This is The Gatekeepers, wherein Eater roams the city to meet the fine men and women standing between you and some of your favorite dining destinations.
[Photo: Jennifer Yin]
When champion pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani opened Tony's Pizza Napoletana a little over a year ago, he nailed it out of the gate with way-better-than-average Naples-style pizzas and a line-out-the-door following to prove it. In a highly specific cuisine category that's dangerously close to being over-saturated here in San Francisco, Tony's has managed to keep them coming back; there's no slow night of the week. His success has even spawned a sibling pizzeria you may have heard of. But the focus of this here column today is the original. We caught up with the woman who greets hungry pizza-goers with a perma-smile to try to make heads or tails of the infamous, unavoidable Tony's wait.
Courtney Jung, Assistant Manager, Tony's Pizza Napoletana: We are a relatively small place, seating about 95 guests. Each room is unique and appeals to a different personality. The atmosphere in the bar room is always energetic, while it’s wonderful to watch the pizzas made in the oven room. For a true North Beach feel, sit outside and watch the crowds pass by. When I come in, I like to sit at the bar or the chef’s counter, watching Tony construct one unbelievable pie after another.
8 PM on a Saturday night. What’s the wait for a table? We don’t take any reservations and work solely off a walk-in list. The wait can get long, sometimes very long, but we try our best to make your experience as seamless as possible. We have wonderful bartenders and a great cocktail list. When our bar overflows, we send guests up the street to Tony Nik’s or other local bars. We take their cell phone numbers and call them when their table is ready.
Is there anything I can say to make my wait shorter? Unfortunately no. But with one year under your belt at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, you’ve surely been offered gifts or cash, right? What have people tried? Like at all busy restaurants, people occasionally try to bribe their way to a table. Of course, we want guests to be seated as soon as possible, but we want to be fair. People come from all over to eat Tony’s pizza – we appreciate that and call the names on our wait list in the order they were taken.
Tell us about your favorite customers. Any celebs been by recently? We have a great following of North Beach locals, who we love and can’t thank enough for their support. As for celebrity sightings, I won’t name names, but plenty of recognizable people enjoy Tony’s pizza.
How do you deal with VIPs, when there are no tables left to give? We take care of all our customers to the best of our ability. Hopefully, “VIP” or not, the guest feels welcome when they arrive and satisfied when they leave.
What’s the most outrageous request from a customer you’ve had to accommodate? I try to answer all requests with a smile, no matter how “outrageous” the request may seem. Anything you couldn’t accommodate? Never?
Where are you eating when you're not at Tony’s? San Francisco has so many amazing restaurants, but on my days off, the best meal I can get is from my grandmother’s kitchen. She makes the best Chinese food I have ever tasted.
What’s the item on the current menu that more people should know about? The Burrata Burger – Niman Ranch beef, smoked pancetta, caramelized onions, burrata, arugula and balsamic reduction, served with a side of sea salted rosemary garlic fries. Don’t get me wrong, Tony’s pizzas are revolutionary – but there are many other delicious items on our menu. Who doesn’t love a great burger?
How, if at all, has Tony’s changed since you first opened a year ago? During a time when restaurants have struggled, Tony’s has been very lucky. We just keep getting busier and busier. Are there any recent changes since Tony’s Coal-Fired opened nearby? Everyone is excited about what Eric Corbin is doing next door. One week into business at Tony’s Coal-Fired, there is already a line out the door when we open each day.
How did you meet Tony and what were you up to before you worked with him? I’ve been in the industry for years and worked at many great places, including Moose’s, a former North Beach institution. I was traveling when Tony’s opened. When I got back a month later, I knew I wanted to work there.
How do you think Tony fits in North Beach and why did he choose that neighborhood? Do you think he’d consider opening a spot somewhere else? North Beach brings in crowds from across the Bay and tourists from around the world. But at the end of the day, it is a small, close-knit community. Tony’s fits in perfectly because we cater to the visitors, while still providing a place that feels like home to our regulars. As for opening another place, Tony is an extremely talented chef and innovative businessman. He’s always full of ideas – I’m just as anxious to see what’s next as everyone else is.
At the end of the day, what’s the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job? An attitude of ease – my goal is make every guest feel comfortable and welcome, no matter how busy we are!