Tony's Coal-Fired Pizza and Slice House
1556 Stockton Street, San Francisco, CA 94133 (map); 415-835-9888
Pizza Style: Quite a few.
Oven Type: Tony's has six, but a gas-fired and a coal-fired are the new additions.
The skinny: Really excellent coal-fired pies. The NY-style slices are good too, though slightly inconsistent.
Price: NY-style slice, $3.50; Sicilian slice, $3; Original Tomato Pie with Cheese, $19; Romana, $8 for a quarter-meter
Tony Gemignani is nothing if not a completist. His original San Francisco shop, Tony's Pizza Napoletana, already boasted four different types of pizza ovens and a dizzying array of pizza styles. With the opening of Tony's Coal-Fired Pizza and Slice House—right next door, connected through the kitchen—he has added two more ovens to his collection and several more variations on the bread-cheese-sauce theme to his repertoire. Given the excellent pizza I'd eaten at Tony's Pizza Napoletana in the past (check out L.A. Pizza Maven's and Adam Kuban's glowing reviews), I was excited to see what Tony was doing with his new toys.
Entering Tony's Coal-Fired, you're greeted by a display case featuring a cornucopia of pizza styles. There are New York-style slices, Sicilian squares, and an ovoid Roman-style pie that measures about three-feet long. And a freakishly giant calzone. And this is all before you even look at the menu, which lets you know that you can also order the namesake coal-fired pies, Chicago-style Italian beef sandwiches, and a whole array of other Italian sandwiches. There is only one table inside the shop and two tables outside, so I sent my wife out to claim one as I prepared to order too much pizza.
But first I had to ogle the new ovens. The coal oven, a Woodstone Fire Deck, sits front and center in the kitchen. Gemignani is burning anthracite coal from Pennsylvania in there, with a gas assist for better control over the temperatures, which I was told ran between 900 and 1000 degrees. Apparently, it required all sorts of special permits to install, and the woman behind the counter assured me that anthracite is the cleanest burning fossil fuel around. This last tidbit, I'm sure, was meant to soothe my liberal San Francisco sensibilities. (It's okay—I don't mix pizza and politics.) Off to the left, Gemignani's sixth oven is a gas-powered Roto Flex. He's using this hulking metal-and-glass contraption for his New York-style slices.
From the Coal Oven
We had to try at least one offering from the coal oven. Our choice: the Original Tomato Pie with Cheese. The cornicione was fully browned and ranged from very thin to just a slight puff. Biting into it, you could hear the crunch, but then had to give a little pull—the crispy-chewy combination was definitely there. The crust had a rich flavor, supported by a delicious, subtle charred taste.
Indeed, flip the slices over and the underside is marked with little singes. The mozzarella was dry and thinly sliced. Gently dispersed in a sea of sauce, the cheese had bubbled but not browned, giving it a clean taste and just a little bit of toothsomeness as it firmed up on top of the pizza. The balance of the pie tilted slightly towards the sauce, which was robustly tomatoey, but this was a tomato pie after all. I'll be back for more of this.
From the Roto Flex
Though San Francisco has undergone an upscale pizza renaissance in the last few years, it can still be a hard town in which to find a really good slice. It's great that Gemignani is working on remedying this problem. He makes his NY-style slices using All Trumps flour, preparing his dough with a biga, a pre-ferment sometimes used in Italian bread-baking. The biga helps build the complexity of the dough's flavor. It showed in the crust, which had a crispy shell and a good, rich taste.
But the crust was a bit thicker than I typically expect from my NY-style pizzas. Couple this with a generous layer of sauce (full-bodied and tasty) and the cheese (shredded Grande mozzarella) and even the plain slice was a bit too weighty to fold easily. The daily special, topped with pepperoni, meatballs and mushrooms? Fuggedaboutit. In a slice-poor town, this NY-style option was better than most, but upon first taste, I must say that it didn't quite live up to my hopes and dreams.
I liked Gemignani's other pizzas so much that I returned to Tony's Coal-Fired the next day to see if I had been too hard on his slice. And my efforts were rewarded. This time, the New York-style slice boasted a thinner crust and a lighter layer of sauce. It was an easy slice to fold, just how I like it. There may be a consistency problem here, but this second tasting gave me hope.
The Pizza Romana
Though the Romana is not the product of one of Gemignani's new ovens, any pizza that I could order by the meter sounded like fun to me. My stomach is no shrinking violet! The Romana—which is cooked in the gas oven—comes out topped with the same shredded mozzarella as on the NY-style slices and your choice of three toppings, but no sauce. Our slab had been cross-cut diagonally, leaving four rather wide slices. It was a bit hard to pick it up, and we ended up pulling off smaller pieces from the whole. The end-crust was relatively thin and crispy throughout, browned, but paler than Gemignani's coal-fired crust.
On the recommendation of the girl behind the counter, we ordered the pie topped with sopressata, piquante peppers, and arugula. The sopressata was spicy and porky, while the arugula added a pleasant herby freshness. The piquante peppers were (perhaps overly) sweet and powerfully tangy at the same time—I believe the word I'm looking for is piquant. Some folks might find the peppers a bit overwhelming after a few bites.
The cost of all this is worth mentioning; Tony's is a bit pricier than average. Our Original Tomato Pie with Cheese from the coal oven came in at $19. You could add toppings for $3 each. A plain NY-style slice tipped the register at $3.94 after tax. In both formats, Gemignani's pizza is slightly bigger than what's offered at most other shops around town. Still, that ain't cheap.
The menu at Tony's Coal-Fired is so voluminous that I'll be back just to try some of the things that didn't make it onto my table this trip. I certainly want to try the Sicilian slices, and I want to see how the NY-style pizza does the third time around. On the non-pizza front, I've also heard whispers that the chicken parm is really delicious.
In total, though I worry a bit about the consistency of his NY-style slices, it's clear that even as his focus broadens, Gemignani continues to churn out really excellent pizzas. A prediction: by 2020, I see Gemignani in possession of an entire city block, running a pizza conglomerate with every type of oven known to man, serving all twenty-one styles of pizza officially recognized by Slice.
Try deciding what to order then.