January 12, 2019

Vegas, Baby: A Pizza Champ Enters The Fray

by Joe Bonadio

The world’s biggest trade show for the pizza industry, the Pizza Expo is held every Spring in Las Vegas, Nevada. Now in its 35th year, it’s a monster of a show, bringing together exhibitors, suppliers and competitors from across the industry. If you are serious about the pizza business, you know about this event, and chances are you’ve been there.

As it happens, the Pizza Expo also figures heavily in the history of our very own master pizzaiolo, Tony Gemignani. Tony, who recently garnered his thirteenth world pizza championship in Porto, Portugal, agreed to speak with me about it on a recent rainy San Francisco afternoon.

“I helped my brother open up [Pyzano’s in Castro Valley, CA] back in ’91,” Tony recounts. “And from then until 1994, I was always hearing my brother and the guys that worked for him talking about this Pizza Expo in Vegas. It’s like the Super Bowl of pizza, with all these guys competing.”

From the beginning, the young pizza chef had been intrigued. Tony was already getting noticed for his pizza tossing at Pyzano’s, and the fact that other people were doing the same was exciting to him.

“So I’m this young guy, at the time just 20. And my brother says ‘Hey, you want to go to Vegas?’”

Tony was gobsmacked. “When you think of the glitz and the gambling, the sex and booze and everything else going on? To a kid that age, it’s crazy.”

Needless to say, off to Las Vegas they went. “I was working on tossing during those years, because I’d hear from my brother about these guys that were amazing, and this one guy Barry O’Hallaran that was the best in the world,” Tony explains.

“And I was just this guy in the pizza business who’d never really seen it before–this was before you could just find it on YouTube, like now. But I was trying to do tricks,” Tony says. “Kind of like what you’d think the Harlem Globetrotters would do with a basketball.

“So here I am at this show, and I’m on the convention floor,” Tony recalls. “And there are these rubber doughs, and towels [used for pizza tossing] that you used to see back in the day.

“And there are these guys throwing, just kind of fucking around at a booth, doing tricks and stuff,” Tony tells me. “And I grabbed one and started fooling around.”

A young Tony Gemignani gets creative competing at his first Pizza Expo in Las Vegas.

A young Tony Gemignani gets creative competing at his first Pizza Expo in Las Vegas.

Again, Tony had plenty of experience tossing pizzas, but this was the first time he had been around guys like this–pizza makers who actually competed. But they treated him with respect, and one of them encouraged him, saying ‘You’re pretty good, you should enter the competition’.

“I’m looking at these amazing pizza acrobats, and it was kind of a surprise,” Tony explains. “It’s almost like hearing a bunch of professional ballplayers tell you, You should compete, you should be on the team.

“Here I am, twenty years old. I was really overwhelmed,” Tony says. “I was doing this thing that I loved. And these guys were really into it, and seemed interested in what I was doing.” But Tony begged off, and headed back to his hotel.

“It was a big deal to stay at the Rio back then. They had suites, back before the Bellagio and all that,” Tony says. “This was our last night in Vegas–and it was the night of the finals at Pizza Expo.

“I remember seeing it in a magazine: twenty-five bucks to get in, and it was at the MGM Grand, so I’d have to take a taxi to get there.

“So it was one of those moments: My brother says: ‘Hey, let’s go out. Where are we going tonight? Are we going to hit a strip club, are we gonna go out gambling, do some drinking?’

“Remember, I‘m not even 21 yet,” the chef reminds me. “But still, I’m thinking. What am I going to do? Am I going to go party? Or actually decide to literally go and watch these guys compete?”

Tony had never seen a competition before. “You know, it’s one thing to watch them messing around on the convention floor, but it’s another to see them actually compete,” he points out. “My brother literally said ‘Don’t go there, it’s stupid.’ My father even asked me: ‘Where are you going? Why are you doing that?’”

The pizza chef was young, and had very little extra cash. But he took the plunge, and headed out the door to hail a cab to the MGM Hotel. “I got there a little late, and was watching the guys compete. The guy who asked me to come, Dell Lovejoy, was from New Zealand,” Tony remembers. “He threw to Evenflow by Pearl Jam…and he kind of dropped it a few times. He was amazing, don’t get me wrong, but he kind of fumbled it in the competition.

“So next, they introduce this guy Emilio Giacometti, the world champion from Italy. This guy comes out and does this routine that just blows [Lovejoy] away,” Tony remembers. “So I see this guy onstage, and I’m totally knocked out. I had to take a step back…he was just the best.

“And right then I said to myself: I’m going to come back next year. And I’m going to win it.”

Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, Tony sees this as a critical juncture in his life. “That I said no to the peer pressure of just going out and partying…you think of the paths that we take.” Tony marvels at the thought. “If I hadn’t made that decision, I probably wouldn’t be where am I today.

“I wouldn’t have seen Emilio. I wouldn’t have gone back the next year. I really don’t know what would have happened.

“It may seem like a small thing now, but it was a giant fork in the road.”

Of course, Tony returned to Vegas the following year. But no spoilers: we’ll be back with the rest of the story in Vegas Baby: Part Two. Make sure to bookmark the blog, and come see us often for all the latest in the world of Tony Gemignani.