What would make people stand in line for a table at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana? I can give you nine reasons.
Tony Gemignani, the pizzaiolo and owner, is a nine-time World Pizza Champion in the competition that takes place in Naples, Italy. And at his North Beach restaurant, he creates authentic Neopolitan-style pizza from a maroon-and-black-tiled wood-fire oven.
For the longest time, Gemignani was tossing his pies in Castro Valley, but once he started making a name for himself, he decided to head to the big city and open a place in San Francisco. The restaurant is also home to Gemignani’s pizza academy upstairs. Since opening in 2009, he has expanded next door with a spot selling slices.
But my recent visits were to his main restaurant, which takes no reservations so you have to hit it early to avoid a long wait. On my first visit, I was bringing an out-of-town guest, Janet, who was staying at a hotel nearby. Our wait wasn’t too long since we opted for a table at the bar. (Side note: The table at the bar actually isn’t the greatest because it can feel cramped, especially when barflies flutter around you like you’re about to buy them a drink.)
While Tony’s is known for its Neopolitan pizzas, it also makes a variety of pizzas – Romana, Sicilian, California, coal-fired, and even gluten-free. The menu provides a lot of options to build a meal around your pizza, or without – going instead for pastas or Italian rolls.
The dishes are definitely large enough to serve two, such as the salads, including a frisee salad that was piled on with roasted red peppers, goat cheese and candied walnuts ($9). On another visit, the Caesar salad ($9) I ordered for myself was just as large, with a creamy dressing that was enhanced by the slices of fresh white anchovies.
What seemed unusual about the food Janet and I ordered was that they all had an unusual sweet tang to them, from the frisee salad (probably the honey mustard vinagrette) to the seafood linguine ($19) covered in a tomato cream sauce.
The only time the sweetness made sense, naturally, was dessert, where I had an incredibly light and well-balanced tiramisu ($8), one of my favorite Italian desserts. Tony’s version comes out looking like a cupcake, dressed with fine shavings of chocolate. It’s definitely one of the best slice of tiramisu I’ve had in the city.
I also introduced Janet to another Italian favorite, affogato ($7), the cup of vanilla ice cream with espresso poured on.
The one regret I had about our dinner was that I convinced Janet that we should try a more substantive pizza, instead of the plain Margherita, even though Gemignani makes only 73 of these pies a day. So instead, we went with the Wild Robiola ($23) because I love pizza with thinly sliced cured meats strewn on top. In this case, it was speck, along with wild mushrooms, truffle oil and arugula.
The pizza was oddly sweet like the other dishes, and the center was a bit soggy. It wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea.
But I didn’t want to judge Gemignani’s championship pizzas just on the Robiola. If he were to be judged on one pizza, it really should be the Margherita, which is why I returned for lunch a few days later and found myself standing in line as the restaurant apparently draws people from around the state (and country, it sounds like, from the conversations I overheard) to try a world champion pizza.
After munching on the large plate of Caesar salad, I tackled the Margherita ($19), which looked rustic with the tiny white circles of mozzarella fior di latte, sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, and flickers of fresh basil that – although blistered by the heat – still retained an amazing basil flavor even in the dead of winter.
The freshness of the ingredients and the chewy but comforting pizza dough created a balanced pizza that seemed precisely done but uniquely individual, like it’s the first time Gemignani pulled out a Margherita from his oven.
Service is efficient and considerate, especially when I asked for a table after I said the bar felt cramped. The dishes might seem simple, but with the use of quality ingredients the finished product transcends the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, 1570 Stockton St., San Francisco. PH: 415.835.9888. Wed.–Sat., noon–11 p.m.; and Sunday, noon–9:30 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday. No reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.tonyspizzanapoletana.com