’s land to hunt for truffles. They can’t kick you off their land! Bring a trained truffle-hunting dog, and go out and try to make a few hundred dollars on a Sunday–and no one can do anything about it! It’s like $200 to get a license, just like that.

So, meeting Savini and the family, talking to them–I knew them a little bit, but I’d never been on their land. And I was just blown away by what they do.

Tony shows off the biggest truffle of the day at Savini.
The truffle hunting dogs of San Gimignano hard at work.
Digging for truffles with the Savinis.
Tony savors the aroma of a freshly turned truffle in the field at Savini.
Truffle hunting dogs are trained to not eat the truffles, unlike pigs, which were known to do just that.
Team Gemignani and the Savini truffle hunters pose in the forests of San Gimignano.
Julie digs in to her pasta with shaved truffles in Tuscany.

JB: And I understand you brought a few things home with you.

Yes. So, coming up on the menu at Tony’s and a couple of my other restaurants, you’ll see the white truffle oil, and a truffle honey from Savini. I have a new pasta that will have Savini white truffle oil, and a new tartufo crostini with goat cheese, truffle honey, wild mushrooms and arugula. I’ll also be doing a meatball gigante with alfredo, caramelized onions, truffle oil and maldon salt. All of those are going to be amazing.

Tony and Laura Meyer with Dario Cecchini at Antica Macelleria Cecchini.

Also, I’ll be bringing in some of the Savini oils and spreads to sell at Giovanni’s. So that’s really exciting. I’ve already got the importer and distributor set up, and pretty soon all the white truffle products that I use at my restaurants will be from Savini.

We also made our way down to Dario Cecchini’s place [Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano]. Cecchini is known as one of the best butchers in the world, and he’s obviously famous in Italy. So we’re looking for this place, and we come around the corner, and there are people standing around drinking wine, and eating lard on bread, and there’s this giant bull’s head on the wall. And the smell of meat is in the air!

Generous cuts of Dario Cecchini’s legendary beef.

It’s crazy. This meal was like a seven-course meat lunch, probably two and a half hours…it was just endless. But I specifically went there for two things: for a Chianti salt that Cecchini makes, Profumo del Chianti, which I’m going to be selling at Giovanni’s. That, and his lardo, which he whips in a Chianti butter. It’s like a lardo spread. More of a whipped lardo, like a manteca, soft and blended with salt. It looks like a buttery, creamy schmear, and the stuff is absolutely delicious.

And the menu itself: Chianti Crudo. Carpaccio di Culo. Costata Fiorentina. Everything was steak, steak, steak, steak, steak. Crazy. At the end, there was a guy who accidentally stuck his spoon in the lard. He thought it was gelato!

You didn’t want to eat meat for another five days, but it was great.

JB: Sign me up! (laughter)

After that, we went to Parma, also in Tuscany, which is such a legendary place for Italian foods. The prosciutto di Parma, the parmigiano reggiano, the lambrusco. We went on a prosciutto tour at Fontana, the producers of the prosciutto that I serve in all my restaurants. This is the second time I’ve been to their factory, and I watched my prosciutto being made. Mine is a prosciutto di Parma, and it’s aged up to two years.

Tony beams like a kid among the endless wheels of Reggiano Parmigiano.

In Reggio Emilia, also in Tuscany, we saw how Parmigiano Reggiano is made. My parmigiano is always aged twenty-four months. It’s not young, and it’s not super old, but it’s great–I love it.

Meanwhile, I’m there and I know I’m competing soon. So I’m picking up things on the way, and looking at different ingredients. I’m always looking for things to bring back to my menus, and looking in the grocery stores, and trying out the different cheeses. I’m going to the salumerias, looking for the culatello that doesn’t exist in the United States.

Just being exposed to different things, it gets you excited again. It makes you feel like, OK, what do I do now?

It’s that opportunity to find that small, independent producer. In Italy, when you meet manufacturers, whether it’s a flour miller, a tomato company or anything else, you always meet the owners. I know the owner of Caputo, Antimo Caputo, and the owner of Le 5 Stagioni, Ricardo Agugiaro.

Now, do I know the owner of General Mills, or Pillsbury?  No. I know the owners of the company that makes my flour, Nicky Giusto and the Giustos, because we came together.

But when you go to Italy, and you meet with Savini, you meet the Savinis. And they’re so happy that you’re using their product, so proud of their product, that they’re there to meet you. It’s not like that in the U.S.

Here, you meet the owner of a restaurant maybe, and hopefully that owner is the chef. But when you meet with manufacturers here, it almost gets too big, and you’re just a number.

Now, some of the American products we use like Stanislaus, and Fontanini at the time,* you knew those guys. The Italian people that came here and started their companies, and became giant–you still knew them by name. They did it the European way, and Stanislaus still does.

I could pick up my phone and call Antimo Caputo in Naples, and say, ‘You know, the flour is not right.’ He would actually answer the phone. Imagine if I called Tyson Wings, or Hershey’s Chocolate, and tried to talk to the owner? They’d say ‘Who the fuck are you?’  (laughter)

Sure, these are big companies, but Caputo and Le 5 Stagioni, they’re big companies too. But they always have time to talk to you. The Italian way of working is very proud. It doesn’t matter how big they are, they’ll still talk to you. It’s very much like that–with almost everybody.

*Fontanini was purchased by Hormel in 2017.