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In a City where everyone is a self-styled artist, and everything is advertised with marketing buzz-words like “artisanal” and “hand-crafted,” one man’s body of work stands out from the rest. He’s not a painter, or a musician; he’s not an actor, or a sculptor. He is what was once known as a craftsman—a skilled worker who makes something with his own two hands—something that achieves the expressive level of an artist.
Tony Gemignani is indeed a craftsman, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone to dispute that fact. He is what is known in Italy as a pizzaiolo—a pizza maker. But if you imagine a pizza maker to be a minimum-wage employee, who slathers canned pizza sauce and greasy pepperoni onto frozen dough, you don’t know pizza—and you really don’t know Tony Gemignani.
In 2009, the same year that the European Union safeguarded pizza as a “Traditional Specialty Guaranteed” dish, Tony Gemignani opened a pizzeria on the corner of Union and Stockton Streets in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. It wasn’t the first Italian restaurant to occupy the space, and it certainly wasn’t the first pizza joint to open in San Francisco. The regulars in the neighborhood rolled their eyes as the latest wannabe restaurateur threw a chunk of money into a new venture.
“It’s probably some guy who won the lottery and wants to own his own restaurant,” a former restaurant owner said at the time. “Restaurants come and go in this town. I give this guy six months, tops.”
What the regulars didn’t realize was that Tony Gemignani was not a guy with more money than brains. He was a young, energetic entrepreneur who already had a lifetime of experience in the kitchen, and had travelled extensively, establishing himself in the world pizza community, a nine-time world pizza champion, and an inductee into the Guinness Book of World Records.
These days, the neighborhood regulars court Gemignani, and brag about how well they know him. Every morning just past 11:00, the locals begin to line up outside Tony’s Pizza Napolitana in anticipation of the doors opening at noon for lunch. Once the tourists arrive, the locals don’t stand a chance of getting in. Of course, everyone knows that if you can’t get into the restaurant, you’ll just have to go next door instead. That’s where Gemignani opened his second pizza joint, Tony’s Coal Fired Pizza. There’s nothing fancy about this place, but that’s just fine. The pizza is just as good, and you can get it by the slice.
In 2012, just as things were really humming along, another high-class pizza restaurant opened two blocks away in the space previously known as Pulcinella Pizza. The new venture, called Capo’s, boasts the best Chicago-style pizza on the west coast. But Capo’s isn’t Tony Gemignani’s competition: he owns that restaurant as well.
With three restaurants in San Francisco, another called Pizza Rock in Sacramento, and a soon-to-be-announced restaurant in Las Vegas, you would think that Tony Gemignani would have no time for anything else. You would be wrong. In addition to being a successful restaurateur, Tony Gemignani also finds time to teach the craft of pizza making.
The Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli is one of the oldest most prestigious pizza schools in Italy. With over twenty schools worldwide the Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli has certified pizza chefs from all over the world. Now this institution has a permanent new home in San Francisco, California along with The International School of Pizza and The United States School of Pizza. All pizza schools are owned and operated by none other than Master Instructor Tony Gemignani.
But at his core, he is first and foremost just a pizzaiolo who takes his craft very seriously. He is still as excited and committed to producing the highest quality pizza as he was the day he first started. Ask him how he does it, and his answer betrays his commitment to his craft in every detail.
“We use San Marzano tomatoes D.O.P., only San Felice and Caputo flours…from Naples, provella cheese only from Saint Louis, brick cheese from Detroit and Wisconsin area. For our coal fire pizza, we use a dry mozzarella made by three Italian families in Brooklyn.”
And don’t get him going about pizza ovens. Unlike most pizzerias, where everything is baked in a single oven, Tony Gemignani recognizes that different pizza styles require different heating methods.
“Neapolitan Pizza is 900° and 90 seconds baked, while a Pizza Romana, it’s in teglia, it’s cooked very long in an Italian brick oven.
“We have seven different ovens for almost every styles of pizza: a coal oven, a rotating gas brick, a double stack gas brick, a double stack electric one, and then we have wood burning ovens. So when you look at all the coal, the wood, the electric and rotating ovens, it’s like a pizzaiolo dream. There’s no other place like this in the whole world, so if you’re into pizza and you want to see all the styles from New Haven to New York, from Sicilian to Roman and Neapolitan, there is one place you can actually get all of that. Back in the day nobody thought it could work, but it worked, because innovation it’s always important.”
Regardless of the style of pizza you prefer, or the ambience of the place where you eat it, Tony Gemignani is sure to please. Tony’s Pizza Napolitana is pizza and craftsmanship at its best.
A special thank you to Roberto Natalini for contributing to this article.