The Purple Haze at Tony Gemignani's Slice House on Haight Street.

California Slice Renaissance? Tony Gemignani Leads the Way

What’s the state of San Francisco slice culture? What are the worst reheat sins a sliceria can commit? What’s the future of pizza? Tony Gemignani has become synonymous with great pizza in California since opening his first shop, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, in North Beach in 2009. He hasn’t looked back, opening 12 other restaurants in California and Nevada, and three slice stands in the Giants AT&T Park! So, with the opening of his newest San Francisco slice joint on Haight Street, who better to ask the questions above?

For the uninitiated, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and Gemignani’s Pizza Rock routinely make lists published by national publications that rank America’s best pies. This pizza maven grew up in Fremont, and got his start as a teenager at his brother Frank’s spot Pyzano’s, and has spent more than a quarter century perfecting and “respecting the craft” (his motto).

Tony’s dexterity in pizza-throwing, his pizza making skills and bragging rights for having spun the world’s largest pizza (a Guinness World Record) make him a great character study. But one of the most interesting things about him as a pizzaiolo is his expertise in different pizza styles. Where many struggle to do one style well, several of Tony’s restaurants do many expertly. You’re just as likely to find a great cracker-thin Chicago pie as a classic American pizza, or pizza pies done with Roman flair, Detroit panache and according to traditional Neapolitan rules.

So, it’s interesting to see him take on what one might argue is a dying art: the quality slice joint.

Slice House opened in the lot that housed Haight Street’s famous Psychedelic Shop.

Tony’s 25-seat Slice House takes over 1535 Haight Street, which before housing a pizzeria called Fast Slice, was once home to the Psychedelic Shop, often cited as the world’s first headshop. Inside, portraits of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon pays homage to icons of the 60s. Tony uses an old Blodgett oven to fire up 10 different 13-inch and 20-inch pies, and reheat five different slice styles: cheese, pepperoni, grandma, Sicilian, Love Me Two Times (pesto, mozz, double garlic and “sun-bathed tomato”) and the Purple Haze, which he discusses below. Going beyond the traditional definition of a sliceria, Tony’s Haight Street menu also offers sides, salads, pastas, sandwiches and burgers (you won’t guess his secret burger ingredients). Sausages are homemade, patties hand-formed and burger buns baked daily.

What’s the state of San Francisco slice culture? What are the worst reheat sins a sliceria can commit? What’s the future of pizza? Who better to ask than Tony Gemignani?

In this interview, Tony talks about how the Haight Street slice joint has been received, whether he’d ever franchise, the travesty that is putting pepperoni on a pizza post-bake and what’s going on with the quality of the average slice in New York City.

What oven are you using?
It’s an old double-stack Blodgett and the stones in it are like 20 years old on the upper deck. They never changed it and it’s still cracked. The bottom deck they re-did maybe five or six years ago. It has no markings on it. Once I opened it up, I was like, “Oh, this is a fucking old Blodgett!” It cooks great. I won’t ever change it.

What’s the signature slice?
Purple Haze or the grandma. You don’t see grandma on the West Coast. It’s a little bit thinner than my Sicilian. We sell a ton of both of those all day.

How did you decide on the location for your new slice joint and what’s different about this one compared with your other ones?
It had to be a special place, not only with the look of it and the artists that we brought in. The menu had to change for the clientele: more vegetarian pizzas, more pesto on the menu, and a lot of burgers. People don’t know, but I serve great burgers.

A slice house with vegetarian-friendly pizzas and burgers – that’s an interesting juxtaposition.
It is, actually. I put a vegan burger on, onion rings, fries were important to one of the partners, wings. And then everything I already do. One of the main pizzas we have is our grandma, which is vegetarian; Love Me Two Times, which has two times the garlic, a house-made pesto, and these sunbathed tomatoes that come from Rome. I also have the Purple Haze, which is a purple potato pizza that has pancetta and mozzarella on it with fresh rosemary, pesto, feta, oregano, Romano and a little bit of garlic. It’s a white pizza.

So not so many meat combinations?
Not so many. But you see some more spicy ones as specials. You can go two directions on Haight Street: You can do that $2 slice that some people are looking for, or offer a quality pizza. I researched the area quite a bit. I looked at the nicer, high-end restaurants and Haight Street Market across from us. It’s not cheap. The clientele isn’t so much that 18 to 21-year-old demographic. It’s beyond that, and it’s been great. I’d say it’s 80% locals and 20% tourists. I thought it was going to be the opposite, but locals love the menu. They wanted us to come.

Anything about the neighborhood that surprised you?
It’s funny, I haven’t heard, “Get ready for the high-school crowd” for a long time. I haven’t worked a day shift there (I’ve been there nights and weekends), but I was there today and my partner was all, “You know, we’re going to get like 50 kids in 20 minutes.” There’s a high-school around the corner. He warned me that they were all going to want cheese and pepperoni. So, I’m working the line with a few of the guys, getting ready, and yeah, 50 high-school kids came in and ordered cheese and pepperoni. And those cheese and pepperoni slices aren’t $2.50 each anymore. It’s a larger slice, it’s cheese, and it’s a $5 slice. And nobody was complaining. Instead, everybody said, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” A lot of people said, “We can’t believe you picked us.” That’s been cool.

There are five different slice styles: cheese, pepperoni, grandma, Sicilian, Love Me Two Times and Purple Haze.

So why did you pick Haight Street?
Man, I’ve been coming to Haight Street since I was 16-years-old. I said, “Why not?” I love Noe valley. I love a lot of areas, but Haight Street, I mean for me, there’s not much competition. There’s a lot of traffic, and for a slice house that’s to-go where you’re eating and leaving, it was a no-brainer and everything kind of fell into place.

And the reception has been good?
It’s funny, I’ve had a lot of people, more than any restaurant I’ve had, say, “Thank you for picking our neighborhood,” and “We’re really happy you chose us.” I’m usually the one trying to fit in and say, “Hey, try us out.” This was totally different. Very open arms. It’s been really cool.

Haight Street was part of your childhood. Was there a slice place you used to visit there?
I was really into vintage clothes, buying 60s and 70s shirts, 50s shirts. Going to El Balazo back in the day when that Mexican restaurant was there. Hanging out on Haight Street.

What about pizza? Was there pizza there that you remember?
Fast Slice was there. I’m in the original Fast Slice location, but for some reason, on Haight Street there hasn’t been a big influx of pizza.

Why is that?
I don’t know, man, it doesn’t make any sense. Rent can be high in certain areas, I get that. The rent here is really great, the landlord’s great, the partners are great, and it just all fit. But I don’t know why.

“When it comes to your baby and you’re trying to grow it, should it be corporately owned? Should it be a franchise? I guess we’ll just see if we can make it franchisable. How about that?”

So, what is a slice house for you? And what’s the slice culture in San Francisco like right now?
The slice model is a concept that people don’t understand on the West Coast. What I mean by that is just the etiquette of re-heating a slice. When we started in North Beach, a lot of people didn’t understand getting the slice and eating it within the five minutes that you’re there. They didn’t get not putting it in a box. It’s funny. We have a Slice House in Walnut Creek, and 90% of the eaters have to have a pizza box with the slice to-go inside. In San Francisco, 98% of the customers have their slices on a paper plate with a piece of wax paper underneath. A lot of people didn’t grow up on the West Coast with slice culture. They don’t know what to do with it. It’s like, “What do we do? We stand here and eat it?” Certain people are like, “What are they putting it in the oven for? Why are they reheating it?” Well, there’s nothing like getting a slice that’s reheated, because that’s what makes a slice what it is. But a slice renaissance is happening in San Francisco. As my business grows, I’m meeting people who just don’t know the proper etiquette and are like, “Is this what I’m supposed to do?” It’s like having a pair of chopsticks in your hand.

Oh, my God, that’s funny.
In certain areas, they’re holding the slice and going, “Do I eat it standing up? Do I fold it? Is there a knife and fork to go with it?” It’s kind of weird for me because I’m so used to it. Then you’ll get an East Coaster come in and it’s like, “Yeah, give me a slice. Warm it up.” They’ll eat it, they’ll throw away the plate and they’ll walk right past the guy that’s still holding the box. But people are beginning to get it.

But this isn’t a traditional, Joe’s-of-the-West-Village kind of slice shop. This is a place where you can sit and have a burger too.
When you think of Joe’s, you have just a few slices to choose from. The slice houses that I’m building… I would love to simplify them, I swear to God, man… I get in the middle of it and I’m like, “I wish I would make this easier.” But you know, there’s a fryer in front of you, and there was an existing hood and a six-burner and a grill… and then there’s that chicken Caesar salad that people want, that quinoa salad that people may be looking for… there are just a lot of things we’re able to do.

Do you ever worry about overcomplicating things?
Is it easier to execute a concept with less? Yeah. But there’s so much more we like to do. We do fresh Blue Moon onion rings on Haight that have been a big hit. We make all of the patties for our hamburgers to order. It’s the chef in me that wants to do a lot. Maybe it’s a little crazy, but we’re handling it. I’ve been known to have more on the menu. If you look at the menu and you’re like, “Wow, that’s a lot,” actually, it’s not. I’ve slimmed it down.

Well, if people are ordering everything…
All day today, dude. I swear to God, I made hamburgers all day today. It’s cool when you have something unexpected that works. And when you have something on the menu that just doesn’t work, we’ll take it off. We’ve slimmed down Walnut Creek’s menu a lot, but I still have cold-pressed juices on that menu. A lot of ladies go there and shop, it’s a big shopping area. I try to adapt to the market.

Art on the walls pays homage to icons of the 60s.

What makes the Haight joint different from your other places?
We could be chain-y, just open Slice Houses and say, “Okay, that’s cool,” this is the look, and every place looks the same, but when you step inside Haight Street and see the art, it’s like you’re stepping into a totally different concept. It can’t be so foreign that everyone’s like “North Beach coming to Haight Street?” You have to adapt. You have to understand the market. People are taking photos of the wall. Jimi Hendrix is there. It’s steampunk meets the 60s and 70s. It’s pretty rad, man. I’m happy with how it turned out.

In terms of the chain route, with this many restaurants, do you worry about that?
Yeah, it had to feel like a place that’s been there for a while. It had to feel like a place that fit in. It couldn’t be chain-y. We’ve got a lot of restaurants and we’re not franchised yet, and we haven’t done that at all. Are we chain-y? We don’t want a chain feel, but I’ve got a lot of restaurants now. I try to stay away from that aesthetic. It was important to me, going into the neighborhood, being in that neighborhood as a kid, hanging out, you know, smoking on the corner, you don’t want to go into a place that feels like McDonald’s. You want it to be hip and you want it to have a cool Psychedelic Lemonade (fresh-squeezed with mint). You don’t want to have Coca-Cola on the wall and that’s it. A lot of thought went into this.

“People are taking photos of the wall. Jimi Hendrix is there,” said Chef Gemignani. “It’s steampunk meets the 60s and 70s.”

You mentioned burgers – what’s your secret to a great burger?
We hand-form the half-pound patties every day. We don’t form the patties tight. People ask why the meatballs are so great at Tony’s. It’s because we’re not using a machine. We’re not packing them tight. We hand-form them lightly. I put a little bit of garlic and fresh thyme in my burgers – that sets them apart. And the guys know how to cook them correctly; they’re not moving them around. They cook one side and then cook the second side. They’re not searing the burgers, and the buns are made in house. At every one of my restaurants, we make the buns. It’s not a brioche. It’s my own dough with a little bit of poppy and other seeds on top.

Flat-top or grill?
I like a flat-top better. You get better flavor with a flat-top, but this space had a grill already. I don’t mind it, but if you’ve ever had a grilled burger next to one made on a flat-top, which I’ve done at many of my restaurants, the flat-top is a bit juicier. It’s super delicious. The barbecue sauce we make in house. If you get a burger that has onion rings, they’re our onion rings. It’s really a scratch burger. It’s really cool.

You do limited items on some of your menus, but the burger’s not a limited item?
People can come and get that burger all day. It’s the buns. When we run out, we run out. We only make so many a day. We only make them in the morning for that day.

Tell me about your homemade sausage.
We make our link sausages at all of our restaurants. We have a sweet Guinness link at Tony’s, and sometimes a sweet fennel link, but we have a honey sausage that we actually bake, slice and sauté in a local honey… that’s really good. People love that.

“I’m meeting a lot of people who just don’t know the proper etiquette and are like, ‘Is this what I’m supposed to do?’ It’s like having a pair of chopsticks in your hand.”

Tony, you mentioned franchising, is that something you’d do?
It could be maybe, for one model. Right now, I’m growing a Pizza Rock model and a Slice House model. We’re working on it with a funding group. The Slice House model we believe could be franchised. The Pizza Rock model probably would be too difficult. We’ve done some licensing at the ballpark and in casinos – that goes down the franchising route. But for me, it’s such a specialized product. It’s not easy to make or replicate, so if it were to be done, it would have to be done right.

But you’ve had conversations?
The conversation has come up. I’m used to teaching. I run a school. I certify 70 chefs a year. I’m used to being one-on-one with guys and teaching them, but when it comes to your baby and you’re trying to grow it, should it be corporately owned? Should it be a franchise? I guess we’ll just see if we can make it franchisable. How about that?

Has it been tough to keep quality control in the ballpark?
It’s very unionized. You have to have a good one-on-one with the company that you’re licensing your restaurant within. We’ve actually been really fortunate – the Giants’ AT&T Park is considered the best food park.

I wish you’d open in Yankee Stadium. All right, so put simply, what makes a great slice joint? Not just yours but in the world.
It’s a combination. It’s always about the balance of dough, sauce and cheese. It’s also about understanding the oven – gas, brick or electric – and not using a conveyor. It’s about understanding how to re-heat a slice. It’s about using whole milk mozzarella, which melts better the second time than a part-skim mozzarella will, and which a lot of people tend to use. That’s a common mistake in the world of slice joints.

The grandma (pictured) and the Purple Haze are two of Slice House’s best-sellers.

Anything else?
Being quick. Slice places have to be quick. People only have a certain amount of time for lunch – 30 minutes, 40 minutes – so if you’re not quick you’re going to die. Some of these places that put their cheese on after the bake or put the pepperoni on a cheese slice after the bake, that’s pretty horrible.

That drives me crazy. That drives me absolutely crazy.
I can’t stand it. It’s commonly seen in places where you see like little nuggets of cheese that are white, white, white on top of like a brown cheese that’s been cooked. Things like that just really irritate me when I see them. Knowing etiquette is important. Being quick. Dough, sauce, cheese.

What about a crowded display and too many slices sitting out?
I think having a variety of slices is okay. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up when you have too many varieties. But having a nice showcase – when you walk into a place and you see a glass showcase with a multilevel display… there’s nothing like going into a place that has a nice showcase. When you go into a slice joint that doesn’t have a showcase and they only have a sneeze guard and they have like two slices behind it… I mean, you’ve got to have a showcase.

But if you have too many…
A slice concept is all about walk-in traffic. If you have a slice concept that doesn’t have walk-in traffic, you shouldn’t be there. A showcase that has multiple levels with multiple pieces is important because that’s what makes it a slice house. If you’re in an area that doesn’t have the traffic and you have two pizzas laying out, for me, I don’t know if you should really be doing a slice house. You’ve got to have multiple levels. You’ve got to have more than just one or two styles.

This ties into a question about New York City’s slice culture. New York City’s foot traffic supports a ton of slice joints, but that doesn’t necessarily make for great pizzerias anymore. I feel like the average slice in New York City has fallen off in quality. There’s this idea that New York has amazing slices, and there are great places, but if you walk into a random place in Manhattan you’re not getting a great slice. In fact, in no small part due to the growth of $.99 cent places, average quality has fallen.
It totally has. The $.99-cent and $.89-cent places have totally ruined the market. It’s the same in Italy. People say, “I go to Italy and everywhere you go the pizza is amazing.” No, it’s not. Not at all. You’ve gotta find it, just like you’ve gotta find it in New York City. Is great pizza harder to find in New York? Yeah. Is it hard to find on the West Coast? Yeah. You know, there are great places like Prince Street Pizza, Bleecker Street Pizza, there are some great places out there that are awesome, but man, I’m not going to name names, but there are a couple of places that I’ve gone to… The last three times I’ve visited New York City, I’ve brought some of my key people who work with me, and said, “Wow. What the fuck happened to this place? This place was great.” I see a lot of guys changing, selling, moving and it’s not for the good. Now, you’ve got to go to the boroughs to find a good slice. In Manhattan, it’s spotty. It’s totally not like what it used to be. I agree with you totally. Since I started going to New York City 20 years ago to when I go now… everything’s changed. I thought Ray’s was better back in the day. Did I get smarter? Did my palate change? Yeah. But was it that bad back in the day? The people have changed, the economy’s tough, rents have gone up, people are using cheaper cheese. You have to remember that. I totally agree with you.

Then again, there’s the famous connection: the cost of a slice being about or equal to the cost of a subway fare. Shouldn’t that ratio and quality be able to hold even as the economy is tested?
There’s a lot of different competition out there when it comes to cheese and flour. Guys come into your establishment and ask, “How many pounds of cheese to you use a week?” And you’ll say, “Oh, I’m using about 2,500 pounds a week.” And they’ll say, “Wow. What are you paying?” “Well, I pay about $3.05.” And the guy will say, “I could quote you $2.05. Would you like to buy cheese like that?” You just hear a dollar, but if you take him up on that offer, you just saved $2,500 a week on cheese! You get a lot more distributors coming in than ever and your numbers are getting tighter. A lot of owners and operators may go against their own quality and change their product. It’s unfortunate because there are better cheeses, better tomatoes out there than ever, and access to them is amazing now, but at the same time, these guys have really screwed it up and the $.99-cent guys have really screwed it up for the guy down the street from them. These guys down the street are like, “What do we do? We’ve got to lower our prices and play the coupon game.”

Are we losing pizza tradition? When you talk with older Italian-Americans who have connections to the joints built and operated by the old-school generation, they tell you about no-nonsense pizza makers who would tell those distributors, “I’m not going to make the pie that way. That’s not the way you make it.” We’ve lost many of those sticklers for quality. Many pizza makers don’t know or don’t care.
That’s a big part of it. I believe a lot of people have seen where their grandpa, their dad or the third generation has taken the business and a lot of them have screwed it up. It’s a combination of several things. People have moved out of the city and gone to the boroughs. There’s better pizza in Staten Island and Williamsburg now than there is in certain areas of Manhattan, which is interesting.

“Slice places have to be quick. People only have a certain amount of time for lunch – 30 minutes, 40 minutes – so if you’re not quick you’re going to die.”

Back to the West Coast: what slice places in San Francisco have held up over the years to you? And in terms of your part in the city’s slice culture, what do you see as your responsibility?
When I opened Tony’s, I realized that the one thing that everyone hated about it was that it wasn’t fast. Some people don’t want to wait in line for a table, they just want to get a slice, to get a sub. We didn’t have that option. It was a full-service restaurant. I was used to doing slices at Pyzano’s and once you start thinking about it and looking around, you’re like, “Wow.” There’s Golden Boy, there are a couple of places, but anyone doing it right? A couple. But it made me wonder: Could we just reintroduce slice culture with chef-driven ingredients and make it mainstream? Can you reintroduce the slice concept and bring it back to what it was? I felt that there could be a movement if it was done right. Could I lead it? Could I take the helm? I think so.

What were the problems with the places already around?
I just think everyone was doing it wrong. No one knew the flour to use. Everybody was using California mozzarella. If you think of Grande cheese on a slice of pizza, that’s really what a pizza slice should have – Grande mozzarella, the Wisconsin mozzarella. Guys opening places here didn’t know what brick ovens were. They have the wrong freaking oven, the wrong ingredients, the wrong flour, the wrong dough recipe. They were doing it all wrong. When you really wanted a good slice of pizza out here, it was really hard to find, almost nonexistent. I knew there was room for it, so I’m doing it.

What’s the future of pizza?
I talked about this in my keynote address at Pizza Expo. The immediate future in the industry is Detroit style. I talked about the different styles of pizza, the renaissance of pan pizza, coal and Neapolitan, of course. There’s going to be a resurgence of slice concepts including Roman style and just New York slices. You’ll see.

Slice House
1535 Haight Street

San Francisco, CA 94117
Phone: (415) 552-2520

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