March 12, 2024

The Slice House Comes To Sacramento County; Tony’s Tasting Menu Debuts

by Joe Bonadio

Having spent the last two decades between San Francisco and New York, you can imagine I’ve met more than my share of hard-charging workaholic types. But as I’ve said before, I’ve never met anyone who works harder than Tony Gemignani.

Now unless you’ve been living beneath a rock, you’ve probably noticed that Tony has been having one hell of a year. As the local and national press have been quick to document, Tony’s pizza empire has been growing like summer tomatoes: his Slice House by Tony Gemignani recently surpassed 100 franchises sold, making it the hottest pizza brand in the country.  Which begs the question: what happens when the busiest guy in the restaurant business gets a whole lot busier?

Tony and I sat down last week, and he gave me a glimpse into what it takes to build a national pizza empire. Edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: First off, congratulations on the opening of the Folsom store. Sacramento County seems awfully glad to have you back.

Tony Gemignani: Yeah! It’s been very busy, similar to Thousand Oaks. But what was different, in L.A. not everyone was familiar with our pizza, so there were more slices being bought. Where in Folsom, they were very familiar with it—Pizza Rock was there for a long time, and a lot of those people have been coming to Tony’s and of course Pyzano’s for years. So they were ordering a lot more whole pies.

It was interesting to see the volume being so busy, but with such a difference between purchases at the stores. At Folsom we haven’t even added the delivery component yet, because it’s just been too busy.

JB: Wow.

Loaded with triple sausage, red onion and house-made hot honey, the Motown is an immediate contender for the best Detroit Pizza on the Tony's menu

Loaded with triple sausage, red onion and house-made hot honey, the Motown is an immediate contender for the best Detroit Pizza on the Tony’s menu. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

TG: I’ll be back for a ribbon cutting with the Mayor, and I’ll be doing a couple of morning shows. So it’s been great. It’s funny, so many people have moved to that area from both San Francisco and Castro Valley, where I grew up.

So almost every day, all day long I’d be seeing guys I played soccer with, people I went to grammar school with, people who knew me from Tony’s. So it was nice. It was really cool that we had such a strong following there, and we got a ton of TV and press. It was great—a little busy, but that’s a good thing.

JB: So it was smart for you to slow roll the delivery aspect. Is that something you typically do?

TG: If it’s too busy and we can’t handle it, we’ll wait. You want to try to accommodate the customers you have, and not get overwhelmed.

JB: So I understand you have a special pizza that’s only available at that location in Folsom Ranch: tell me about the Vampire Killer.

TG: Yeah, the Vampire Killer. You know, I created a pizza for Thousand Oaks, called the Angeleno; it was a pizza I did for the L.A. Pizza Festival. I said this is a special pizza, only available for your location, and at the other locations you open you can go ahead and serve it.

So when we went to open Folsom I got together with the owners and the franchisees, and they asked if they were going to have a special pizza. And I said yeah, let’s do it.

I asked them what they liked, and they said “we like garlic, and we like spicy.” They were talking about black garlic, and I said sure, I can experiment with that.

JB: Exactly what is black garlic?

TG: It’s a different type of garlic with a molasses flavor to it, and not as much of a kick. I went ahead and pureed it, and added it to a pastry bag. I made a Grandma style pizza with mozzarella and ricotta, and it’s striped with the black garlic. It has my hot pepper oil over that, with green onions and cup-and-char sausage on it.

So it’s that sweet onions and sausage pizza, that’s garlicky….it’s fucking good.

JB: [Laughter] Sounds amazing.

TG: It’s finished with a little romano and oregano. Yeah, it’s nice: it’s sweet, garlicky, and it sells really well. It’s only available by the slice, you can’t get a whole pie. That’s how we did it at Thousand Oaks. You had to come in and get it, it’s just one of those things we do.

So now, when Mountain View opens I’m going to do the same thing for that group, a different pizza that’s just theirs.

By the way, the only other place where you can  get the Vampire Killer is here at Tony’s—it’s called the Garlic Grandma. I liked it so much I put it on the menu. Not saying I’ll do that with every pizza that I create for people, but that one was unique.

And you’ve got to remember, one pound of black garlic is $30. Prosciutto di Parma is less expensive than that. Reggiano Parmigiano, three years old, is less than that. It’s literally the most expensive ingredient that we have. I think we get like seven pizzas out of a pound, so it’s an expensive slice, and pie.

Striped with richly flavored black garlic, Tony's Garlic Grandma is topped with mozzarella, ricotta, green onions, cup-and-char sausage, Tony's hot pepper oil, romano cheese and oregano

Striped with richly flavored black garlic, Tony’s Garlic Grandma is topped with mozzarella, ricotta, green onions, cup-and-char sausage, Tony’s hot pepper oil, romano cheese and oregano. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: So you now have plans to open over 100 new Slice House locations. How have these huge steps affected your day-to-day schedule?

TG: It has affected me quite a bit, primarily on calls. Zoom calls, interviewing these candidates, and then the calls for kitchen design. I’m more of a kitchen guy who like to get his hands dirty, so I’ll spend like seven hours on design calls, and then I’ve got to get in the kitchen.

I’m not used to that. I’m good on the phone for a while, but when you’re doing Zoom interview after Zoom interview….okay, we’ve got a guy in Arizona who owns 17 Carl’s Juniors, and we’d like you to meet him. There’s an hour and 15 minutes. Then you’ve got a PR call, and after that a call with a writer. Then another design call with an architect, and that’s half your afternoon.

I’m a part of every kitchen design, and you’re always trying to improve them. So that has been hard to handle.

JB: Well you’ve put a lot of restaurants together at this point, so I’m sure you’ve got a lot of input for these guys.

TG: I can do it easily now, simple. I have it all in my head.

And then there’s the training side of it, which I’m a small part of. But luckily I have Dominique, Renae, Bill, Chef Anthony and Javi and all these guys with me. Then there’s the opening side: I’ve got to be there for all the openings, to meet the public.

But I’m still at Tony’s as much as I can, and at Capo’s and the bakery. And we’ve been working on things….I’ve launched more things in the past year than I have at Tony’s, ever. From the Pizza, Bagel & Beer Festival, to the art campaign with the billboards, to the tasting menu—which just took off, it’s insane.

Also, the Pizza Joint cannabis thing we did with Jeremy Fish and North Beach Pipeline. By the way, on 4/20 we’re doing another collab with them, so we’ll talk about that next time.

So I’ve been kind of like busier than ever, but somehow I’m still getting it done. My days are earlier now—I’m getting up at 4:15-4:30. If I’m up by 4 something, I’ll usually get on my phone and answer two or three questions real quick.

Then I get out and walk and run, and my goal in the morning is 3,200 steps. I come back, work out a little bit, and eat. Then off to work. And my night goes all the way until 10:00. What sucks is that my days are getting longer, and my sleep is getting shorter. I’m a six hour a night sleeper now, unfortunately. It’s really hard for me to get eight hours. If I get eight hours it’s like, wow. I can get to sleep, but I have trouble staying asleep. But I did sleep eight hours yesterday, so I feel pretty good.

But my days are different now. There’s no rolling out at eight o’clock, get on the road—no. If it’s eight o’clock, then I’m late, and I’ll spend the whole day catching up.

I’m also on the phone all day. I spend time with my son Gino, I’ve been making time for him. But I’m on my phone constantly. My wife and I will be sitting and watching TV at eight o’clock at night, and I’m usually working while I’m watching. Then I’ll wind down. Luckily we have our phones I guess, because I can still get shit done while I’m spending time with them. It’s tough to say, but it’s real.

Happy Place: nothing is more likely to produce a smile than a trip to Tony's Pizza Napoletana

Happy Place: nothing is more likely to produce a smile than a trip to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: You can’t be as busy as you’ve been without making some compromises.

TG: Another thing that people don’t realize is that I do all of the marketing. I don’t have some whiz that comes in and says, Hey! For me, 98% of marketing is, this is the idea—and we’re going to run with it. And I tell the marketing team, but the marketing is something I’m constantly working on myself. I love it. We’ve got a lot of cool marketing, and you have to.

We hired a new manager, Kiki, and she’s great. She’s helped us out a lot. So we’re always trying to hire people. We’re also hiring more people on the franchise side. A Chief Marketing Officer, a Chief Technology Officer. They’re fractionals, meaning they’re only hired for a portion of the year. W’re hiring in operations, and we just hired two people for regional chefs. One named Jason that worked at Pizza Hut for twelve years, and spent time at Little Caesar’s. We need some help from someone who knows chains, and how to talk to franchisees and mentor them, coach them, that kind of thing.

So we’re trying to build the infrastructure to help this….machine that is going full speed ahead. It has been an interesting time.

And it’s funny, for some reason I’ve been able to carve out more time than ever for my son. Maybe it’s the 4:00 AM rising time. And it’s my team—it’s Grace, and Natale and Oscar. I told them a while back, soon I’m going to be extremely busy, and I won’t be able to be here as much. And I’ve kind of built that team here to prepare for times like that. There are a lot of building blocks, and people don’t realize what it has taken. Bringing in people, and paying the employees, that’s an investment—because there’s a lot to it.

JB: It’s justified. As hard as it may be too believe, it’s only going to get busier. I also see that your tasting menu is finally up and running.

TG: The tasting menu took off. It got some great press—more press than I thought we’d ever get. I actually didn’t think it was going to be that newsworthy of a thing. I figured people would talk about it, but it ended up on the news.

I think it’s because it’s the opposite of what other people are doing. Everyone’s discounting now, and offering deals. Who’s doing a $500 prix fixe for pizza? And if anyone was going to do it, it would be us: we’ve got all the different styles to make it work.

We’ve got over 80 reservations for that. It’s Wednesday through Sunday, three time slots. The 7:00 slot is taken until April at least.

We’ve just done four so far, but one of the people told us it was the best pizza experience they’ve ever had. And three of the four told us it was the best thing they’ve ever experienced in pizza. Which is fucking great. I wanted that.

The other night one table ended up spending over $1,000 between the wine and everything, and they loved it. They asked Natale: if we finish everything, will you put our picture on the wall?

If you’re out there eating Domino’s and stuff like that, then you won’t get it. But if you’re really into pizza, you’ll get it. This is something that’s special.

JB: It’s really not that much. How many times have you spent $150 for your own dinner and left hungry?

TG: Exactly. If you look at it and do the math, it’s a good value. People who are doing it have been doing the optional wine flights, or they’ve been ordering six Fernets, Amaros, bottles of wine. If you’re out for a big night, it’s a bigger night. It just is. People are super excited.

JB: It’s possible you’ve done more than you set out to do. Do you think the tasting menu opens Tony’s up to a different audience? You know how diners are. They tend to gravitate to the trendy thing, the new thing. And some people just like to go hard, and spend some money.

TG: It’s possible. We needed to elevate the service, which we’ve been working on. Elevate a few things in that category, so that’s good.

People have asked: can it be eight people? Yes, we’ve allowed it, but there’s an added cost. And it’s not on that same table, which I love. Table 20 is a very special table. It can be five; it doesn’t have to be six. You don’t have to drink, that’s not a necessary part of it.

JB: How about vegetarians, can they participate?

TG: Yes, that’s easy. Vegan we can’t do.

And I didn’t do our two most famous pizzas: I didn’t do the New Yorker or the Cal-Italia. The Margherita I had to do. So I did it mostly based on styles. Like the New Haven Clam & Garlic: it’s one of the best pizzas we have on the menu, and not a lot of people order it. And the Canotto Americano, everybody says it’s one of their favorites. They’ve never really had anything like it.

JB: Seven pizzas plus appetizers is a lot of food. So I was surprised to see you chose the Sicilian.

TG: Well, you had to have Grandma, Detroit, Sicilian. When can you have a true version of all three of these at a table, so you can compare and say okay, that’s what they are.

You know how many writers ask me, can you explain all three? Now I don’t have to explain it—you can eat it!

So it has been awesome. I had a friend call me: Dude, I can’t get in for six weeks?!

I said, is it for 7:00? I can’t help you. The guy’s one of our best customers!

For reservations for the Around The World Tasting at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, click here.