Food & Drink

Feast Q&A: Pizza Rock’s Tony Gemignani on his life of pie

Thin crust or thick? Pepperoni or sausage? The variables don’t matter – we love pizza no matter what. Last year 71,000-plus pizzerias had $37.3 billion in sales, numbers that are expected to rise like, well, pizza dough by year’s end.

Smack in the middle of all this is Tony Gemignani, chef-owner of Sacramento’s Pizza Rock (and seven other pizza-centric restaurants), 11-time world pizza champion, Food Network pizza gold medalist and, coming Oct. 21, author of “The Pizza Bible” (Ten Speed Press, $30, 320 pages).

Gemignani, who grew up in Fremont, also operates the International School of Pizza in San Francisco. There, chefs gather from around the world to be certified as “pizzaiolos” (expert pizza-makers), in accordance with the “strict guidelines and theory of the Scuola Italiana Pizzaoli” in Italy.

How did you become involved in a life of pizza?

I was 17 and getting out of high school (23 years ago) when my brother asked if I wanted to get into the pizza business at (his pizzeria) Pyesano’s in Castro Valley. I fell it love with (pizza-making) right away. You can never master it, but I always try to make it better.

You hold eight titles for pizza acrobatics, doing amazing maneuvers with pizza dough.

I opened Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco in 1991, where the pizza acrobatics started as a showpiece for (customers). It brought home the point that we used fresh dough. I won my first (acrobatics) competition in 1995. (Over the years) I’ve traveled around the world doing everything with pizza – throwing it, cooking it and learning how to make different styles.

Your book teaches home cooks how to make professional-quality pizza. What’s the biggest mistake they make now?

It’s not that they’re doing something wrong, it’s that often they’re not using the right ingredients. In the professional world, we either make our own products or buy specific products (such as certain brands of flour). I troubleshoot a lot in the book – don’t put cold dough into the oven, let the dough mature (up to) 48 hours before using it. There’s a lot of chemistry involved.

What’s the highlight of your career?

One of my three world titles for cooking was for the 2007 World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy. I went in as a non-certified pizzaiolo in the Neapolitan-style category, a very specific craft in a very tough competition. Right before the winner was announced, the police came up and said to me, “Don’t yell.” I didn’t understand what they meant, but they didn’t have enough English to say, “Don’t get too excited when the winner is announced.” Then the announcement came – ”Castro Valley, California” – and everything turned very quiet. There were 2,000 very angry people in the audience. You’re talking about a father watching his son lose to me. …I was escorted out by the police.

What makes a great pizza?

Balance. Most pizzerias mess up on the dough. I love complexity in dough, but I don’t want it to overpower a great sauce or a great topping. Everything should marry.

The term “Respect the Craft” is your restaurants’ slogan and is tattooed on your hands. What does it mean?

There’s a story with that: I’d been in the business for 13 years and thought I knew everything. Then I went to Naples and had a Margherita at Trianon da Ciro (since 1923). It was so simple, yet so complex. I looked at it and had an epiphany. I said to myself, “I know nothing.” That’s when I went on my journey of becoming better. I even had to retrain myself. So whatever we do in life, let’s respect it and understand why we’re doing it, and we’ll become better at it.