September 6, 2022

Pizzeria Of The Year: Tony’s Nabs Top Industry Honor

by Joe Bonadio

It has been thirteen years since Tony Gemignani and his crew opened Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, choosing a quaint North Beach corner as the launchpad for what would one day become one of the country’s most celebrated pizzerias. Like most successful enterprises, Tony’s first restaurant started with a solid and ambitious concept: the lofty goal was to offer all the major pizza styles under one roof, at the highest level of quality and craft.

It had never been done, at least not the way Tony wanted to do it—and the chef would endure more than his share of naysayers. At the time it seemed like everyone had a different reason his idea wouldn’t work. Another pizzeria in North Beach? Aren’t there enough of them already? And why so many styles?

Tony knew exactly what he wanted to do, and he knew that it would work. But other than Julie, his then wife-to-be, nobody else seemed to get it.

It took years of very hard work to make it happen, but Tony stuck to his plan. And in time his vision was realized: naysayers be damned, the recognition gradually came. Over the years, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana has received a raft of accolades, and it’s now acknowledged as one of the premier pizzerias in America, and a bonafide San Francisco institution.

Tony and son Gino pose with a copy of the Pizza Today issue

Tony and son Gino pose with a copy of the Pizza Today issue naming Tony’s Pizza Napoletana as Pizzeria of the Year. | Photo Courtesy of Tony Gemignani

Earlier this month, Tony’s received what might be its most prestigious honor yet: it was named Pizzeria of the Year by Pizza Today Magazine. This week I sat down with Tony to talk about the honor, his singular restaurant, and the challenges of navigating a changing business. Edited for clarity and length, our conversation is below.

JB: I just read about the Pizzeria of the Year award you received from Pizza Today. What does that recognition mean to you coming from such a respected industry magazine?

TG: You know, it’s bigger than James Beard for our industry. And not just to be on the cover, which was one dream of mine. I was on the cover back in 2005 with my team, when we brought back the World Pizza Games.

But a solo cover….when you’re seventeen years old and getting into the pizza business, and there’s no internet, you had a trade magazine that got delivered once a month. It was Pizza Today magazine, and that was it.

So you’d go to Pizza Expo, and you’d read the magazine twelve times a year, from top to bottom.

So for me as a kid getting into the business thirty years ago, it was my dream to be on the cover. That was the holy grail. And to not only be on the cover, but hey, maybe one day we could be Pizzeria of the Year.

Once a year you’d read about it and say, Damn, this place is busy. And when I opened up Tony’s, I thought we could get it. It was something I wanted.

I wanted this to be a West Coast institution. Back in the day I would say “you’ve got Lombardi’s and Pepe’s on the East, you’ve got Tony’s on the West.” Multiple ovens, multiple styles, nothing else like it.

I strived to be known as the best pizzeria in the U.S., the best pizzeria in the world. With USA Today, we got that one, finally we got the recognition. I might not get that recognition from the Chronicle, my hometown newspaper, but we do get nationwide, and worldwide recognition.

So for us to land atop those lists, it’s something I strive for. Can San Francisco say it has better pizza than New York? Can we say that once? And when we finally do, wouldn’t you think the Chronicle would write about it, just give us our due? That always kind of bothered me.

But you’ve got to remember, they’re always going to want to write about the new places. You’ll see lists with some of the older restaurants, but it’s hard to stay relevant after 13 years. To still be on those lists is important. For us to always at least be mentioned, it’s cool. Because people are tired of writing about the same old shit, and I get that.

But it’s a good story! It started in 2019, when I had a huge year, and bought my partner out. To do that, I took out the biggest loan in my life. I’m ready to go, I’m on my own….then Covid hit. A few weeks later.

We were ready to hit a huge milestone in sales, then everything tanked. But we turned it around, and 2021 was a good year. So at the time, I was thinking about calling Pizza Today magazine to ask if they were doing their Top 100 list. So I called Pete Lachapelle, who was the head of the magazine at the time.

I remember standing outside the bakery, and telling him we were having a great year, that we were back. And he said “Hey buddy, we’re not doing the Top 100 anymore. No more travel.”

So I kind of forgot about it. Meanwhile 2021 was my biggest year ever. We made a big comeback. I invested a ton of money in Tony’s. I rolled the  dice. I moved my dough operations to the bakery, I bought new ovens, put  in new sauté lines, and increased my capacity overall. Built the parklet of course, and changed the bar around. New floors, furniture, everything.

Tony at Toscana Brothers Bakery

By moving dough production to his Toscana Brothers Bakery, Tony was able to multiply his capacity at both Capo’s and Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Anticipating a big increase once things fully came back.

TG: Anticipating that when it does come back, it’s going to be crazy—and how the hell are we going to be able to handle it?

And it was always If. If it comes back. Will it? Will it be the Roaring Twenties? Will it ever come all the way back? We didn’t know what was going to happen, and we had those conversations every day.

So as an owner, you’ve got a savings account, and you’re looking at the future—what do you do? Do you deplete the savings account and go for it, or do you say, I’m going to play defense?

So I rolled the dice and said, Let’s do it. I told Natale, we need to get started on this. We’re going to take out the gas ovens, put PizzaMasters in. Expand the operation. We have to make it faster, we have to make it better. We need more racks for dough. We’re going to move the dough to the bakery.

And we’re going to make our own bread. We needed to make triple the amount of bread that we pulled off at Tony’s! We could never have done it otherwise.

JB: Opening the bakery was the key.

TG: It was a giant part of it. With all that said, in 2021, when we hit July and August, it was like: holy shit, this is busy. Then when we got into 2022, there was no more lockdown, and no news scaring people away. And that’s when we started hitting just crazy numbers.

Now it’s just a matter of having enough staff to support it. It’s balls to the  wall, just totally insane. Every day, you’re exhausted.

So in May when I was recovering from surgery, I was in bed and in a lot of  pain. And I started thinking I should write to Jeremy, the editor at Pizza Today, and tell him this story.

Now I don’t ask for anything. But I told Julie that I was going to write him. And I did. Lying there in my bed, I wrote him a letter, and told him the whole story I just told you, everything.

JB: You showed him how the story would read. Gave him a little demo.

TG: Yeah. I told him, this is what we did. We had to do anything we could do to survive. Wine for a dime; frozen pizzas, take and bake; pizza valet. We built outdoor parklets, and doubled our capacity. Installed heaters, on and on.

And now, Tony’s was having the biggest year we could have ever imagined. So I asked him to consider us for Pizzeria of the Year.

I explained everything that happened along the way. I talked about my mom passing away in the midst of all this. The surgery, everything. I mean, I really put it all out there.

And he doesn’t respond to me. I thought I had gone too far. I told Julie, “I said too much.”

Anyway, Sunday passes, and Monday rolls around. I think it was Tuesday, and Jeremy texts me: Hey buddy, you have time to talk tomorrow?

Tony teaching his son Gino how to work the crowds

Tony teaching his son Gino how to work the crowds at the recent Festa Coloniale Italiana in North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Let’s see, can I check my schedule?

TG: Right? So just then my phone lights up, and it’s him. I pick it up and he says “Hey, I just wanted to talk to you now, I can’t wait.”

First he apologizes for not getting back to me, I guess it was a big baseball weekend for his son.

We talked a bit, and he told me he couldn’t believe the numbers we were doing. And then he said: “Tony, I’ve got to give it to you. You’re going to be  Pizzeria of the Year.” And I was like, oh my god.

JB: Wow.

TG: It all went from there. It turned out they were already planning to come  to San Francisco that next month, so they set up the photo shoot and  everything right then.

It’s funny, because since the Nineties, I was waiting for the million-dollar  store. I think back to when I was celebrating $3,000 nights, $5,000 nights at Pyzano’s. And I still do, at other stores. But Tony’s is different. Trust me, not every store is doing that.

But I was there at Pyzano’s back in the day: Julie would be sitting on the counter, I would be writing out checks, doing the nightly deposits, wrapping it up for the night drop. I was there when we hit the million-dollar mark, and started the climb.

There were so many nights like that. People have all of these ideas about why we do so well, and they don’t know. You can dream about something, and you can achieve it.

One thing, I don’t want people to read that magazine, and say I could never be there. Well you could be, because I was never there until now. Thirty-one years it took me to get here.

Tony’s has always been a special place, and I want everyone to realize that. A special place in North Beach, in San Francisco. You are able to make an impact as an independent operator in a big city.

I’m a guy from Fremont who worked at a pizzeria in the Castro Valley. I don’t come from the San Francisco dining scene, with a big resume from this place or that place. No big investor group.

I’m coming from a small town. And we did a lot of volume at Pyzano’s, but we didn’t get the credit, because we weren’t in San Francisco. If you didn’t come from that lineage, it was hard to work your way up, and to get that respect.

But we do a great job, and my people work their asses off. It’s one of the busiest pizzerias in the country, let alone this city. It bugs me when we  don’t get the credit we should, because it’s a special place on that corner.

And for Pizza Today to tell people “This is it” — that’s something that I’ve  always wanted.

JB: Congratulations, Tony.