Italian bakeries have been a staple in North Beach, but the art is slowly dying out, according to Tony Gemignani, prolific, award-wining pizzaiolo and restaurateur. He’s remedying that himself, by opening Toscano Brothers on May 1, a bakery specializing in sourdough bread and bagels. It’s actually a three-in-one operation, with bagels operating from within the bakery as Dago Bagel (yes, as in the slur that’s used against Italian-Americans), bread from Toscano Brothers, and eventually pastries under the name Antonio’s Pastries.
But first, the story behind Dago Bagel: Using the slur in the name of his bagel shop is Gemignani’s way of taking back the power of the word and educating others, following an altercation outside his shop with a customer who hurled it at him during an ugly altercation outside one of his North Beach restaurants. “Controversy creates awareness,” says the chef. “I think it’s important to challenge that and show how important Italian heritage is to North Beach.” He will also donate a portion of the sales of bagels to the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club Foundation, a North Beach-based fraternal organization; Gemignani serves on the board or directors.
According to Gemignani, these are tried and true New York-style bagels, twisted by hand, boiled in water and malt syrup, and baked to a chewy, almost tough texture. He’s been working on the recipe for years with fellow pizza champion Adam Sachs, perfecting the style and even making his own pine boards for baking the bagels.
The bakery is a welcome addition to a neighborhood whose market options have dwindled in past years. Carb-forward stalwarts like Liguria Bakery, known for its slabs of excellent focaccia, and Victoria Pastry, which offers a case brimming with Italian cookies, pastries, and cakes, have been holding down the fort, but there’s certainly room for bread, and particularly bagels. “There’s not really a sourdough bread bakery in North Beach,” says Gemignani. “If you listen to your neighbors, that’s what’s missing from North Beach.”
It’s also the chef’s new production facility that supports dough production for all his restaurants, including Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, Capo’s, and his Tony’s Slice Houses. It was partially a response to the increased outdoor seating capacity that was added during the pandemic, when indoor dining was completely shut down. “We increased seating at Tony’s and Capo’s by 100 percent, so the dough production was crazy” says Gemignani. “I thought, we may do numbers we’ve never seen before when it goes back to normal, and I wanted to be ready.”
Gemignani will continue to use freshly milled grains from Central Milling Co. in Petaluma to bake loaves of Italian country bread, baguettes, and more, many of which will also be featured in panini sandwiches and French bread pizzas like his mother used to make. He’s used their flours in his restaurants for years, and has created his own spelt flour that he mills in-house. Here are the three main breads that will be available at opening:
- Cured black olive and rosemary Italian bread (pagnotta) that’s made with Tuscan rosemary grown behind the bakery by Tony and his crew. “We’ve been buying all the rosemary [plants] up around town,” says Gemignani.
- Sour cherry and chocolate sourdough sprinkled with Maldon salt that Gemignani says would be perfect with a glass of wine and some hard cheese. “It’s sour, salty, and sweet,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing.”
- Baguettes, which Gemignani says are the equivalent of making a Margherita pizza in the pizza world (as in, it’s so simple that it’s extremely hard to master). “The biggest challenge is getting those perfect,” says Gemignani. “The time, temp, starter are all good but the right steam and correct bake is something we’ve really been trying to work on here.”
And like any good Italian bakery, there will be coffee, sourced from neighbor Caffe Trieste to accompany the pastries that will soon be offered. That component of the bakery is Antonio’s Pastries, a line of the desserts served in his restaurants like tiramisu and panna cotta that will eventually be available wholesale to cafes around the city.
When the bakery opens at 728 Vallejo St. on Saturday, May 1, it will be open from 8 am. to 3 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. (They’ll be making about 100 loaves of bread and 200-300 bagels per day to start, so selling out before 3 p.m. is a distinct possibility.) There’s no seating, so make your way up to the counter, place an order, then head down to Washington Square Park for a picnic.