What makes Tony’s so special? There are several answers but the most obvious one is ovens. You’d be run out of Italy if you tried to make wood-fired Neopolitan pizza in a gas oven, but you can’t make truly authentic traditional New York-style pizza in anything else. Ask any fan of New Haven pizza what sets it apart and the one word answer is coal. This is why almost all better pizzerias specialize in one style, and when they try to branch out it usually means compromise, but owner Tony Gemignani has another solution – build more ovens. His San Francisco flagship has seven different versions ranging from the Naples classic, burning wood to 900°, to a blistering 1000° coal oven, along with an assortment of gas and electric ovens, each perfectly suited to the particular style of pizza cooked in it.
Tony believes in having the right tool for the job, and the ovens take center stage, but there is far more to it than that, mainly in the form of Tony himself. He has built a sort of museum or temple to pizza making, and even has his own pizza slogan, “Respect the Craft.” He is pizza’s high priest, cheerleader and zealot rolled into one. In theory anyone could add more ovens, but Tony adds passion and perfection: every style of pizza on his huge menu uses the regionally appropriate ingredients, from the imported 00-flour in his Neapolitan crust to the Pendleton flour in his American-style to the multi-grain for his California (he also has several gluten free options). For the same reason, each style uses very different cheeses and even tomato sauces: his Sicilian gets a straight vine ripened sauce, his Neapolitan San Marzano sauce and his American a hand crushed, slightly sweetened version. First rate fresh mozzarella adorns the Neopolitan while heavily processed Provel tops the St. Louis – it would be tempting to upgrade but then it just wouldn’t be St. Louis-style.
There are 12 distinct styles of pizza on the menu, each with numerous but specific variations available – you can add many things to the New York but you’ll only get white clam on the New Haven-style while the three Neapolitan variations offer no extra toppings at all, because that’s just the way it is in these places. Authenticity runs throughout everything at Tony’s and the results play out in the taste.
All of the regional styles are at least very good and some are spectacular. His Detroit is very good but I’ve had better. The again, his New York slice would be a favorite in pretty much any Big Apple neighborhood, a droopy spot on carbon copy of the version I grew up eating in Queens and the Bronx. While his Neapolitan might fall just short of the unparalleled version at near-mythic Pizzeria Bianco, it is as good or better than just about every other “authentic” brick oven place in the country. At the highest end, his New Haven is even more delicious than at that city’s standard bearer Pepe’s – which I love – and widely considered one of the nation’s best pizzas. Simply to make such a great coal pizza would be enough to elevate Tony’s to exalted status, but he does it again and again across the board, and with varieties almost no one else even offers. It’ s no coincidence that Tony was the first American (or non-Italian period) to win Best Pizza Margherita at the World Pizza Cup in Naples, and he also won Best Pizza Romana at the World Championship of Pizza Makers, along with many other awards.