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Pizza-making’s reigning champ, Tony Gemignani talks to us about his three new Vegas restaurants, his commitment to the off-Strip culinary scene, and the secret to crafting an unforgettable pie of your own.
Gemignani at work
Out of all of pizza’s global admirers, Tony Gemignani just might be the most devoted. Gemignani, an award-winning chef and the owner of Downtown’s beloved Pizza Rock (as well as a handful of eateries in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Rohnert Park, California), first started slinging pies while working at his older brother’s pizzeria, Pyzano’s in Northern California’s Castro Valley, during high school. His talents for cooking and pizza acrobatics have led him to competitions around the globe—including the World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy, where his margherita pie took home top honors—and he remains the captain of the U.S.’s World Pizza Champions team. In 2014, he authored The Pizza Bible, and this spring, he’s teaming up with Vegas’ Station Casinos to debut an impressive three new restaurants: Little Tony’s, an old-school Italian eatery at Palace Station, a second outpost of Pizza Rock at Green Valley Ranch (GVR), and the fast-casual Slice House, also at GVR.
Here, we speak to Gemignani about his openings, his love affair with pizza, and tips for making the perfect pie at home.
What inspired you to bring three new restaurants to Vegas in such a short time frame?
TONY GEMIGNANI: What [Station Casinos owners] the Fertittas wanted—what they were really interested in—was a rollout, and what better than doing all three at the same time? It’s a little [crazy], but it’s good. We’re starting with Slice House, moving on to Pizza Rock within the next couple of weeks, and then, right after that, we’ll be hitting Little Tony’s.
Little Tony’s is a brand-new concept. How did that develop? How is it different from your other restaurants?
TG: Little Tony’s is a hybrid of [San Francisco restaurants] Capo’s and Tony’s. It’s a combination of those two concepts that I merged into one. When Frank Fertitta and some of the other crew walked into Capo’s in San Francisco, they were blown away and said, 'We’ve got to have this concept.'
How will the GVR Pizza Rock differ from the Downtown restaurant, if at all?
TG: When you walk into the Green Valley one, you’re going to be blown away. … I think we built it better. It’s laid out differently, but it’s pretty awesome. There are also a few new dishes I added that are exclusive to GVR, and you won’t see them on any other menus. There’s a gemelli pasta—we make our pasta fresh every day—and there’s a fried green tomato caprese salad that we’re going to feature there. We’re going to use the mozzarella that we pull in-house … on a daily and nightly basis for that.
When I was interviewed years ago before the Downtown location opened, a lot of people asked, 'Do you think you’re going to make it? Downtown’s a tough area.' Chefs coming to Vegas from San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, and New York would usually hit the Strip first and then look into other areas, but I said this to every writer at the beginning: 'We’re going to prove that we can do it Downtown, and then you’re probably going to see us in Henderson or Summerlin or something, and then you’ll see us land on the Strip at the end.' Most people would never do it in that order, but we wanted to prove to Vegas that we could do it Downtown. A lot of employees and locals live in Henderson … and they’re very excited that we chose Henderson. We’re a place that’s about the locals, too.
You first started making pizzas professionally as a teenager at your brother’s pizzeria, Pyzano’s. Was cooking always a family affair?
TG: Watching my mom cook growing up was a big, big part of my life. My dad would come home at 6 every night from work, and my mom would’ve been cooking from 3 to 6. When we came home from school at 3, we would watch my mom cook. I watched her cook every day of my life. If you ever try my spaghetti and meatballs (everyone asks me, 'What’s in the sauce?'), that’s my mom’s recipe. We use generous portions because that’s the way my mom cooked. If you ever came over for dinner, my mom would make 10 times more than anybody would eat. My friends always left with Tupperwares full of different foods.
Tony Gemignani's margherita pizza won top honors at the World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy
What’s the atmosphere like at competitions like the World Pizza Cup? Are there hard feelings among Italians about an American competitor winning the top title so many times?
TG: In anything related to pizza, there are some hard feelings. Me being Italian definitely helps. My roots are in Lucca, Italy, so I’m Toscano. There are three world championships in pizza, and those are both in cooking and acrobatics—there’s one in the north of Italy, one in the south, in Naples, and one in Las Vegas every year, the International Pizza Expo, which I run and organize. Of course Italy expects to win and wants to win. They do get pissed off. It’s very competitive, and it’s worldwide—it’s not just the U.S. and Italy—so it’s pretty intense, actually.
What’s your favorite pizza to cook for yourself?
TG: That’s a tough one. I always say it’s like asking a dad who his favorite child is. Probably the New Yorker or the margherita, though—something simple. Those two pizzas are always memorable. I eat a lot of pizza, unfortunately. I need to slow down. I’m 41 now, so everything’s slowed down, but I need to stop.
What’s the secret to a great pizza?
TG: Balance. It’s not about overly complex doughs or ingredients, it’s about balance. But cooking is always about balance.
Do you have any tips for readers who want to cook their own pizzas at home but lack professional equipment?
TG: First, invest in two stones or two baking steels—not just one. Typically when we make a pizza, we want to put it on one of the stones or steels, then we finish it on the bottom one. Get a high-gluten or high-protein flour if you’re cooking in a home oven, which works better than your typical all-purpose flour. Use a browning agent in your dough, like a sugar, malt, honey, or molasses. You always want to make sure when you’re making your own dough that you have a browning agent. Making your dough the day before and using it the next day is always better. Old dough is always better than new dough. And if you’re in Vegas, use bottled water—don’t use Vegas water.
PHOTOGRAPHY VIA TONY GEMIGNANI (GEMIGNANI); FACEBOOK.COM/PIZZAROCKLASVEGAS (MARGHERITA PIZZA, TONY AT WORK)