Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, San Francisco CA
Having a car in San Francisco can be a hindrance. Besides the traffic of the metering lights on the Bay Bridge and the lookie-loos taking pictures on its new span (and that’s just approaching the City), finding a parking spot once there can feel like a never-ending battle against one-way streets. In the end, testing your brakes in a parallel spot on a super steep hill several blocks away from Tony’s Pizza Napoletana is so worth it. Owner/mastermind Tony Gemignani puts the everyday pizza joints to shame with the wonders coming from his kitchen. Eight ovens of different kinds (gas, electric, wood fire, coal fired, rotoflex) at a range of temperatures from 525 to 1000 degrees F, means the varieties are seemingly endless from crusts to toppings.
Honoring our native state and August’s favorite European country simultaneously, we ordered the Barcelona for its toppings, wood fired California style at 900 degrees for a mere 90 seconds. The result was a soft and chewy dough with a burnt bottom, but that was the intention. A light layer of mozzarella was the base cheese, as it is for most pizzas, but this one had the added bonus of Spanish Manchego cheese, named for the region of La Mancha where it is produced. Don Quijote likely would have loved Manchego cheese, if he were real. It is slightly piquant, which works well with the other quintessentially Spanish flavors on this pizza. Nora peppers (another name for paprika peppers) and smoked paprika chorizo tomato sauce both brought a deep spiciness, but with almost zero heat. The chorizo, being Spanish and not Mexican, was neither greasy nor spicy but more like what an American would call a fancy, flavorful pepperoni. Another famous Spanish ham product, jamón, was plentiful and delicious. Considering the tender bits of scrambled farm egg, it wouldn’t be wrong to have the leftovers of this pizza for breakfast.
Cole fired from a 1000 degree F oven for about four minutes was this “white pie with clam and garlic,” plus bacon for an extra charge. That’s about all that the description said, really. With such a description, we did not anticipate that simplicity would taste so glorious. There was mozzarella cheese but a different kind than the Barcelona, this one being a whole milk, milder, Brooklyn style – to go with the East Coast vibe, naturally. It was a creamy backdrop for the bold bacon and plentiful, sweet garlic. The clams, those in the shell as well as the minced meat on the pizza, were nicely chewy, smoky, and very fresh. This pizza had the perfect combination of flavors reminiscent of a hearty clam chowder, but in a cheesy bread bowl. There were overwhelmingly more toppings than crust, since it was thinner than the Barcelona yet harder, but don’t be scared by a little work.
As much as the white pie reminded us of clam chowder, the Detroit style red top reminded us of grilled cheese Texas toast. Funny, since the two places aren’t even in the same time zone. Anyway, Zach says he may have found his new favorite type of pizza, and we really lucked out since only 25 of these are prepared each day and we got the last one. Baked in a gas oven at 550 degrees F for 25 minutes on a blue steel pan from Detroit, the kitchen knows how to recreate authenticity. What else would the owner and first American to win the World Pizza Championship strive for, but authenticity? With its own mozzarella unlike those of the other two, Wisconsin brick, as well as white cheddar, this was the cheesiest pie of the night. Where the edges met the pan, a delicious garlic butter edge was formed, with caramelized corners adorned by mini cheese skirts. The dough under the bed of toppings was thick, soft, and slightly buttery. Poured over the top were ladles of a tangy and mildly sweet tomato sauce, rich and fresh. All that is just the basic “red top” Detroit style pizza, without your choice of toppings, and we couldn’t do without trying a couple of the roughly ten. Just like almost everything else here, the high quality sausage was made in-house. August is not generally a sausage fan, but this was mild for her and pleasantly savory. The pepperoni we requested provided the classic meatiness expected in an American pie. All the elements, from the caramelized cheese to the crust, the sauce to the meat, balanced incredibly well.
Chris, our server, made excellent recommendations and conversation, while the rest of his crew worked together seamlessly to keep the tables happy. A few people waiting for a clear table looked a teensy bit peeved, on the other hand, since reservations are impossible (literally, they don’t book them). When you come, be prepared and ask for the first table available, inside or out. If it’s cold outside, don’t worry because the heaters are set right above each table to keep guests warm and cozy while watching the sun set. We came without coats or sweaters, and we were just fine with our single layers. Across the way, if the door is open, you might catch some live jazz music coming your direction, so the ambiance outdoors is unique and can never be repeated. We intend to return to try Tony’s other types of pizzas and non-pizza items, and just like jazz, there seem to be countless possibilities on the menu.