How Tony Gemignani shocked the pizza world

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: If you want to be the best, you have to measure yourself against the best. That’s why American pizza chef, Tony Gemignani, likes to compete. And his category of choice? The authentic neapolitan margarita pizza.


Tony Gemignani: Every bite takes you through a journey. You start with the dough that’s on the bottom of your tongue, and then it goes into the tomato sauce and then it goes with the basil, then you taste a little bit of that salt and the melty-ness of the cheese. It’s a pizza that’s super-simple but at the same time it’s so complex.


Werman: And then you eat it. Tradition dictates that you cook the margarita in a super-high temperature oven. It’s a 90 second bake with an ultrathin pizza dough that can be hard to handle. In 2007, after years of study, Gemignani put his technique to the ultimate test: he entered the World Pizza Cup in Naples, the kind of competition that the purists might say Americans should never win.


Gemignani: At that time, it was nearly 100 degrees in Naples, it was tented, no air conditioning, six wood fire ovens that were at 900 degrees--just imagine you being in the worst conditions ever, you’re a sloppy mess, people are sliding their pizzas uncooked on their pizza paddles and they’re falling off, they’re football shapes. It’s kind of chaotic. Everybody is messing up--and these are third generation pizzaiolos, guys that have been doing it for years and their fathers and grandfathers are watching them compete. So, here comes this American guy in the middle of it, and I have my own technique of making my margarita, I let my dough rise in wood boxes; it’s an old technique, you still see it around a little bit. Putting dough into a 900-degree oven, you want it to be at room temperature as close as possible. You have metal, plastic, wood. Wood is actually, if you feel it at a room temperature, it’s actually room temperature. So, it’s an old technique I did, they were kind of making fun of me about it. My sauce had no seeds in it, I de-seeded all my sauce. The little things I did were totally different. They hated it, they really wanted me to lose. So, I put it in the oven, I’m counting to myself, literally “one alligator, two alligator,” I need to get this pizza out within 90 seconds. I pulled it out at 89.5, and when you drop it on your plate, the judge is supposed to look at it, lift it up, put it down and then say “Go to the judges.” Well, he lifted it up and it’s such a thin pizza that it bulges in the middle. Hel looked at me and he just stood there, and he wanted it to break. It felt like it was hours. It was actually maybe 15 seconds, I don’t know. Then he put it down, he pushed on it, and he said “Go ahead and go to the judges.” So, I go to the judges, I remember this one lady, “Leatherface” I called her, she looked at my pizza and said “Oh, what did you make?” “American.” I said “I made a margarita.” “What cheese did you use?” “Mozzarella fior de latte.” “How much sugar did you put in your dough?” I said “None.” “How much oil did you put in your dough?” I said “None.” “Did you put oil on top of your dough?” All these people were waiting to get judged behind me and she’s just drilling me. I went to the table, cut the pizza and brought it back to the judges and we had I think two slices left. The person came back and said “The judges want to try it one more time.” It’s crazy, because when you’re a judge you try 50 or 60 or 70 pieces a day, you don’t want a second bite. But automatically--”Okay, this must have been good. Maybe we have a shot.” Me and this guy Manzo, a guy from Providence, looked at each other and we said “I wonder if we got 2nd?” We never thought 1st. There’s no way. We just never thought 1st. So, “Third place goes to”¦” and then “Second place goes to”¦” and then we looked and I remember Manzo said “I didn’t win. My pizza sucked.” Then I looked and all of a sudden the cops came to our table and one guy said “Don’t get excited. Don’t get too excited.” It was one of the best moments. It was a great moment that you couldn’t get excited for. It was crazy because you had 90% of the people hating you. Then you saw the genuine people that were genuinely happy for you. So, I couldn’t get excited. We got excited but we had to calm down. We got escorted out and we partied at the hotel that night.


Werman: I am jumping for joy. San Francisco-based pizza chef Tony Gemignani. He told his story to producer Alex Gallafent. Want to make pizza dough like Tony, or at least try? He shared his recipe at PRI.ORG.