"A beatific smile slowly crept over my face as I wallowed in pizza delight."

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Tony's Pizza Napoletana

1570 Stockton Street Union Street, San Francisco CA 94133 (at Union Street; map); 415-835-9888; internationalschoolofpizza.com
Pizza Style: Amazingly, all kinds
Oven Type: Again, amazingly, four different types
The Skinny: World Pizza Champion team member Tony Gemignani's combined pizzeria/pizza school is a veritable university or museum of pizza, with four different oven types to make an endless variety of pizza styles, from Neapolitan to New York to Trenton tomato pies, and more

When I first decided to go public with my thoughts and feelings about pizza, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn't realize just how emotional people could become, whether praising or damning pizza. Well, needless to say, the last few weeks in the blogosphere, as well as in print media, have witnessed a virtual pizza firefight.

The fuel that inflamed current pizza discourse may have been Alan Richman's provocative list of his 25 best pizzas in the United States. Seemingly incendiary by design, Richman's GQ article at least shed some well-deserved light on several pizzerias that have either been under the radar or were fairly new on the food scene. (In California, this includes Antica Pizzeria in Los Angeles and Delfina and Gialina in San Francisco). Otherwise, Richman's rankings merely raised the cockles of many pizza lovers around the country, and no one enjoys having their cockles raised.

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Just last week, Frank Bruni, restaurant critic for the New York Times, issued his sober yet still contentious analysis of the present state of pizza (above). While limited to the New York pizza scene since 2004 ( a turning point in pizza history, he says), his observations, especially abut the economic motivation inflating the pizza bubble, were a welcome relief from the hostility and hyperbole that characterizes most pizza pontifications.

Last week, New York magazine threw another match on this already blazing situation (I still haven't had time to read all the articles). From the Slice synopsis and the comments that followed concerning Una Pizza Napoletana's Anthony Mangieri, pizzaphiles are getting as hot about this formerly simple working-class staple as the inside of a coal-burning oven, roughly 1,100 degrees.

An especially inflammatory topic for some is the question of Neapolitan pizza authenticity. What is a true pizza Napoletana? Must a pizzaiolo strictly adhere to the VPN's official definition or can the pies of Naples themselves simply be the inspiration behind a pieman's more idiosyncratic pizza creations?

Given the hot tempers involved in this culinary quest for pizza perfection, I am reluctantly offering my observations of a recently concluded journey to the north to sample more of San Francisco's pizza. In my humble and, thankfully, still relatively anonymous opinion, San Francisco is ready to be crowned a great pizza city.

OK, I said it. An otherwise epicurean city where, for years, I had resigned myself to eating pizza that reeked of dishwater, (my roommate often brought it home and I was
in no financial position to quibble over an antibacterial aroma), today the City by the Bay can confidently trumpet, from the West Coast to the East Coast, "We have great fuckin' pizza here."

Tony's Pizza Napoletana: Four Ovens, Many Pizza Styles

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Tony Gemignani, with one of his four different ovens, at Tony's Pizza Napoletana.

The hot news from Baghdad by the Bay has to be the recent opening of Tony's Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco's historic Italian neighborhood of North Beach (1570 Stockton Street Union Street, San Francisco CA 94133; map). The Tony behind this elegant, barely two-week-old pizza emporium is none other than Tony Gemignani, the Bay Area–born and Napoli-trained and -certified pizzaiolo, who has won so many pizza-tossing and tasting competitions that, in the interest of fairness, he no longer (or rarely) competes himself.

Now, with all the hype regarding Gemignani's exploits, my cynical native New York nature told me to prepare for serious disappointment on the scale felt by Mets' fans the last two seasons. Ouch! The pizzeria's high-profile location was also cause for concern since North Beach—once known more for bocce balls, espresso, Joe DiMaggio, and the Beats—today lays nearly prostrate to the demands of the tourist industry and, thus, generates little enthusiasm and a great deal of contempt among native San Franciscans. Nevertheless, last Friday around 2:30 p.m. I entered and, as the dining room was full, took a corner seat at the long bar.

One look at the menu and I knew Gemignani held quite a pizza operation in his hands. An indication of its grandeur is the use of four different ovens to produce four different pizza styles. He offers:

  • Seven choices of "classic Italian pizza," all cooked in a domed brick oven
  • Six choices of "classic American pizza," cooked in a "New York flat-top brick oven
  • Five Sicilian-style pizzas cooked in an Italian brick oven
  • And, finally, another eight pizzas, including Neapolitan-style marinara and Margherita pies, cooked in a 900-degree wood-burning, domed brick oven made in Naples

Gemignani only makes 73 of his 2007 World Pizza Cup–winning Margherita pies every day. Admittedly, the tour Gemignani gave me of the kitchen left me somewhat dizzy. If I'm not mistaken, three of the ovens are brick-lined, though from the exterior they looked like standard steel-deck gas ovens. In any case, they were capable of reaching the extremely high temperatures generally necessary to cook the best pies. In fact, Gemignani mentioned the "three-second rule" to me, as in, don't leave your hands in the oven for more than three seconds, otherwise they become part of the toppings.

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There are so many pizza choices that it would be impossible for even the 49ers to taste them all in one sitting. Therefore, I chose a very narrow, focused approach and simply ordered the Gold Cup–winning Margherita—but with sausage. This would surely be a good test to measure both the quality of Gemignani's work as well as the work of the Neapolitan judges who awarded him the prize.

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What arrived in front of me, sitting atop a beautiful, imported, ceramic, Italian pizza stand, was an unequivocally gorgeous Margherita pie. Mozzarella, sausage, sauce, and crust in perfect balance. Each element individually scrumptious but also blending together to create a whole infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. This pie is made with San Felice flour proofed in Neapolitan wood boxes, San Marzano tomatoes, fior di latte, fresh basil, sea salt, and extra virgin olive oil.

This particular pie meets all the requirements of the VPN, though, interestingly, the normally "wetter" cheese actually maintained a firmer consistency than usual without losing any creaminess, making for a preferable pizza experience for me. I enjoy the typical "wet" Neapolitan pie, too, but as my pizza palate was formed eating slices at Burnside and Paradise Pizzerias in the Bronx, I am partial to a firmer slice that can be eaten in the traditional New York folding style.

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The crust, as can be seen in the photos, had a puffy, airy cornicione, raised to just the right height and nicely charred and blistered. And it had that difficult-to-achieve quality of exterior crispness and interior chewiness so lacking in most pizzas. The sauce, generously applied yet not overwhelming, was redolent with a spicy simplicity, as this simple food demands. The spicy fennel sausage and basil, harmoniously arranged around the pie, completed a divine masterpiece.

Gemignani's skill as a pizzaiolo was, no doubt, righteously deserving of the award he earned in Naples for this pie. Each bite included just enough of each of the ingredients to create a virtual party on the palate. A beatific smile slowly crept over my face as I wallowed in pizza delight.

That said, there is something even more remarkable about Gemignani's restaurant. As I mentioned earlier, there is a bewildering choice of pizzas made in his four ovens. Clearly, Tony G.'s business model is to try to appeal to the tastes of pizza lovers everywhere. The four major styles listed above include his versions of DeLorenzo's tomato pie, as well as medium, thin, and, I assume, thick crusts for the Sicilian pies. Gemignani even offers pies made with different flour, either San Felice, which I had and perhaps which made for a slightly firmer crust, or the more commonly used Caputo brand of Tipo "00." Truly a staggering number of options available.

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Gemignani's version of Trenton tomato pie à la DeLorenzo's.

And while I intended to limit myself to only one pizza for health reasons, before I finished, Tony came over and insisted I try the tomato pie. Mercifully, two guys sitting next to me, who came in only because of the recommendation of two cops who had just finished eating, agreed to share this second pie.

I never have dined on authentic New Jersey tomato pie, so I can offer no comment on that issue, but this version seemed to me a bit more like a Chicago-style deep dish pie, due to the fact that the rich, bright-red sauce sat on top of the mozzarella and Parmigiano cheeses. Authentic or not, it did make me take notice. As a lover of tomato sauces, its abundance gratified me, though I would never want that much sauce on a different type of pie. The only criticism I would make of this pie is that the crust seemed a bit too thick and dense. I definitely will have to return soon to check out his interpretation of the New Haven clam pie.

In addition to these many pies, which range in price from $10 for a "classic pepperoni and cheese pie" to $38 for a pie made with imported Italian truffles and burrata, Gemignani also serves calzones, strombolis, insalatas, antipasti, and a wide range of beverages. As I said, something for everyone.

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My experience at Tony's Pizza Napoletana left nothing to be desired. The pizza was impeccable. Its quality and use of mostly imported or locally produced artisanal ingredients seemed to scream, "Eat me." Tony and the staff, including the bartender, were friendly and committed to making their restaurant a success. His eclecticism may rub some purists the wrong way, but their aesthetic principles would, no doubt, be soothed by a bite of the Margherita.

As a final thought, I will simply reiterate what I wrote at the top: Gemignani's bold debut onto San Francisco's pizza scene makes this city a divine destination for pizza lovers everywhere. It is now unquestionably among the best of the world's great pizza locales. All San Francisco needs now is a slice joint to really challenge for the title.

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