Meet Tony Gemignani, the eccentric and pizza-obsessed mastermind behind Tony's Pizza Napoletana and Capo's in North Beach, as well as The International School of Pizza. He's won four world titles in pizza making and a whopping eight in pizza acrobatics, which consists of tossing pizza dough at mindboggling speeds and heights. Gemignani started making pies 23 years ago, when began working for his brother, Frank, at Pyzano's in Castro Valley. Since then, he's traveled the world, gathering staggering amounts of knowledge about many different kinds of pizza-making styles.
His efforts culminated in Tony's and its adjoining slice shop, which offer 11 different varieties of pizza baked in seven separate ovens. Tony's opened just five years ago, but turns out an average of 1,100 pizzas a day, and in addition to Capo's and the slice shop, Gemignani has outlets in Vegas, Sacramento, and Rohnert Park, with plans for more Vegas locations, an AT&T Park slice shop (more on that below), and a cookbook in the works for 2014. Herein, he discusses pizza tattoos, the SF pizzeria he most respects, and the time he nearly came to blows with Francis Ford Coppola over dough-tossing technique.
So where did you train and learn the actual craft of making pizza?
In the beginning, really the school of hard knocks...but first from my brother, of course. I came from an Italian-Portuguese-Spanish family, so my mom cooked pizzas at home. It was a bit of a staple in my household. But really from working with different independent [pizza shops], and later I went to Italy and got certified in different styles of pizza. Now I'm one of the few guys that can certify you in pizza.
How did you go from owning a pizza shop to winning championships?
That was a lot through travel. When I won a number of different championships in acrobatics at an early age, I started traveling to New York, Chicago, Fargo, Florida, all over Germany, Italy, I was in Canada, I toured with pizza acrobats in Thailand for a long time...and over those years I built that pizza persona, working with different independent operators. So if I did an event for Disney, it was an acrobatics show, but the other eight hours I was there I was in a kitchen working with different [chefs] and over those years, I really was building up this knowledge. Going to Italy, I started going to championships, and that's when you really see it all. When you go to championships, you see every country. You try pizzas you never thought were possible.
What makes your pizza so good?
Balance is important when it comes to pizza. Understanding that it's not about over-complex dough. It's not about over-complex ingredients. Every bite, you taste the dough, you taste the sauce, you taste the cheese, everything marries together. I always say that every bite kinda is a little story of flavor when you bite into it, and I think that's important. I don't like bakers that slap fontina cheese on ciabatta or a baguette and say it's pizza. Our pizza isn't anything like that. I think it's important to have that balance, and when you have our pizza, you're really going to taste that balance that marries well together.
You offer a lot of different styles of pie, whereas many folks stick to one. Why do you like to mix it up?
I respect the craft. When it comes to one particular style, if it's done right, it's awesome. It's beautiful. So I don't really pay homage just to one style. I feel that if it's done correctly and done right, it's awesome. And that's from Chicago to Neapolitan to California to Sicilian to New York [styles].
Got any good war stories from your career?
One of the most nerve-racking parts of my career was The Tonight Show. I was 23, and I was going on Jay Leno. I remember the producer...she was young and she grabbed me and said "OK, you're gonna be on, let's go." So she grabbed me by the arm—I felt like a nurse was grabbing me and I was a little kid. Going around the back, she says, "Are you nervous?" I said yeah, and she's all, "Seinfeld. ER. Jay Leno. Thursday night's our biggest night. Eight million people are going to be watching. It's our biggest night." She looks at me, hits me on the ass and is all, "Good luck." And then the lights went on and I had to go, and I'm walking up the stairs, and I'm like "Huh, they didn't tell me what to do when I got around the corner."
[The producer] had said, "You're not going to promote your restaurant." She was really rude to me...I'll never forget it. So I'm on the couch with Jay and I'm talking to him and [I'm thinking], "How am I gonna say my restaurant? I gotta say my restaurant." I couldn't wear a hat, I couldn't do nothing. She had said, "He's not going to give you a chance to say it. You're not going to say [anything]. We're here to see the world champion. We're here to see you." And then at the end of the show, he looked at me, and said "Yeah, so if I'm ever in Castro Valley, I'll check it out." So I said "YEAH, PYZANO'S PIZZERIA, IN CASTRO VALLEY!" And I saw her right there and she's all... [Shakes his fist in anger.] I also once almost got in a fight with Francis Ford Coppola.
Yup. It was at his house. He was doing a big event at his winery in Napa, raising [money]. A guy had gone up to him and said, "In Naples they do this certain move [when tossing pizza dough]," and I said, "I know, but they can also do this [other move]." So he and I are arguing a little bit. I get on stage and the announcer says "Tony's here, he came all the way back from Italy, and he even beat a guy with the last name Coppola."
So I'm doing this whole thing, and I see Francis over me, and he's trying to grab the dough. I look up and there's Francis trying to grab my dough, saying "give me that, give me that." I get up, I'm on my cordless mic...there's about a thousand people there. So he's grabbing me, and he says, "I just want to make sure everyone knows that if you were in Naples right now, you would not see this." So he stops the whole show and we're arguing. We're battling it out on the mic, we're going back and forth, back and forth. I basically say, "Well, you're the true artist. You know what? I guess you can't argue with The Godfather." It was a real weird thing because he bet me $5,000 that if we got on a plane, we'd be able to see that they don't do this in Naples. It was a fundraising event! It was so stupid. We were fighting about how to throw pizzas for this fundraising event. Two Italian guys, arguing about how you toss a pizza...
Was there any resolution?
Nothing, just two Italian guys who were gonna go almost to blows. I mean, I swear to God...this guy that I love, but at the same time...I said, "Hey, Francis, that's like me telling you how to make a movie." So, there's been some weird things with different things with different stars over the years. Father Guido was there, and says "Y'know, I don't think they do do that in Italy." I'm all, oh, you trying to get in Godfather IV? It was pretty funny.
How has it been balancing everything, now that you've expanded so rapidly?
Well, I have three restaurants in North Beach right now, and I have seven altogether—Las Vegas, Sacramento, and two up in Rohnert Park at the new Graton Casino. It's all about your team, y'know? It took me 17 years before I expanded to San Francisco...so when it came to more expansion, I'm 23 years into it now, I'm ready. I have a hell of a team. It's all about your management and everyone around you.
What are your other favorite pies in the city?
Man, you know you always respect Tommaso's. Old school. Ya gotta love 'em because they're the first place, from the 30's. I respect that.
What keeps you motivated? How do you stay fresh? How is it still fun?
I always think you can make it better. It's exciting, you treat it like a relationship, y'know, like your marriage. You always want to keep it exciting and keep it fun. The love is there, the passion's there...nobody loves pizza more than me. It's just this living organism that's right here. You're looking at it everyday. You're trying to manipulate it, make it. You're trying to make it as best you can, but still respect it. There's so many different styles, and it was here over 150 years ago, and it'll be here after you leave, and it's just awesome, man. I love it.
Is that tattoo on your hand that says "the craft" about pizza?
Yeah. Respect the craft. It's on my boxes. I also have "Pizza For Life" on my chest. Nobody loves pizza more than me.
Anything exciting happening in the future? Anything in the works?
Yeah. My new book, The Pizza Bible. October 21st...my whole life's work. It's being published by Ten Speed Press...it's for the home chef. It has practically every style of pizza in the book. So that's exciting. Some new concepts should be going in the ballpark pretty soon.
At AT&T Park?
Yeah. A Slice House should be coming soon, I think.
Hopefully. It should be, unless something goes wrong. Another couple of restaurants should be coming in Vegas this year, too.