The Margherita Pizza @ Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, North Beach, SF


All toppings, no matter how meticulously sourced, are merely condiments for the crust.

Traffic here in the Napa Valley has suddenly become a lot worse, as scores of rumbling 18-wheelers, loaded to the hilt with freshly picked grapes, have begun to clog Highway 29. Although producers of sparkling wine had already begun their harvest two or three weeks ago, it seems as though the rest of the wineries have finally begun their crush as well. Within a week or so, every single winery in the Napa Valley should have something percolating, and the area will be in a collective full-tilt by the end of the month. The earthy and unmistakable smell of fermenting must hasn’t begun to fill the nighttime air just yet, but give it a couple more days, and it certainly will.

My mind has been in Italy nearly all week, as I’ve been preparing for my Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) exam, which was held this morning in St. Helena. I got to know “The Boot” pretty well over the last month, at least from a textbook perspective. Maybe that’s why I was jonesing for pizza this afternoon. Or maybe it’s because I hadn’t had a really memorable pie since my trip to Diavola almost two months ago. Since I was bound to be surrounded by traffic whether I stayed in Napa or headed elsewhere, I decided to retreat to San Francisco, where at least the weather might be a little bit cooler (although the city was actually warm for once).

• • •

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana opened to considerable fanfare in North Beach just a few months ago, the namesake of Tony Gemignani, famous among pizzaiolos as the first American to win the coveted Trofeo Citta di Napoli Campionato Internazionale per Pizzaioli in 2007. Think of the Campionato as the Super Bowl, the Masters, or the Kentucky Derby of pizza making (I suppose it would be most akin to the latter, since these Margherita pizzas bake up in less than two minutes at a blistering 900º F). The menu at Tony’s actually compares his 2007 triumph to the legendary Judgment of Paris in 1976, when California wines topped the best French wines in a blind tasting. I’m not sure that the economic impact can ever be the same, but I like the analogy nonetheless.

Naturally, I ordered the pizza that made Gemignani famous, his version of the classic Margherita, which is painstakingly recreated with a list of imported ingredients, including San Felice Flour, San Marzano tomatoes, and extra virgin olive oil from Campagnia (I’m assuming that the cow’s milk mozzarella is local, but artisanal). The restaurant itself features four different styles of pizza ovens, which is both manic and admirable. The Margherita pizza comes to life in the wood-fired oven, while other pizza styles emerge from various takes on New York and Italian brick ovens.

As far as Tony’s Margherita pizza is concerned, it is formidable, perhaps approaching perfect. And frankly, if the Italians have already anointed it as exemplary, then what good is my own humble endorsement? I will note, however, that the crust itself is different than any other pizza crust I’ve tasted. I’m not too sure if there is any adjective that can truly capture the textural subtleties of great pizza crust. Certainly, there is the obvious mention of crispy char, which the wood oven delicately imparts. But the description of the actual structure — the proverbial “crumb” of the crust — is much more elusive: I’m going to go with “ethereally spongy” and call it a day.

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