The last few years have brought a lot of changes to the city, to say the least. While many neighborhoods have been hollowed out by the harsh economics of post-Covid SF, North Beach has been remarkably resilient. Thanks in part to the efforts of the North Beach Business Association (which provided restaurants and bars with traffic barriers to cordon off parking spaces) ours was the first district to make the shift outdoors. For just a little while, it seemed we were the only game in town–and revelers returned to the neighborhood, now replete with parklets, in droves. Suddenly, North Beach was back on the map.

This reshuffling has had salutary effects on our retail outlook. For every place that has closed, two appear to have opened. North Beach is healthy–and nobody could be happier about it than Tony Gemignani. 

Doubling down on the bet he made when he opened Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach over 13 years ago, the celebrated chef behind Tony’s, Capo’s and a handful of other vital North Beach businesses managed to launch a successful bakery in the middle of the pandemic (Toscano Brothers/Dago Bagel)Eighteen months later, somehow Tony has maintained that momentum–and picked up speed. Despite suffering his share of setbacks, 2022 was probably the pizzaiolo’s biggest year yet.

Tony Gemignani

Tony Gemignani in front of his Toscano Brothers Bakery/Dago Bagel on Vallejo Street in North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

When Tony announced his very own MasterClass last month, it was the culmination of a series of huge wins. It started last June with a huge showing in Italy’s 50 Top Pizza rankings, where Tony was chosen as the world’s #1 pizza maker, and Tony’s Pizza Napoletana was named #2 pizzeria in the U.S., and #9 worldwide.

Just weeks later, Tony received what could be his biggest honor yet whenTony’s was named Pizzeria of The Year by respected trade magazine Pizza Today. And later this year his Slice House by Tony Gemignani will begin opening multiple pizzerias in Los Angeles, another long-awaited milestone.

I recently sat down with Tony to catch up on all of the recent news. Lightly edited for clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So Tony, this has been quite a year for you.

Tony Gemignani: Yes, it’s been a big rebound year I’d say. 2022 has been a comeback year, one of my busiest.

And then you come to the end of December, January and into February—and it’s the rainiest winter we’ve had.

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana was forced to remove its Stockton Street parklets for street upgrades. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: A friend of mine who has been in the neighborhood for 37 years told me it was the worst rain he’s ever seen here.

TG: Coldest, rainiest….then we had to tear down our parklets on Stockton Street for the new sewer, which has been delayed and delayed. 

So we’ve been on this big roll, and going and going….and all of a sudden, we get stuck. It has been things like weather, and the city, with the loss of seating.

JB: January is always a little bit of a bear anyway.

TG: It’s true, you always get kicked in the ass for January as an owner. But this was kind of a double whammy, because of the weather and everything else. Every year is different. You want to grow, and you’ve got these goals you set, and of course you want to do better in terms of comparables to the previous year.

Everything went up: rent went up, all of our food costs went up, wages went up. Even with a price increase, it still affects the bottom line. So it’s always challenging as an owner.

Meanwhile it’s nice to see new places opening. And old places coming back: especially like Savoy Tivoli. That’s a great example of an anchor in the neighborhood coming back around. It’s old school, I was there when I was 21, drinking; my brother was there before me.

JB: Wow.

TG: Yeah, Savoy was the go-to spot when we were younger. It’s nice to walk by now and see it open again.

Also, the grocery store opening up here on the corner, Luke’s LocalThey’re going to be carrying our frozen line of pizzas, so that’s exciting. Also Gino & Carlo has been selling our pizzas late night out of the bar, and they’ve been doing extremely well. 

JB: I heard about that…

TG: Yeah, and I’m talking a lot of pizzas. We’ve also been working with Shop Locale, and they’re doing about 125 pizzas a week. They’re a grocery service where you can choose from a number of San Francisco specialty shops, from bread to bagels and pizza, and they’ll deliver it to your door. So we’re part of that now, and it’s been crazy busy!

So on a positive note, we’ve been focusing on other avenues to create income, and I’ve been able to solidify our working relationship with Gino & Carlo, Luke’s and Shop Locale. It’s upped our pizza sales by about 200-250 a week, which is good. I had to improve my labels for the frozen line and add bar codes, because they eventually want to have them in all three grocery stores. The first one is North Beach, and they’re opening this week.

JB: It’s great that we finally got that space activated [Stockton at Green Street].

TG: That’s a great corner–I looked at that corner a couple of times over the years. It’s just great to have a grocery store in the neighborhood. You run out of things, and you want to get the things you need, nice ingredients. 

JB: We’ve got a lot of home cooks here.

TG: Yeah….and you want to be able to walk to your local grocery store, that’s important for any neighborhood. And Luke’s is supporting us, they came to me. They may get our flour line in, and our hot pepper oil. They’re really interested in supporting the local neighborhood.

JB: You’ve got another big milestone coming up. You’re finally getting ready to open up restaurants in Los Angeles.

TG: Yeah. I started my Slice House franchise, and L.A. has been an insane hotbed of interest. By the time this comes out, there might be 30 spots slated for L.A., with people at all different stages of the process. There is so much activity going on there.

JB: Well, this is something Los Angelenos have been vying for a long time. I mean, how long have people been asking when you’re going to open in L.A.?

TG: Yeah, a lot of people from L.A. and San Diego come up to Tony’s, It’s funny, when I posted about this, everyone asked me if Tony’s is coming to L.A. And no, there’s really only one Tony’s. Unless the Bellagio called, or the Venetian. Or if it was Tokyo maybe. Maybe.

But I always wanted Tony’s to be that Disneyland, that institution, that place you went to where’s there’s just nothing else like it. Pizza Rock (Tony’s sister pizzeria in Las Vegas) is similar to it, but there’s still only one Tony’s. The coal oven, all the styles, sitting on that corner….it’s just iconic.

Tony Gemignani

People come from all over to try Tony’s award-winning Neapolitan pizza. | Photo: Betancourt E., Yelp

JB: So how many styles are you offering at Tony’s now? 

TG: Good question! A lot.

JB: People ask me, and I feel like I ought to know that.

TG: We’ve got the Canotto now. American, Italian, Coal-fired. New York, Sicilian, Grandma, Detroit. Roman, St. Louis, Gluten-free. Either eleven or twelve. Something like that….unless I missed something.

JB: (Laughs)

TG: We used to have a sausage and stout which was very unique, it had 20% Guinness in the dough.

Oh wait! The Neapolitan….and the California. So 13 styles!

JB: Okay, now I don’t feel so bad that I was unsure.

TG: Come on man, don’t you know? (Laughs)

The Canotto style is the new one that everybody’s kind of blown away by. Not just customers, but pizza makers. I just taught at Pizza University. It’s my last time to teach; I closed my school to focus on the franchise. I had committed to do a class at the University a couple of years ago before Covid hit.

I had 19 in the class, completely full, and there was like a 40-person waiting list. Everybody wanted to get into this class, because it was the last time I’m going to teach–other than Pizza Expo. So I did a 2-day course in Maryland, and I did the Canotto, with the big cornicione. There were some other pizza guys there, and they were like “no way.” 

This is a style that I pretty much invented. There’s Neapolitan Canotto, but this is Canotto Americano–different flour, different oven, different everything. I’m not doing it the way you’re supposed to do it, and pizza makers in general can’t believe the results I’m getting. So they’re kind of stumped. 

Anyway, that’s a new style that we introduced, and we make three types right now.

Tony’s newest pizza style, the Canotto Americano, is unlike anything you’ve had before. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: I haven’t had that yet, I’m going to try it tomorrow.

TG: You should. People might think that Tony’s is a place that has an established thing, and that we stick with that without changing. But we are always reinventing, always adding things, always setting the curve.

If you go to other places and they’re doing something new, chances are they got it from Tony’s. Not to brag or anything, but pizza operators are always coming in to see what we’re doing, and what’s new. I see them on Instagram, and I see them picking up on things. Not that we come up with everything, but when it comes to the West Coast, the styles that you’ve never seen may well have started at Tony’s. You can point to Detroit Style, St. Louis, Tavern Style, or Grandma.

JB: We talk a lot about what makes Tony’s Tony’s, and a big part of it is that the place is a test kitchen.

TG: Yeah, it is. If we add it to the menu, it’s probably going to proliferate elsewhere.

JB: When you’re looking at restaurants that are institutions, places that have really carved out a niche, it’s really unusual to find a place that is still essentially a work in progress.

TG: It really is. And it’s funny, when you step into the place it’s kind of timeless, like we might have been here for 50 or 75 years. But we’re still kind of the new kid on the block, even though it’s going to be 15 years next year.

But it’s still so new, and so fresh. It’s an interesting model; I don’t know if it would work anywhere else, other than this corner. 

It’s a little bit of everything: the bartenders, the servers, the flow, the ambiance. It’s not just the pizza. It’s not pretentious, it’s classic, and they’re always something new. And there’s so much going on, that no one’s ever going to be like “I went there once.” 

JB: It’s true, there’s always a reason to go back. Every time, I’m looking at the table next to mine and making plans for my next visit.

TG: I wanted it to be that way when I built it. I didn’t want it to be a one time, been-there-done-that experience.

JB: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me, Tony.