As former New Yorkers, my husband and I are very snobby about pizza.
So, although we hate to admit it, we may have found the best pizza in the world in … San Francisco?
The pies at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, are so good, they’re worth a trip from anywhere in the world. And you’d have to stay for a couple of days so you can really taste them all.
Owner Tony Gemignani has won many prestigious awards, including Best Pizza Margherita at the World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy, and Best Pizza Romana at the World Championship of Pizza Makers in 2011. He was the first and only Triple Crown winner for baking at the International Pizza Championships in Leece, Italy, and was the first American and non-Neapolitan to win the coveted title of World Champion Pizza Maker at the World Pizza Cup in Naples in 2007. He was also a pioneer in bringing several different styles of pizzas and other Italian dishes to the Bay Area.
Since discovering Tony’s, my husband and I have come up with creative excuses for visiting San Francisco on a regular basis because we literally dream about his pizzas and can only go so long without one.
Here’s what Gemignani himself had to say when I asked him about all things pizza. Warning: Do not continue reading if you’re hungry.
How did you get started making pizza?
I’ve been involved in the pizza industry since 1991. I started making pizza at my brother’s acclaimed Pyzano’s Pizzeria in Castro Valley. Eventually I began working with different independent pizza shops and later went to Italy and traveled a ton. After winning multiple world pizza competitions, I made my way back to the U.S. and started to learn regional styles (think New York, Chicago, St. Louis, New Haven, and more).
Leading with my mission statement, “Respect the Craft,” I’ve devoted myself to learning everything there is to know about pizza, and I’ve aimed to showcase my knowledge and passion with each person that comes in to experience our menu of thirteen regional styles of pizza. This craft has taken me on a great journey that I’m excited to continue.
Did you know right away you wanted pizza to become your life’s work?
I always loved cooking. Even in high school I took Home Economics courses. Back then I didn’t think anything of it. Then, quickly after high school I started working at my brother’s pizzeria and fell in love with it right away.
I ended up getting my pizza certification in Italy and am an official U.S. Ambassador of Neapolitan Pizza by the city of Naples – a prestigious title only given to three people in the entire world. I am also the first Master Instructor in the United States from the Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli and am the proprietor of the International School of Pizza where I certify chefs from around the world—all through Tony’s Pizza Napoletana.
I’ve had the pleasure of teaching so many great pizza makers, who have gone on to open up their own great pizzerias and make incredible pie. In a sense, they carry on the work for me and it’s a very special process to be a part of.
What is about pizza that makes it so beloved to people?
Growing up, pizza is every kid’s favorite food. It’s communal, fun, and easy—you can make it your own, whether that’s creating something simple or complex. You can make round, square, thick, or thin.
I think that sense of nostalgia stays with you as you become an adult. Pizza brings people back to when life was a bit simpler. And let’s face it, pizza is delicious no matter how old you are.
One of the things that makes your restaurant so unique is the variety of ovens. Can you give readers a quick education, please?
Our menu offers a wide variety of Italian and American pizza styles, all cooked in one of seven different ovens. We have the true Neopolitan pizza made in a burning wood up to 900 degrees, to a blistering 1000 degree coal oven, along with an assortment of gas and electric ovens, each perfectly suited to the particular style of pizza cooked in it.
What are the most popular pizzas at Tony’s?
That’s a tough question. We have multiple award-winning pies on the menu, including our popular Margherita Napoletana (we only make 73 of them each day), Pizza Porto, Cal Italia, La Regina, Burratina di Margherita, and New Yorker which is coal-fired in our 1000 degree oven.
Which pie is your personal favorite?
That’s like asking a father who his favorite son is. You know I have one, but I’ll never admit it. And, honestly, I love everything. That’s why I like to explore so many different styles of pizza.
Let’s talk about some other dishes like those incredible squash blossoms. How did you come up with those?
Being in California, we are very lucky to have access to some of the best seasonal produce. The California-style pizzas on our menu are a nod to these seasonal ingredients, and we have fun getting creative with surprising pairings. Last year, we launched the squash blossom & burrata pie inspired by the spring season featuring ricotta stuffed squash blossoms, burrata, prosciutto di parma, crushed red pepper, mozzarella, and shaved parmigiano reggiano.
Other than pizza, what are some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes?
We make our own pasta and case sausages in-house, and offer a wide selection of pastas, antipasti, salads, and desserts. A few stand out crowd-favorites are the Coccoli (delicious rounds of sea-salted fried dough that can be filled with your favorite ingredients), Meatballs Gigante, Peroni Battered Fried Artichokes, and Housemade Bucatini Pasta.
We should mention your wine awards, as well. What are they and what do they mean to you?
We recently received Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence for the 5th year in a row, which is such an honor. Wine Director Jules Gregg ensures that our wine list is as thoughtful and expansive as our food menu. We offer 65 different varietals and 185 wines, highlighting intentional selections from Italy and California.
Mixologist Elmer Mejicanos also provides a full bar program featuring hand-crafted artisan cocktails and an extensive tequila and beer collection.
Tell us about the process of coming up with recipes. How do you experiment?
To make the perfect pizza, it’s all about the ingredients. I start with flour as the foundation; it’s the heart and soul of pizza. Balance is important, but it’s really about your dough, sauce, and cheese. I always want to make sure that my dough balances with the other pizza flavors, while taking you through a journey with each bite.
Describe those award-winning pizzas so we can drool a little.
· One of our most popular pies is the Margherita Napoletana (we only make 73 per day), a World Pizza Cup winner in Naples, Italy. It features dough finished by hand using Caputo Blue flour then proofed in Napolitana wood boxes, San Marzano tomatoes, D.O.P., sea salt, mozzarella for di latte, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil.
· Pizza Porto, my most recent award-winning pie, won the 2018 All-Stars Pizza Championship in Porto, Portugal. It features Portuguese chorizo, nduja, micro greens, mozzarella, top Sao Jorge cheese, port reduction, crema di port, and smoked sea salt.
· Cal Italia, a gold medal winner of Food Network’s Pizza Champions Challenge, features asiago, mozzarella, Italian gorgonzola, Croatian sweet fig preserves, prosciutto di parma, parmigiano, balsamic reduction, and no sauce.
· La Regina, a gold cup winner at the International Pizza Championships Parma, Italy, features soppressata picante, prosciutto di parma, mozzarella, parmigiano, provolone, and arugula.
· Burratina di Margherita, a gold cup winner at the International Pizza Championships Lecce, Italy, features burrata, cherry tomatoes tossed with fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, and balsamic reduction.
· New Yorker, a gold medal winner Las Vegas, features mozzarella, hand crushed tomato sauce, natural casing pepperoni, sliced Italian fennel sausage, calabrese sausage, ricotta, chopped garlic, and oregano.
How does it feel to have your pizzas named best in the world? How do you top that?!
It is truly an honor and a blessing. It’s also a bit surreal—especially to have won internationally. It’s one of the best feelings ever, but I’m always trying to make it better. After I win a championship, I look at that pizza and think to myself—how can I make it better?
What’s next for you?
I hope pizza lovers will come visit us at our Bay Area and Las Vegas locations in exciting new venues. We also have Tony’s locations in San Francisco’s Levi’s Stadium and Tony G’s within the new Chase Center, and there are more to come soon.
Do you ever get sick of pizza?
I believe the world would be a better place if we all traveled more, and I write about everything from luxury spas, cruises and hotels to quirky museums and street food in order to encourage people to get out and explore. When I’m not traveling around the globe—and even when I am— I blog at Midlife at the Oasis, my award-winning website. Over the past 20 years, I’ve written for dozens of magazines and was a Contributing Writer to Entertainment Weekly for more than a decade. In 2010, I was one of the Ultimate Viewers selected by Oprah Winfrey to accompany her to Australia. Since then, I’ve won three BlogHer Voices of the Year awards and become a Travel Expert at USA Today 10Best and a regular contributor to AAA Midwest Traveler and Southern Traveler. I’m a member of Society of American Travel Writers and North American Travel Journalists Association. Join me on my journeys on Instagram and Twitter @loisaltermark.