April 30, 2021

Tony Gemignani: Making Pizzas, Making Pizza Makers

If there’s any one theme that has dominated the Seven Ovens blog since we started publishing three years ago, it has to be the caliber of Tony’s staff. As I’ve written here before, Tony’s circle of restaurants has a prodigious track record when it comes to producing world class pizzaioli. It only makes sense: between the International School of Pizza and his frequent demonstrations and classes at events like Las Vegas’ Pizza Expo, Tony spends a lot of his time in the role of teacher.

And talk about stellar alumni: there may be nobody in the United States that has taught and influenced as many successful pizza makers and restaurateurs as Tony Gemignani. This week we spoke to six of them to find out what they’re up to now, and ask them about the impact working with Tony had on their own paths to success.

After spending fully a decade working side-by-side with Tony, last year Thiago Vasconcelos created his first restaurant concept: Pedroso’s Pizza. Working out of a next-level food truck in Austin, Vasconcelos now produces New York, Grandma and American-style pies that have been scoring consistent 5-star reviews from hungry Texans.

When asked about his experience working at Tony’s, Vasconcelos doesn’t mince words. “Tony’s is one of the best pizza places in the country, if not the world,” Vasconcelos told me. “Even people who aren’t into pizza, when they work at Tony’s, they start to see the possibilities. Everything I do today is a reflection of what I learned there.”

Another product of the Tony’s and Capo’s kitchens, Neal DeNardi opened his Long Bridge Pizza in San Francisco’s up-and-coming Dogpatch district back in 2014. Employing a Dogpatch-native natural starter, DeNardi has won the hearts of Bay Area pizza lovers, but many don’t know he cut his teeth at Tony’s. After a stint with Pizza Hacker, the pizzaiolo spent two years working Tony’s wood fire oven—usually with Vasconcelos.

It was DeNardi’s first real restaurant job. “I learned everything from what shoes to wear to how to stretch, shape and bake Neapolitan pizza,” he told me. “If you work for Tony and you’re willing to grind it out and work all the stations, there is so much to learn.

“Tony treats his people very well. I remember in the beginning, he used to close two days in a row, which no one did,” DeNardi said. “He would sacrifice so that his people could have two days off in a row.”

Audrey Kelly of Audrey Jane's Pizza Garage

Audrey Kelly poses proudly in front of Boulder’s celebrated Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage. | Photo courtesy Audrey Jane’s

Audrey Kelly, owner of Boulder’s celebrated Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage, also spent a few years in the kitchen at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. After helping to open two pizzerias in New York City, Kelly opened her own shop in 2015, making what she calls “the only New York slice of pizza in Colorado.” Her pizzeria continues to garner positive reviews, and was recently featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins And Dives.

“Tony has this endless energy, and a thirst to constantly improve, and to keep learning,” Kelly told me. “and in turn, the ability to share that knowledge.

“There are very few people like Tony,” Kelly stressed. “He creates this unique environment that inspires creativity and ambition. It inspires the people that work for him—they want to do something great.”

Regular readers of the blog are already familiar with Laura Meyer, 3-time World Pizza Champion and currently head chef of North Beach’s paean to pan pizza, Capo’s. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the young chef in this space twice before, the last time following her stunning victory in Naples.

Meyer started in the game early, and had already earned her first world pizza title by the tender age of 23. Among other honors, she was featured in Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ for her stint as Tony’s Corporate Executive Chef, which at one point saw her overseeing close to 30 of the group’s restaurants. Earlier this year Meyer launched her first solo enterprise, Focaccia da Laura, offering a selection of handmade artisanal focaccia. After just a few weeks vending to locals at a single North Beach pop-up market, the fledgling project was picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle. Not a bad start.

Tony’s is a place of learning,” Meyer explained. “Having a place where you can constantly learn, and where you can bounce ideas off one another, is what makes Tony’s unique.

“Working with Tony gave me the foundation, but it also pushed me to find out what my own take on food is,” Meyer told me. “What do I want to do with it? It wasn’t until now that I’ve felt that I could apply that knowledge to my own likes and dislikes–and find my own style.”

Matt from Graffiti Pizza

3-Time World Pizza Champ Matt Molina throws in front of Oakland’s Graffiti Pizza: “Tony pushed me to compete in Vegas.” | Photo courtesy Graffiti Pizza

Former head chef at Capo’s and himself a 3-time World Pizza Champion, Matt Molina has recently taken the gospel across the Bay Bridge. He’s now piloting Old Oakland upstart Graffiti Pizza, baking creative pies like the Tagger’s Delight, a white pie that combines mozzarella with ricotta, extra sharp cheddar, crushed tomatoes and basil. The spot debuted in late 2019, and despite that tricky pandemic timing, they’ve lived to tell the tale.

When asked what he thought was unique about working with Tony, Molina is unequivocal. “We work in such tight quarters for so many hours, that we become a family,” Molina told me. “And you’re not working for someone who is sitting behind a desk. Tony is always hands-on, and he’s in the weeds right next to you.

“There is so much to learn from him, and he sets the tone,” Molina continued. “He is always asking for feedback from the staff. It’s very cooperative–you have a voice.”

While he’s known for his mixology rather than his pizza skills, Elmer Mejicanos has proven himself to be as ambitious as any of Tony’s acolytes. After honing his skills at Lake Chalet, Picán and 25 Lusk, Mejicanos took the helm as bar manager at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana nearly eleven years ago, where he has been responsible for dialing in award-winning cocktail programs both there and at Capo’s.

Earlier this year, Mejicanos opened his first restaurant, just steps away from Tony’s: Red Window. Serving a carefully executed menu of tapas alongside a wildly inventive selection of low-proof cocktails, Red Window (and it’s backdoor sibling, Little Red Window, which serves three types of empanadas to go) has made a serious splash in North Beach, which is typically associated with Italian food. And with over 100 outdoor seats, the place only get busier as the days get warmer.

Elmer Mejicanos behind the bar

Elmer Mejicanos at his post behind the bar at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. Earlier this year, Mejicanos opened his first restaurant, North Beach’s Red Window.

Though he’s broadened his horizons, Mejicano held on to his position at Tony’s. When I asked him why he thought the place was such fertile soil for new restaurateurs, Mejicanos’ response was pragmatic. “Considering the amount of talent at Tony’s in the beginning, it was almost inevitable that you would see people moving on to start their own things,” Mejicanos told me. “Plus, we’ve all been on this stage for so long, working at such a high level. That experience gives us the knowledge and confidence we need to do it for ourselves.

“The creative freedom I have at Tony’s has let me become who I am.”

When I spoke with Tony, he had a slightly different take on it. “For me, I feel like the story is more about how these people applied themselves,” he told me. “Yeah, they started with me, or worked with me and moved on. But I’ve had a lot of employees who didn’t do that, didn’t apply themselves in that way. So it’s special when the Matts and the Thiagos and the Lauras do come around.

“Working together, we have our ups and downs. It’s a very hard industry, and it wears and tears,” Tony explained. “It’s just great to see them do so well.”

Laura Meyer of Focaccia De Laura

Laura Meyer smiles wide behind her mask at Focaccia da Laura’s opening day in San Francisco’s North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio