Tony Gemignani has a secret.  Probably a lot of them.

And while he may not have told us his personal secret meatball recipe in class, he certainly shares a lot of what he knows in the classes of his International School of Pizza in San Francisco.
Tony's two signs

But let’s start at the beginning.
Here’s what we knew going in:

  • Tony Gemignani is an award-winning (9-time World Pizza Champion) pizzaiolo and pizza-tosser,
  • He opened Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, amid fierce (and growing) competition,
  • He founded the International School of Pizza, which offers professional classes and certification as well as classes for the home pizza chef,
  • We wanted to meet him and learn more pizza craft from him.

When we learned that the International School of Pizza was offering a two-day Home Pizza Chef course during the time we’d be in California, it seemed… providential.

Confession: there was a time when, like many pizza snobs, we were ready to write Tony Gemignani off as a pizza tosser, an acrobat. I mean – the Harlem Globetrotters are great, but is it basketball?  Well, after having read the reviews of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, seen his cookbook, and with the recommendation of Peter Reinhart, we went to Tony’s website to sign up.

Although we both wanted to attend, we could only afford tuition for one. Lillian convinced Cary to take the class (it didn’t take much convincing). On the day of the class, we arrived in the Bay Area at about 4 a.m.  Class began at 7.

Someday, we’ll take a pizza class that isn’t proceeded by an all-night drive! Cary picks up the story here:

It was still dark outside when I arrived at 1570 Stockton Street, home of both Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and the International School of Pizza. Tony was inside, firing the oven.

Some of my fellow students were already waiting.

By 7 a.m., all of us had arrived, seven intrepid students, ready to ‘up our pizza game’ substantially. We were an eager group of pizza-makers, looking forward to increasing our skills and knowledge and, I’m sure, looking forward to sliding a Margherita pizza into the 900-degree heat of Tony’s domed Neapolitan wood-fired oven!

We were greeted by one of Tony’s partners, Nancy Puglisi, who ushered us into the main room.  Tony stepped out from behind the counter to greet us, introduced himself with a bit of history (we didn’t know that he’d opened Pyzano’s at age 18!) and give us a brief rundown of what we could expect over the course of the class.  Learning materials, t-shirts and aprons appeared, and we were ready to begin.

The first thing Tony Gemignani taught us was about Neapolitan flour – that the two brands used in Naples are Caputo and San Felice, and that the pizzerias there use one or the other, but not both.

Then he told us that we would start out with one of the most difficult skills; ‘pushing’ the dough – stretching the doughball out.  He explained how crucial the first push is, and how each pizza maker pushes dough a little bit differently.  First Tony showed us how to push.

Then we took turns while our instructor watched.

cary pushes the dough
Cary pushes the dough under Tony’s watchful eye.

That was the beginning of two information-packed four-hour sessions of pizza lessons, pizza conversation, pizza baking and pizza eating.

We learned about different kinds of cheese, tomatoes, spices… how to apply the sauce, the cheese, and each of us got to make several pies.  I wish I was enough of a wordsmith to tell you what it felt like to make a pizza in a 1,000-degree wood-fired oven – in ninety seconds!

tony gemignani making a Sicilian pizza
Tony puts the finishing touches on a Sicilian pizza

In addition to the volumes of pizza making information Tony shared with us and the hands-on guidance, he also made us a few pizzas!  My favorites: his Sicilian pizza, which looked and tasted like it was made in Brooklyn, and his Trenton-style Tomato Pie. Tony said it’s based on DeLorenzo’s in Trenton, but I thought Tony’s was better.

Guests at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana can get pretty much any style of pizza there and, based on what we tasted, it’s all authentic and delicious.


tony gemignani's neapolitan oven
The Neapolitan oven

We got to use most of the five different style ovens in the kitchen of the restaurant, and as we learned, watched, made pizzas and tasted pizzas, every single one of us got better and better.  I really needed that.  At first, watching Tony Gemignani make pizza was daunting – the man has skills.  After day one, I said to Lillian, “Tomorrow, I’m going to ask Tony what I can possibly do to get better at this, because I think I stink.”

The next day I asked. “More practice,” was the answer.  “Okay,” I said, “I can do that.”  And then Tony pulled out three trays with the dough we’d made the night before.  He showed us what worked well and what didn’t work so well.  After that, we pushed more dough, sauced, shaped, topped and baked more pizzas. As envious as I was of some of my classmates pies, I was getting better at the balance and the baking.

At the end of the second day, Lillian came in to meet Tony and taste some pizza. I had already eaten more than my share, as Tony or any of my fellow students could tell you. But I wasn’t the only one – classmate Frank V. wrote, “On Sunday after class was over my wife and a couple of friends met me outside Tony’s. What did we do? Why we went back in and ordered a couple of pizzas, of course.” Now that’s passion for pizza!

a margherita pizza at the International School of Pizza
Cary with a Margherita

I think Lil was pleased with the improvement in my skills – or was it the ovens? We’ll find out when we start using what I’ve learned at home! Stay tuned to our Making Pizza section, and we’ll keep you informed.

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