May 13, 2021

From Slur To Success Story: Toscano Brothers Bakery & Dago Bagel

by Joe Bonadio

As the Italianate center of San Francisco, North Beach has a lot of the things that one might expect: within just a few blocks, you can find world-class pizza, authentic pasta, and Italian seafood that’ll put you over the moon. We’ve also got a couple of the best Italian pastry bakeries in the city, Victoria Pastry and Stella Bakery. But with the notable exception of Liguria Bakery, the century-old focaccia maker on the corner of Filbert and Stockton, for some years North Beach has lacked a proper breadmaker.

Ever since the demise of the beloved, 98-year-old Italian-French Bakery back in 2015, this absence has been a thorn in the side of carb-loving locals. So it is with no lack of enthusiasm that we announce the birth of Toscano Brothers Bakery and its salty sibling, Dago Bagel.

Dago Bagels in the window

The enticing view through the display window at Toscano Brothers/Dago Bagel. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

After nearly two years of work, Tony Gemignani finally opened his creation on Vallejo Street last Saturday, where his staff was greeted with blocks-long lines. Thanks to coverage from NBC, the Chronicle and others, the project was in the news all weekend, and San Franciscans were obviously eager for a taste–and on Day One, Tony was sold out in about 90 minutes.

I expect these people will be back, as I’ve sampled the goods–and no one’s expectations were higher than mine. Tony is baking naturally leavened sourdough bread first off, initially in three varieties: he’s got a Baguette, an Italian Country “Ace Pagnotta” with rosemary and black olive, and what might be my favorite, a Sour Cherry Chocolate loaf.

There’s a saying in the baking world: there are pizza people, and then there are bread people. They are simply different disciplines, and while many do both, it seems there are precious few who do both very well.

That being said, there aren’t a lot of practitioners out there who know dough the way Tony Gemignani does. Renowned for using only the finest artisanal flours, he spent three years developing his own version with Nicky and Keith Giusto at Central Milling (whom Tony calls “geniuses”). This resulted in his Tony Gemignani California Artisan Type 00 Pizza Flour, a versatile flour that has proven popular with both home chefs and professionals. In order to produce his wildly varied lineup of pizza styles, Tony also makes multiple different doughs for his pizzas, many of which ferment for days to achieve the proper result.

Sourdough loaves at Toscano Brothers

The sourdough loaves at Toscano Brothers Bakery/Dago Bagel in San Francisco’s North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

You can say the same thing for ovens: Tony has been touted for having seven (now eight!) different ovens at his North Beach flagship, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, and he didn’t take any shortcuts at Toscano Brothers either. The centerpiece of the operation is a brand-new Italian Cuppone oven, the first of its kind to be shipped to the United States. A fancy piece of cutting-edge kitchen tech, it’s also temperamental, and Tony has spent months tweaking the steam injectors, a unique feature that adds a shine to the finished loaves.

In short, Tony has taken the same obsessive attention to detail that makes his pizzeria so good, and applied it to his bread and bagel-making processes. The fresh rosemary for Toscano Brothers’ Ace Pagnotta is grown in the space behind the bakery, and the spelt that Tony mixes into the dough is milled right behind the counter. Likewise, in the Sour Cherry Chocolate loaf, the “cherry water” that the cherries soak in is used in the bake itself, merging with the dark sourdough perfectly. It’s the little things.

Tony mills his own spelt daily

Not your average bakery: For his olive loaf, Tony mills his own spelt daily. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

(When I visited the bakery a few days before they opened to the public, Tony showed me the starter they’re using for the baguette, which comes from Napa-grown grapes, and is over 35 years old. It’s aroma reminded me of the whiff you get from the head of a freshly poured IPA.)

And with the help of fellow pizza champion Adam Sachs, Tony has taken on another East Coast monolith: the bagel. West Coast bagels have been the talk of the town in the Bay Area recently, with no less of an authority than the New York Times declaring “the best bagels are in California” in a headline last month (and no, I’m not making that up).

Having lived on the East Coast for half my life, including nearly eight years spent in Lower Manhattan, I’d like to think I know my bagels. And these are the real thing: naturally leavened, boiled, then baked, they’re on the smaller side, and nicely dense and chewy. They remind me of the vaunted Murray’s Bagels in Greenwich Village. (Of course, the comparison won’t be complete until I have one of these loaded with cream cheese, lox and onion.)

But what of the name? Dago Bagel is admittedly pretty confrontational, especially for a neighborhood bakery in an Italian-inflected neighborhood. Once you hear the story behind it though, it’s nothing less than perfect.

Sour Cherry Chocolate loaves

Tony shows off his Sour Cherry Chocolate loaves in front of Toscano Brothers’ new Cuppone oven. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Several months back, Tony told me about a problem he was having with a couple of older guys in the neighborhood who were harassing his staff, and causing problems for the restaurant. On a number of occasions, they had confronted him on the street. At first, one of them absurdly accused Tony of “killing people” because his pizzeria was open and serving the community during the pandemic.

On the next occasion, the second guy took it to another level. Sticking his finger in Tony’s face, he hissed “You f*cking wops and dagos are all alike. You’re good for nothing. I’ll kick your ass around the corner.”

Whatever his problem was, the guy was seemingly trying to provoke him. Thankfully, Tony didn’t rise to the bait on either occasion, but to say he was upset is an understatement. To find yourself on the receiving end of this sort of anti-Italian racism–and in the middle of historically Italian North Beach! It was completely unexpected, not to mention outrageous.

But what’s even more remarkable is what Tony did next.

In a moment of inspiration, Tony decided his new bagel shop would be called Dago Bagel. With that, Tony took that old man’s sour lemons, and made the best damn batch of lemonade you’ve ever had.

Long lines outside since opening day

Toscano Brothers/Dago Bagel has been drawing long lines since opening day. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

While there was some concern over how the name would go over with the public, the response from all quarters has been overwhelmingly positive. Tony was even interviewed this week by a Berkeley author who is writing about contemporary experiences with racism. Happily, though some a few might find it off-putting at first, most people seem to get the point. And in case anyone is still unsure, all bagel proceeds go to the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club Foundation to help celebrate Italian culture in the community.

There’s more to come, too. In June, Tony is set to unveil Antonio’s, the pastry arm of his new enterprise, which may just put a little fire under neighborhood stalwarts Stella, Victoria and Mara’s. I’m psyched to see what he comes up with in this category–and North Beach has a notorious sweet tooth, so I foresee no shortage of interest.

Meanwhile, Tony will also be consolidating all dough production for Capo’s and Tony’s Pizza Napoletana–plus nine Bay Area ghost kitchens–at the bakery. This is a huge plus, opening up space that will make life easier for his staff as San Francisco moves toward full-capacity indoor dining.

Tony Gemignani in front of his new bakery

Tony Gemignani in front of his new bakery, Toscano Brothers/Dago Bagel, which took over two years to come to fruition. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

“For me, I’m worried about when things come back to normal. How are we going to handle the volume?” Tony says. “I don’t know if that many operators are thinking about that. What happens when we’re back to normal, and with the new outdoor capacity, everyone’s got 70% more seating?”

“Without this facility, we would never have been able to do it,” he says. “And we’ve already had a lot of local restaurateurs reach out to us about buying our bread, so that’s great.”

Tony still has plenty of surprises to come, and here’s just one: fresh-made French Bread Pizzas. “Pepperoni and cheese, really simple,” Tony says with a smile. “it’s the kind of thing that brings you back to when you were a kid.”

Toscano Brothers Bakery / Dago Bagel
728 Vallejo Street • North Beach
San Francisco, CA 94133

Open Thursday-Sunday
8:00 AM – 3:00 PM or until sold out