Tony Gemignani, co-author of the cookbook Pizza, 9-time World Pizza Champion (8 times in acrobatics, once in pizza making), and owner of a growing cadre of pizza shops in Northern California, is one peripatetic pizzaiolo. After opening Pyzano's, which he calls a “90s style pizzeria,” outside of San Francisco in 1991, Gemignani began touring the country as a pizza-tossing acrobat, and at each stop along the way picking up tricks of that region's pie style, eventually becoming a master at everything from the Chicago deep dish to the classic Italian. He's brought that range of pizzas to his San Francisco Tony's Pizza Napoletana, where he has 6 different kinds of ovens, uses 10 flour varieties, and on nightly basis makes over a half dozen styles of pies like the wood-fired Neapolitan or the long thin Pizza Romana, which is baked in an electric brick oven.
In town a few weeks ago to make a guest appearance on a pizza episode of the forthcoming season of The Next Food Network Star, Gemignani was naturally in the mood to sample some of L.A.'s best pies, and we tagged along to see how our slices stacked up in the eyes of this pizza pundit. Turn the page to see how we did.
Though he was tempted by butterscotch (“The budino here is pretty much the best dessert in the US,” he raved), Gemignani quickly set about expounding on how Nancy Silverton's signature pies, which he calls California style with an Italian perspective, fit into the pizza canon. While the quick bake in a wood-fired oven is similar to classic Neapolitan, at Mozza, the lower temperature, longer bake, and the reported addition of malt and rye, give the crust a complexity not found in Naples' pride and joy, which is just flour, yeast, salt, and water.
On the recommendation of our server, we opted for the funghi misti pizza and an off-menu “secret pizza”, the bianca topped with Mozza's beloved fennel sausage, both of which Gemignani pointed out follow the cardinal rule of Italian pizza – five toppings or fewer. Gemignani was gaga for the spider web-like texture of both crusts, but he did notice a slight gum line on the crust of the bianca, which though invisible to our untrained eyes, was, he explained, the result of a tiny pocket of undercooked dough. “I don't want to be a prick about it,” he said, “We're here early, the dough could be a little cold.” Gum line or no, both pizzas were devoured and particular props were paid to the crispy sage atop the bianca and to the sturdy bottom of funghi misti. “For this style of pizza, you can't do better,” Gemignani pronounced.
From L.A.'s pizza standard-bearer, we headed to Olio, the new wood-fired joint on West 3rd, where Gemignani went into full-on House mode, gathering clues from his surroundings to predict what kind of pizza was in store for us. “They have the same oven as at Mozza, a Mugnaini, but it's running at a higher heat,” he reported. “I would say this pizza is probably a little more wet. A little softer. A little more charred, and slightly chewy. It's more Neapolitan.”
To test his theory, we went for the simple margherita (crushed tomatoes, fresh local mozzarella, fresh basil and Tuscan olive oil) and one topped with housemade Jidori chicken sausage, sautéed Swiss chard, and cherry tomatoes.
Gemignani was impressed with the margherita. “This looks pretty damn nice. Like a picture,” he said, turning over a slice to note the “perfect leoparding” on the bottom and the well-cooked cornicione (the outer rim) of the chewy crust.
He was less taken though with the sausage pie, which despite a little extra heft from the addition of semolina to the dough, had disintegrated in the center, a fate Gemignani attributed to a rough spin in the pizza oven. “It's such a weak pizza that when you turn it, it's very easy to put a hole in it,” he explained “I do it. Anyone does it. With this pizza there are so many ingredients, he just tore right into it.”
At Vito's on La Cienega, Gemignani was impressed with the joint's old school Baker's Pride oven. “This is an old one, so their stone is really seasoned,” he explained. “It's a classic New York oven that people now who are opening places wish they could get.” Though we noted the Vito's counter staff's perfect slice plating technique (on two white paper plates to fully support the wedge's girth and oil drippage potential), we opted for a full pie, split down the middle – half pesto, half pepperoni.
While he found the pepperoni slices to be a bit flimsy, the white pieces were to Gemignani's mind perfect, sending him into a reverie of pizza-induced euphoria.
“It looks bold. It looks awesome,” he raved. “The ricotta is smooth and silky. The pesto has the right balance. It's sweet. It's garlicky. I can say this is one of the best slices I've ever had. And I've had slices everywhere.”
After the pleasures of Vito's, we were a bit pizza drunk as we settled into our outdoor seats at Enoteca Drago, and so we decided to limit ourselves to the Beverly Hills bistro's much ballyhooed black truffle pie, the bomba. Gemignani went back into diagnostic mode, feigning a trip to the bathroom to case the joint. “I think this place could be really thin,” he reported on his return from his reconnaissance mission. “They have rolling pins on a wood station.”
So he was flummoxed when the waiter described the truffle pizza as being an inch thick, “almost like a starfish calzone.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Gemignani wondered, running the phrase “starfish calzone” through his mental pizza archive until he settled on something in his experience that might explain the mysterious description. “You know what? They're putting a top on it. I went to a place in New York that does that,” he conjectured. “It could be like a pizza on a pizza.”
And when bomba arrived, with thin pita-like crust sandwiching the black truffles from the top and bottom, there was no mistaking the sense of proud redemption in Gemignani's voice as he christened this pizza sandwich a “panwich.” “I had a feeling it would be thin. And it's paper thin,” he remarked. And the taste? “Pretty good. It's nothing ground breaking. It's kind of like an appetizer you'd have before a meal.”
So what was Gemignani's verdict on L.A. pizza? With one of the best slices ever from Vito's and a best in class from Pizzeria Mozza, we'd made a good showing. Still, he couldn't help but make a final plug for his joint. “Tony's is one of the only places where you can try every style,” he told us proudly. “All these places we went to, you can try all in one place.” With the exception of, he admitted, the starfish calzone.