Tony's Pizza Napoletana attracts people far and wide to North Beach

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.)

Seafood linguine ($19) with tomato cream sauce, garlic, shrimp, calamari, clams and mussels

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.

An unusually shaped tiramisu ($9), left, and an affogato ($9) with coffee being poured on top.

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.

The bustling bar at Tony's Pizza Napoletana

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

Tony's Pizza Napoletana on Urbanspoon

I liked the little touches like bread brought out in emptied San Marzano tomato cans

Frisee salad with visciole black cherry vinagrette, roasted red peppers, goat cheese, and candied walnuts ($9)

Nostalgic B&W images surround the bar leading into the main room

A glass of Valpolicella red wine ($10)

Classic Caesar salad ($9) of creamy dressing, romaine, croutons, and parmigiano cheese distinguished with slivers of whole white anchovies.

Award-winning Margherita pizza ($19). Only 73 are made each day.

Tony Gemignani works the lunch crowd, making sure each pizza gets the right amount of toppings and the right amount of baked time in the wood-fire oven.

5 Responses to World Champion Pizza in North Beach

  1. Cookie says:

    We went to Tony’s for my hubby’s bday last year and absolutely loved it! We had a big group so the wait was over an hour but it was totally worth it! We got the Meatballs for appetizer and they were some of the best I’ve ever had and the Salad with the Breaded Chicken was definitely a winner too! As for the pizzas, of course we had to try the Margherita. It was good but I prefer more meat on my pizza so my favorite was the Americano. Can’t wait to go back!

    • Ben Ben says:

      Me too! I like lots of stuff on top of my pizza, which is why we ended up with the Robiola. But the Margherita is special, and a filling lunch for one. :)

  2. hungry dog says:

    I don’t know about this place but it sounds like an interesting possibility (though the prevailing sweetness of dishes doesn’t appeal to me). But one of these days I’ll give it a try.

  3. Carolyn Jung says:

    I still have to get to this place. Heard so much about it. So are the pizzas less blistered than at other places? It kind of looks that way.

    • Ben Ben says:

      Yes, seems less blistered, probably because it’s not super thin like many of the new style California pizzerias. I think it’s similar in thickness to what’s served up at Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur.

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