To say the least, the last fourteen months has been an obstacle course for small businesses in San Francisco. A lot of viable companies have been knocked out of the game altogether, and as we begin to move beyond the pandemic, we’re emerging into a business environment that has been forever altered.

On the other hand, some remarkable success stories have come out of this tumultuous period, and you don’t even have to look beyond North Beach: Their footprint nearly tripled by the Shared Spaces program, neighborhood stalwarts Belle Cora have reinvented themselves over the past year. And just around the corner, Elmer Mejicanos (Bar Manager of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana) recently premiered Red Window, his colorful new Spanish eatery, to impressive crowds.

At the beginning of this month North Beach had another auspicious debut, one the neighborhood has waited literally years for: Toscano Brothers Bakery and Dago Bagel, Tony Gemignani’s long-anticipated neighborhood bakery, has arrived.

Toscano Brothers Bakery SF

Toscano Brothers and Dago Bagel have been drawing the early crowds since day one. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

The response has been incendiary, with lines around the block on Day One–and Tony is just getting started. I sat down with North Beach’s busiest baker last week to talk about the many challenges he faced in opening, and the surprisingly warm reception his project has received. Lightly edited for clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: You’ve been working on your bakery concept for a long time. When did you actually get started on it?

Tony Gemignani: About two years ago, I was looking at the old Italian French Bakery on Grant Avenue. We were working on a letter of intent for a big bakery and bagel shop there. Due to personal issues at the time, I had to pull out of that project; that was maybe September, October of 2019.

I had these big ovens and kettles, everything fully equipped–it was going to be this giant bakery, but it just didn’t happen.

So 2020 rolls around, Covid hits, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I’ve still got the bread and bagel concept on my mind, and I saw a location on the opposite end of the neighborhood. 

Right around this time I started thinking to myself: we’ve got all this outside seating. We’ve got a hundred seats we didn’t have before. So now, when it’s all said and done we’re going to have twice the capacity. 

[easy-tweet tweet=”People want bread & bagels in North Beach….I listened to the neighborhood. –Tony Gemignani” usehashtags=”no”]JB: That puts a lot of strain on the kitchen.

TG: Well, 2019 was the best year that Tony’s had ever had–and 2020 was among our worst years. So for me, the question was: When things come back to normal, how am I going to make enough dough? And how am I going to be able to take some of the pressure off the people in the kitchen?

So I saw an opportunity to move my dough production from Tony’s, Slice House and Capo’s to another location. I thought heck, why don’t we do the bakery and bagel shop out of a much smaller venue, and one that is more manageable? 

You know, If I had been in the midst of that buildout at Italian French when the pandemic started, I probably would have gone broke. So thank god that personal things happened when they did. If I had signed the lease….that was a big nut, a lot of equipment. I could have been in the middle of it when Covid started. It was a much bigger project to build, and I would have been stuck.

So when I saw this location, which had been a deli, I liked the bones of it. There were things I loved about it, and things I hated. It’s off the beaten path; it’s on the Chinatown/North Beach border, which used to be Broadway, but now is really Vallejo Street. Just look at where the place sits: I love Molinari, I’ve always loved Palermo. Capo’s is right here, Little City. We’re right in the middle of all of that.

The bakery was in close enough proximity to bring dough to Tony’s, Capo’s and Slice House. It couldn’t be too far away, because we bring dough to each location every morning. We had to be able to bring all of my mixers from all the locations in line, and it had to have enough walk-in space. There were a few things I needed. And of course, I had to be able to bring an oven in.

So during Covid I was looking at different locations, and this place was vacant. The tenants walked out, like so many people did. I knew the landlord, Giovanni Toracca, and I told him about my idea to bring bread back to North Beach. We solidified a pretty good 10-year lease with several options.

What’s great about this location is they actually cooked here–you can see the exhaust right there (points). Years ago they baked in this space–which is pretty important, because pulling a permit for an oven in a space that’s never had one is a lot more difficult than finding an existing exhaust.

Not your average bakery: Toscano Brothers squeezes a lot of capacity into a relatively small space. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: How long has it been since they’ve baked here?

TG: 30 years? 40 years? I don’t know, but it was a long time ago. In any case, this was a two-year project. We didn’t jump on the bagel bandwagon, we’ve been working on this for a long time. In September of last year, we signed the lease; but how long would it take for us to get open during Covid?

We opened May First. It took seven months to get all the permits and approvals. It was just a change of ownership, and pulling a permit for an oven. And obviously cleaning the place up and beautifying it.

I should say, our Supervisor Aaron Peskin was very helpful during the process, and he made a call for me on the permit when I asked him.

JB: And aside from all this, you still had to contend with your fancy new oven.

TG: There have been a lot of problems. It’s the first of its kind in the U.S., and we’ve had lots of trouble with the steam injectors, primarily. 

You know, you just want to be able to get that Lamborghini you just bought out of second gear. So that’s been a lot of stress. Bagels and bread is a new concept for me. I’ve had a lot of help, obviously. From Keith and Nicky Giusto on the bread side, and from Adam Sachs with the bagels.

We’ve been talking for years about the bread, and over a year and a half about the bagels. Being able to make it all come together…

When the Giustos came to me and asked what I wanted to do, I told them: I want to do a baguette, and I want to do a batard. And I want to have an olive rosemary bread, because that’s what I like. For the batard, I want do something special. 

Keith came back and said I’ve got a sour cherry chocolate that will blow you away–no one really does it. I tried it, and I added Maldon salt to it, that was my thing.

I also have another bread that I just released on Sunday. Sundays only, and it’s a multigrain bread, a batard with dates, walnuts and dried apricots. That’ll be a special, and we’ll probably only have 20 loaves.

So right now, we’re small batch. For bagels….I don’t know if 400 bagels is considered small batch or not.

Dago Bagel in San Francisco

The Dago Bagel name has struck a chord with people in the Bay Area, most of whom seem to get the joke. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: It’s not small to you!

TG: It’s not (laughs). But like I said, we’re here for the neighborhood. We’re not doing corporate accounts yet, although everyone has asked for it. Uber, DoorDash and the others all reached out to us in the beginning, but right now we’re just happy to serve the neighborhood. Plus we just can’t handle the volume, and it’s hard to find help.

That’s all I wanted to do: bread and bagels, and everything we make is fucking solid. It’s not fifty to choose from. I like it like that. My guys are doing the exact same thing every day, other than the fact that we’ve increased it. I want to be great at everything we do. There’s not one item you’ll have that’s just okay.

During this whole process, we were training at Tony’s, and doing R&D. Saturdays were Bagel Day. Adam would make bagels, we’d get bagels from Midnight, from Daily Driver. We’d weigh them, and critique them. A little less yeast….maybe no yeast at all? A little chewier….a little more sour. There was a lot of tweaking and adjusting and weighing. There’s a lot to it.

It’s a New York bagel: it’s chewy, slightly tough. Not overyeasted, and not sweet–not a donut. The right amount of weight, and a touch of rye. Sourdough starter, but just a touch, so it’s not actually sour.

The elements are all there: high-gluten, high-protein flour; hand-twisted; hand-rolled; low hydration. They’re boiled in liquid malt, and baked on burlap-wrapped pine boards that we cut to fit this oven. They’re baked upside down on the boards, then flipped over six at a time, directly onto the stone. 

The way we do it is very old-school, very traditional. A lot of guys have said to me, “Oh, you’re making bagels out of your pizza dough, so you just kind of roll it and put it in the oven?” 

Dago Bagel

Thanks to  Dago Bagel, fresh bagels are finally on the menu in North Beach.

JB: Hell, no.

TG: No. It’s totally different. A lot of guys do that: they half-ass it. Adam said it best: It’s great, because we’re doing volume, but we haven’t cut corners. 

On the other hand, I’m not making 3,000, where I very well could be. But labor will kill you. It’s already killing us. Finding help is the second thing that’s impossible during Covid. Look at the story about Tartine that just ran in SFGate….it’s hard to find people. So for now, Thursday through Friday is perfect for us.

JB: Meanwhile, you’ve gotten a slew of attention for the name. For those who don’t already know, why Dago Bagel?

TG: That all came out of a problem I had with some guys in the neighborhood, who had an issue with me being open during Covid. It got really ugly, and at one point one of them got in my face, and called me a Wop and a Dago.

JB: I remember how much that got under your skin.

TG: It really did. But I was determined to do something positive with it. So, Dago Bagel.

But you know, at first, it was like: Do I call it that or not? My dad told me, “I don’t know, Son.” My attorney said, “Man….it could go either way.”

JB: That is a risky name in an Italian neighborhood. How have the people here reacted? 

Dago Bagel SF

The bakers at Toscano Brothers & Dago Bagel get started promptly at 4:00 A.M. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

TG: It has actually been super positive. You might hear one or two things about it, but overwhelmingly it has been very good. I sell out every day. I’ll tell you, other than the ovens giving me shit, this has been the best opening I’ve ever had. Ever. People are so happy, they just love it. It’s nice, because I’ve had some openings that were…Oh, my god. 

The early hours are tough, though: we get in here at 3:30, 3:45 A.M. My guys are here at 4:00, and we’re getting everything boiled and ready by 4:30, and baking by 4:35. I mean, we’re going. That’s what’s killing me now, is the baker’s hours. 

But honestly, I’ve never heard so many stories about Dago in my life. People telling me stories about their grandfathers, their fathers: “When I was a kid…”

The support has been awesome. There are people coming from the Marina, from Oakland, Sunnyvale, everywhere. These are people I don’t know–there are lots of Tony’s fans and Capo’s fans out there, but this is a whole new group. We get East Coasters who come in, older Jewish men and women who come in and say, I know a bagel.

It has been great. If you read the story, you’ll get it. If you don’t….and some people don’t even know what the heck it means. 

JB: The other day someone told me she just came from your place–but she pronounced Dago with a soft a. Dah-Go Bagel.

TG: Ha! But I’ve had so many people from the East Coast, from Chicago reach out to me. People with the last name Toscano, two of them, reached out to me. Really cool stuff. I got a letter from a woman from Fremont that saw us on Channel 7, describing when her father came over, how he met A.P. Giannini before he started Bank of Italy (now Bank of America). How he was such a hard worker–and that people called him Dago.

I’m getting stuff from people all the time. It has been fucking great.

JB: If you think about it, it kind of makes sense. These days, every ethnic group seems to be pushing back against prejudice. But though we’ve faced plenty of bigotry, Italians haven’t been a big part of that conversation.

TG: It wasn’t like I was trying to get them into the conversation. It organically happened. 

Did I put it on Facebook, did I put together a GoFundMe? No. It happened. I was pissed off, and told a few people in the neighborhood. I decided to name the bakery Dago Bagel. Did nothing else. I gave the Chronicle the exclusive to come in, and told them the story. I had to educate people a little bit about what the word means.

And it just ran. I didn’t do a press release or anything like that. I don’t even have a PR company right now. 

(Editor’s Note: The word Dago has a long history. Over 400 years ago, the English were already using “Diego” as a slang term for Spaniards. Eventually shortened to Dago, the word was popularized by American and English sailors, who used it as a pejorative for their Spanish and Portuguese shipmates. By 1900, its meaning had shifted to refer primarily to Italians.)

It really kind of blew up. People want bread and bagels in North Beach. It was missing, and I listened to the neighborhood, and to my customers. I missed it; I enjoy going to buy bread, I like going to have a bagel. I don’t like getting a bagel at a shop where it comes from some commercial kitchen.

Will we be the only one? Probably not, someone else will probably do it. But I wanted to be the first, because I believe that’s always important.

bread at toscano brothers bakery

Toscano Brothers’ bread has been so popular that Tony has to limit baguettes to one per customer. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Has it been difficult to balance your bread production with the bagel operation?

TG: It’s a perfect marriage. They both run out at the same time! We’ll be down to the last baguette, and there will be five bagels left. So far it has been really good. But we had to limit it to one baguette per person.

You know, it’s a 40-year-old sourdough. Keith Giusto won a James beard Award with his sourdough back in the day, and we always said when I do a bakery, that’s how we’d do it: 100% naturally leavened, with organic flours, and milling in-house. 

So when it comes to the baguette, the only thing I’m weak at is the forming of the loaves. The forming and the scoring of a baguette is extremely precise, and very difficult. I still suck at it. Luckily I have a couple of guys that are better than me at it!

The baking part of it is easy for me. Making the dough, baking, and feeding the starter is all easy. But forming the loaves is extremely challenging. Even my guys who have been working with pizza dough for twenty years can’t do it right yet. 

But knock on wood, it has been successful. Most of the writers have been really positive. 

JB: I notice you’ve been bringing in some new things.

TG: Well for bagels, we’ve been doing Everything, Poppy, Sesame, Maldon Salt and Plain, and we just added Asiago and Onion. We did do some blueberry, but we didn’t sell a ton. We’re going to be doing pumpernickel, probably as a holiday thing from October through December. That’s a whole separate batch, done with molasses, so we’re figuring that out.

JB: And we’ve also got pastries coming down the pike.

TG: Yes, Antonio’s Pastries is planned to start some time in July. I’m looking for a pastry chef that will come here after bakery hours, which isn’t bad, and work two days a week. They’ll follow a couple of recipes that I already have. And then they’ll collaborate with me on three of the best pastries you’ll ever have. 

So it’ll be my tiramisu, my panna cotta and my bread pudding, and those will go out to cafés, and Slice House and Giovanni’s. You’ll be able to get those here, but the bakery will also have three really stellar pastries–and we’re still working on that.

So Tony’s looking for a pastry chef. Two shifts a week, and they could easily be Wednesday and Friday, or something like that. For instance, it’s 1:30 right now, and we’re done here, we’re not baking. So a pastry chef could be mixing and baking right now, they’d have the place to themselves.

JB: I’ll put the word out. Meanwhile, I noticed you’ve been putting out some nice sammies.

TG: Yeah, those kind of surprised me. The panini that we do, the mortadella, prosciutto and provolone–we sell a ton of them. I have them on display right when you walk in, and we make them on a half baguette. I sell more of those than anything, I can’t keep up with them.

It’s funny, I have this one customer who comes in for the mortadella–and she calls it a baloney sandwich (laughs). Close enough, I guess!


Toscano Brothers Bakery / Dago Bagel
728 Vallejo Street
San Francisco, CA  94133

Open Thursday through Sunday
8:00 AM–3:00 PM (or until sold out)