Monday, April 8, 2013

Tony Gemignani : R.e.s.p.e.c.t.

Tony Gemignani's Mantra: Respect the Craft

After spending 3 days at the International Pizza Expo, it was easy to meet pizza celebrities since everyone was pretty much an open book and approachable. Of course, knowing who they were was another story! Tony Gemignani happened to be one of the pizza luminaries whom I knew about from YouTube. Google "pizza", "Neopolitan", "mixing dough" or some variations of it, and Tony's informative (and entertaining) clips come up. After listening to his 4 hour lecture, conversations with other attendees, and  many interviews and articles found in Google, and learning how much of his success comes not only from his natural talents and business sense, but his utmost passion in the craft of pizza making that it warranted a blog post of its own!

At the Pizza Expo, Tony Gemignani was one of the four participants in a panel called the "Million-in-One Club", who shared work experiences, trials and tribulations, advised the first time business owner and offered secrets to what made them successful operators. He has a strong business sense which is obvious in his growing empire in San Francisco, Sacramento, and soon, Las Vegas. Yet, he remains down to earth. I believe a career that started from the trenches as a pizza thrower in his brother's pizzeria, Pyzano in 1991 is what keeps him grounded today. Working his way up the ladder to be a master pizzaiolo, operator, and multi-unit owner, he remains close to his employees because he understands them. For example, while many of his employees work there because it's a job, there are those that are as passionate about pizza as he is. By offering trips to Las Vegas (the Pizza Expo) and other incentives, he keeps their energy high and passion alive. Sometimes it isn't just about the money.  Chatting briefly with one of his assistants at the demo, I found out that she is is the office manager and pizza school coordinator, Laura Meyer. Working with Tony since she was 16 years old, she easily relates to him like an older sibling and it was obvious that she had a lot of respect for the guy.

Proud of Smokevitch's Win!

Tony's Indispensable Staff
Attending Tony Gemignani's two-day workshop was one of my reasons for going to the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. I am in the beginning of my gathering phase:  learning the science of pizza making. Having just missed his Home Chef class while in San Francisco, I thought the 4 hour workshop would be a good indication of the course.  So a few weeks prior to the Expo, I purchased the cookbook, Pizza, which he co-authored with Diane Morgan in 2005, hoping that it would give me an edge. Clearly, the book was written for the home baker using a home oven and the book covered the different styles of pizza nicely which I hoped would be covered in the workshop. I didn't feel like such a novice when a few folks in the audience admitted that they had never even handled dough before.

Learning to Portion

Passionate & Perfectionist

Having a background in bread making and fermentation, the first day workshop was a fun review for me. He discussed the preferments (poolish vs. biga vs. starter) in pizza making which provide the flavor and texture just as in bread making. On the second day, he illuminated his various recipes, techniques and staging process. The workshop lecture was conversational in style, discussing what he does in his restaurants. This includes the types of flour and types of ovens he uses.  One of his admirable qualities is being a perfectionist. He wants his customer to experience what an authentic New York slice tastes like by using flour indigenous to that region using the proper oven. He personally handpicks his vendors ensuring seasonal and fresh ingredients for his restaurants.
Unleashing the Passion

After each class, a swarm of fans from the audience came to meet THE man.  Clearly, he has earned the respect from many who are fans.  Covered with tattoos around his forearms, and patches plastered all over his white chef outfit, resembling that of a celebrated NASCAR driver, many flock to his presence like a celebrity.  He is kind of the rock star of the pizza industry. I find it charming to see grown men be googly-eyed with their celebrity. After all, his claim to fame began after winning countless awards in acrobatic pizza throwing competitions and holding two Guiness Book of World Records: spinning the largest pizza and spinning the most pizzas on the back of his shoulders!

While attend the MacWorld 2013 conference in February, we rented an apartment in North Beach for the week, not knowing the place was several blocks from Tony's Pizza Napoletana! We met several locals who raved about Tony's amicable personality and amazing pizza but warned us about the long wait. After two attempts, we were able to experience several meals at Tony's and a take-out at his next-door pizzeria concept, Tony's Coal-Fired Pizza and Slice House. You will find the Ciriglio oven that Tony used to create his award-winning pizza in Naples.

Union & Stockton 

Tony's Oven

Neopolitan doughs fermenting in wooden boxes

Neopolitan crusts offered on Deruta ceramic "pie servers"

Tony's Award Winning Recipe of the Neopolitan
The facade of Tony's Pizza Napoletana has red mosaic tiled pieces, reminiscent of wood fire ovens in Naples.  The location is perfect.  Corner of Union and Stockton. Outdoor seating is available draping around Union Street. The photograph at the top (and bottom)  of this page of what looks like a rad surf board is the mural across his building on Union St. Both times, I requested to be seated next to the Cirigulio oven, the same type of wood fire oven that he used to win the Naples pizza competition. Nerd.

It was interesting to taste the Neopolitan pies in the left coast compared to my first  impressions of the Neopolitan pizzas in NYC. Trying the margherita along with other pies with more elaborate toppings, I tasted a slight tang to the crust, along with light flavors of tomato and soft mozzarella cheese. Turns out he does use a 10% starter in his Neopolitan recipe which gives the pie a nice sour dough flavor melded with the smoky flavor from the wood fire oven. Two slices went down easily, and I didn't have the feeling of fullness as I usually do after savoring a couple of servings.  

Always Striving for Excellence
For those of you ready to make the move in owning a pizzeria, or upping the ante to your current pub and brew menu, Tony offers pizza training courses at the International School of Pizza. Several tracks are available which last four days. You can choose to learn the Neopolitan Style, Italian Style which includes Classic Italian, Pizza in Teglia (Pan/Sicilian Style), and Pizza in Pala Romana (Roman Style). American Style covers New York Style, California Style and the Chicago Deep Dish Style.

As I mentioned earlier, Tony does offer a Home Chef class geared towards the serious home cook who wants to stretch their imagination beyond boboli. Offered once every quarter, he teaches several styles of dough recipes as well as cooking in different ovens including wood fire, gas, and even a home oven. Here is another pizza enthusiast who raved about his experience taking the Home Chef class with Tony!

Sicilian Style at the Workshop

I must admit that when I first heard about Tony G., I thought, hmmm, pizza acrobatic champion. That's why he's so popular!  Kind of like some star athletes who are revered  because they play sports. I'm thinking, not a whole lot of talent there. Well, I was wrong. After attending his workshop, researching his work background and qualifications, chatting with locals and employees, I have a new-found respect and understanding for him. By no coincidence, respect is a quality that Tony himself is trying to build back into the craft of pizza making.

Me & Tony!
I know, his looks are deceiving. He looks about 30 and you wonder how it's possible for someone so young to accomplish so much!  Luck would have it that he found his calling at an early age, and it certainly is determination and passion, a lot of passion, that drives someone to accomplish as much as he has. While good fortune and success can be due to some luck, much of his achievement is from his natural talents, business acumen, and passion. Truly an artisan at heart. How do you define passion? Here is Tony's definition:

  • 1991, enters the pizza industry. He partners with brother, co-owning Pyzano's Pizzeriaa in Castro Valley. He started as a pizza thrower. Tony enters his first pizza throwing competition in Las Vegas and wins. He was 18 years old. He wins both years, 1996, 1997, as the top pizza thrower in the world.
  • 2000  World Pizza Championship, Italy
  • 2001  World Pizza Championship, Italy (1st American to win)
  • Coach/Co-founder of US Team Pizza Team for 3 years. Formed World Pizza Champions, America's #1 Pizza Team.
  • 2005 Pizza, co-written with Diane Morgan. Cookbook geared towards the home baker.
  • 2006 Pizza the Movie (documentary), about the Pizza Throwing Team
  • 2-Time Food Network Pizza-Tossing Gold Medalist
  • Food Networks/Guinness Pizza Champions Challenge: Best Pizza in the US
  • Guinness Book of World Records: "Biggest Pizza" and "Most Consecutive Rolls Across the Shoulders"
  • 2007 World Champion Neapolitan Chef
  • 2009 Tony's Pizza Napoletana, North Beach opens
  • 2009 Tony and the Pizza Champions, children's book, publishes
  • 2010  Tony's CoalFired Pizza and Slice House opens
  • 2011 Pizza Rock, Sacramento opens ( gourmet pizzas and cocktails)
  • 2012 Capo, North Beach opens (Chicago Style)
  • 2013 Respect the Craft, monthly columnist, Pizza Today 

'Nuff Said

1 comment:

  1. This is a quality establishment. Fantastic pizza from all angles, from the crust to the sauce to the ingredients. Incredibly flavorful and delicious every time.

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