January 29, 2020

Tasting: Tony Tackles Gluten-Free Crust & Vegan Cheese

by Joe Bonadio

The writing game certainly has its challenges, but these days there’s one claim I can make: I have the best business meetings. For a little perspective, when I worked in advertising in New York many years ago, I considered a meeting “good” if it began after 11:00 AM and took place somewhere below 23rd Street. Last week, sitting across from Tony Gemignani and tearing into a steaming-hot slice of pizza, I came to realize that was a very low bar.

The occasion of this meeting was a tasting, and an unusual one at that. Today I’d be trying three items, each of them modified for dietary preferences: Tony’s gluten-free thick crust pan-style pizza, their gluten-free thin crust, and a tomato pie with vegan cheese. In our last article in this space, Tony had detailed the considerable work that went into these pies. And today, I was here to sample the goods.

I had come just hungry enough to keep things fair. The first pie to come to the table was the gluten-free thin crust, which Tony has served at his restaurants for nearly a decade. As the server set the simple pizza down, its aroma filled the air. Perhaps noting my ravenous look, Tony reminded me to give the thing a second to cool off.

My first impression upon biting into my slice was quite positive: this pie was as good or better than the full-gluten pizza in three-quarters of the restaurants in America, I’d wager. The crust only seemed slightly off because we were eating it here, at Tony’s.

GF Thin Crust

The tomato pie with vegan cheese lands on the table at San Francisco’s Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Further, aside from the crust, all of the other elements of the pie were perfect. The tomato sauce and cheese were flavorful enough to make even a lackluster crust shine, making the whole thing come together. Full disclosure: I ate two slices, and would have eaten another if I hadn’t known there was more to come.

Next up was the thick crust—and this was the one I was most excited about. It was a pan pizza that could be customized in a Detroit or Sicilian style, 8” x 8” square and nearly an inch-and-a-half thick. The kicker: according to Tony, it was almost impossible to tell this pizza was gluten-free.

Well, we’d see about that. When it came to the table, next to its intense aroma, the most impressive thing was this pizza’s height. This was clearly a crust-intensive pie. It was studded with a surfeit of fragrant pepperoni, which ran around the edges of the crust. My curiosity was piqued, and again it was hard to wait until the pie was actually safe to consume.

Now, you might imagine the skepticism I felt when I put the first slice to my lips. Gluten-free? Pan pizza? Tony’s? Strung together, these concepts did not initially compute. But the moment I tasted the first slice, I realized Tony’s claim was no empty boast. Simply put, this was real pan pizza. It was delicious, chewy and cheesy, and it hit all the right notes. The crust was crunchy, light and airy—and to my palate, indistinguishable from a pizza made with gluten-rich flour.

But what can I tell you? I’m just a writer. If you doubt what I’m saying, you’ll just have to go try it for yourself. Meanwhile, it was time to move on to the fake cheese.

Excuse me, vegan cheese. It’s important to get your nomenclature right, and terminology has become all-important in the cheese world lately. Having taken the liberty of doing some research into the vegan cheese phenomenon ahead of this meeting, this was one of the first things I noticed. I learned that not all fake cheese is vegan cheese; non-dairy does not necessarily mean vegan, nor is the term lactose-free any guarantee. (FYI: there are a number of other descriptors, but in order to fit the vegan bill, a product must be labeled either explicitly vegan or dairy-free.)

Gluten Free Detroit

Tony’s mighty gluten-free thick crust pan pizza, done Detroit-style, with a crunchy caramelized cheese crust. | Photo: Sarah Inloes

The first product I sampled was recommended by a friendly clerk at Trader Joe’s as being one of their “better” vegan cheese options. It was a shredded mozzarella analog, but this fact could only be gleaned from the packaging. The flavor of the stuff was uniquely horrible, and its unnatural consistency when melted made me fear for my clothing—there might be no detergent that could break this substance down. With no further ado, this bag of “cheese” was summarily relocated to my garbage bin.

In the interest of science, I tried one more vegan cheese entry*. Though it wasn’t nearly as bad as the first, it definitely exhibited the “gummy” consistency that Tony warned me about. Honestly, by my standards it is barely passable as a cheese substitute. The unused portion has been waiting in my fridge ever since, my aversion to wasting food the only thing working in its favor.

My expectations were now well-calibrated, and I was ready to try what Tony considered to be the best quasi-cheese in the field. The notoriously choosy chef sources his vegan cheese from a company called Nozzarella (clever, huh?), a Japanese group that creates their distinct product from soy, avoiding the use of nuts altogether. As Tony explained while another pizza sat cooling in front of us, he prefers to deploy vegan cheese on his pies with the sauce on top. This helps to “mask the texture of the cheese,” as he put it. This pizza had been prepared in that fashion, with a bright red top.

We proceeded to dig in, and sure enough the texture of the cheese was a little offputting. Oddly, it seemed to merge with both the sauce on top and the crust below it. Mind you, the flavor was spot on, but the consistency just wasn’t there, lacking that toothy, stretchy cheesiness that you expect on a slice. That being said, judging from the vegan cheeses I’ve sampled, this stuff was considerably ahead of the pack.

And that appears to be the consensus among Tony’s Pizza fans, too. I’ve heard positive comments about their vegan cheese going back awhile (from both vegans and their non-vegan counterparts). So if has to be vegan, this should be on your must-have list. With all this talk of innovation and experimentation, there is also some news coming down the pike for all you full-gluten, full-dairy fans. Never one to sit still, Tony has recently been tinkering with a brand-new, next-level recipe—and the early word is very promising.

For now, this secret’s still in the oven. But you know where to hear the story, so make sure to come back and visit soon. Until then, Buon Appetito!

*No, I won’t share the brands themselves, not being one to trash anyone’s product.