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June 27, 2018

The Birth of Tony’s Coal Fired Pizza & Slice House

With the opening of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco’s North Beach in 2009, Tony Gemignani had managed to parlay his unprecedented win at the World Pizza Cup in Naples two years earlier into a viable restaurant. For the most part he had charmed the critics, and more impressively, the Fremont-born pizzamaker had won over the guarded, often fussy locals of North Beach. His sweeping, multiple-style menu required a balancing act, but with his stellar opening crew, Tony had seemingly pulled it off.

The naysayers had been silenced, and Tony’s Pizza was a humming machine, with a line snaking out the front door. “You’ve got to prove yourself in this neighborhood,” Tony says now. “There are a lot of old-school guys here, with roots going way back. Just because you’re Italian, that doesn’t mean you get a pass.”

But the chef’s idea was the right one, and Tony and his team had doggedly pursued that vision. “We always improve, we can always be better,” he told me. “That’s something I’m constantly telling my guys. We’re always tweaking things, fine-tuning things, making them even better.

“My first crew here was so ideal, in terms of making this place right for North Beach,” the restaurateur explains. “Those are some of the people who are still with me. It’s so important to a restaurant…and to a neighborhood.”

But Tony was restless, and now that his place was queuing up the crowds, it was time to move on to the next challenge: the Slice House. “Eight months after Tony’s opened, I knew that it was going to be a big thing,” he recalls. “So I ended up buying the deli, La Spiaggia, the old Palermo’s.

“I was close to them, they needed out, and I saw a way to bring something to Tony’s that we didn’t have,” he says. “Fast-casual, quick and easy, by the slice, subs. Everything that Tony’s wasn’t.”

And the addition couldn’t have gone over better: Tony’s Coal Fired Pizza & Slice House addressed every gripe one could possibly muster about Tony’s flagship space. “It’s too long of a wait…you don’t have slices…can’t I get something quick?” the chef relates. “So we added two more ovens, and filled that gap.”

Slice House was quickly overrun by locals and tourists alike, and within days the new spot was generating a pretty respectable line of its own. Today, the sunny parklet that sits out front on Stockton Street is typically packed with happy, pizza-devouring devotees.

And why wouldn’t it be? To this day, the Slice House has the only coal fire oven in Northern California; that’s because Tony knew that was the only way to turn out letter-perfect New York/New Haven-style pies. By paying homage to the coal fired ovens that originated in the Northeast a century ago–and teaching the craft to students at his International School of Pizza–Tony has helped to revive the coal fire pizzeria in the United States.

And though pizza is the star, Slice House doesn’t stop there, offering a full menu of toothsome Italian specialties. And true to form, Tony takes no shortcuts: the sausage is made in-house, and they even slow-roast their own Chicago Italian beef. That means a sausage-and-peppers sub you simply can’t get anywhere else, and a spot-on Italian beef sandwich–dipped in au jus, and just as wet as you like.

tonys-pizza-napoletana-outsideOf course, as you may have heard, the Slice House also bakes the most authentic New York-style pizza in San Francisco. Enormous slices cut from a 20” pie, they’re served up hot on a sheet of wax paper and a paper plate, just like in the Big Apple. Fuhgeddaboutit!

Anyway, it’s coming up on lunchtime here in North Beach…and I’ll bet you can guess where I’m headed. Meanwhile, I’ll see you back here in a couple of weeks, when we’ll talk about the third iteration of Tony’s vision: Capo’s Chicago Pizza.

The Seven Ovens blog appears in this space twice each month, bringing the stories and details behind Tony Gemignani’s San Francisco school and remarkable group of restaurants to a wider audience. Make sure to bookmark us, and we’ll see you here soon.