In 2007, Tony Gemignani became the first American to win the title of World Champion Pizza Maker at the World Pizza Cup in Italy. It was unprecedented for a non-Neapolitan to take the title, let alone an American, and here was this flour-coated victor from Castro Valley looking out into an angry mob of Italians.
While the rest of the American team celebrated in the safety of their hotel -- escorted by polizia through the crowds and chaos -- Gemignani sat quietly pondering his winning pizza. Then he looked at a teammate and said: "I think I know how to make the dough better next time."
Those who know him say it is that drive for perfection that's led to his success. In only five years, Gemignani has revitalized his corner of San Francisco's North Beach with Tony's Pizza Napoletana and its adjoining slice house, which turns out more than 1,000 pizzas a day. It's also home to The International School of Pizza, where he trains chefs from all over the world. He also owns Capo's, a Chicago-style restaurant and whiskey bar a few blocks over.
To date, Gemignani, 40, has won three world titles in pizza cooking and eight in pizza acrobatics -- tossing dough at uncanny heights and speeds. He holds two pizza-related Guinness World Record titles and his third book, "The Pizza Bible," is due out in October on Ten Speed Press following the summer release of his artisan pizza flour for home chefs.
"It's my whole life's work," says the spiky-haired brunette, sitting at a table inside Tony's on a bustling Thursday afternoon. The words "Respect the Craft" are tattooed on his hands. "Pizza for Life" is scrawled across his chest. "No one loves pizza more than me."
Friend and fellow pizza celebrity chef Joe Carlucci of Famous Joe's Pizzeria says that just might be true.
"I thought I was the most passionate person about pizza until I met him (Gemignani)," says Carlucci, a New York native who has been a teammate and competitor of Gemignani's on the Food Network and the World Pizza Cup circuit. Carlucci is also the Guinness World Record holder of the highest pizza toss. "He takes it to another level. Pizza is Tony's child until he has one."
That passion is reflected in his pizzeria, the only one in the country with seven types of ovens and three different dough mixers. Gemignani uses seven kinds of flour to achieve various crusts and more than a dozen cheeses. He pulls his own mozzarella and extracts his own honey from two beehives on his roof-top garden. It goes on his Honey Pie, a wood-fired California-style pizza with calabrese peppers and fried caramelized onions.
In his kitchen, pillows of pizza proof in old-fashioned Neapolitan wood boxes. The menu is organized by region and oven type. For instance, Italy is broken up into Roman, Sicilian, Neapolitan and Classic. American pizza includes Chicago, New York, and some lesser known styles, like Detroit's "Red Top," a thick square cooked in blue steel pans from Detroit to achieve crunchy, toasted corners reminiscent of macaroni and cheese topping. St. Louis-style is cracker-thin, with extra sweet tomato sauce and provel, a processed cheese made with cheddar, Swiss and provolone.
A decorated California chef using processed cheese?
"Yeah," he admits. "If someone from St. Louis comes in here, I couldn't use mozzarella. They'd know. People come looking for their favorites from back home. People from Detroit know and expect those crunchy corners."
Gemignani uncovered these regional specialties while traveling the world with his pizza acrobatics team. He fell into acrobatics after high school, when he started working for his brother, Frank, at Pyzano's, in Castro Valley.
To entertain the crowds awaiting their pies, Gemignani experimented with tossing tricks, like rolling the dough along the backs of his shoulders. After a few years, he entered his first pizza throwing competition in Las Vegas and quickly became the top pizza thrower in the world.
The title took him on the road. When he wasn't doing television appearances or exclusive gigs, like the time he made pizza for Francis Ford Coppola at the director's Napa estate, he would steal away into local kitchens, working with chefs and gathering knowledge about regional flavors and Old World pizza-making styles. And he brought it all back to that Castro Valley kitchen, crafting American pies for customers, but working as a mad pizza scientist before the pizzeria opened.
"I'd be in kitchen at 5 a.m. experimenting with different flours from around the world," he recalls.
Ironically, the first time he tasted Neapolitan pizza was on a trip to Italy that had nothing to do with cooking competitions. It was 14 years ago on his honeymoon. He had just started working at Pyzano's, and, as he sunk his teeth into the blistered, perfectly charred crust and tasted that marriage of sweet tomatoes and sea salt, he closed his eyes and said, "I know nothing."
Now he just might know it all.
Reach Jessica Yadegaran at email@example.com.
Who: Tony Gemignani; www.tonygemignani.com
Occupation: Chef, restaurateur, author, master instructor and 11-time World Pizza Cup Champion.
Residence: San Francisco (and currently building a home in San Ramon)
Current projects: Slice House and Pizza Rock expanding into AT&T Park, the East Bay and Las Vegas. His book, "The Pizza Bible," will be out in October on Ten Speed Press.
Quote: "I think the key to a great pizza is balance. All of my pizzas, even the simple Margherita, take you on a journey of flavors and textures. There's the sweet from the roasted tomatoes and the salty from the sea salt and the tang from the cheese."