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[Chef Talk]

The Weekly Interview: Pizza Rock’s Tony Gemignani

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Tony Gemignani of Pizza Rock in Downtown Las Vegas.

Tony Gemignani was born and raised on an orchard in Fremont, California, but his passion and skill as a pizzaiolo has made him famous. He started out working in his brother’s Pyzano’s Pizzeria and entertaining diners with pizza-throwing skills, but quickly shifted his attention to making some of the most acclaimed pizzas in the country and the world.

Gemignani is the first and only triple crown winner for baking at the International Pizza Championships in Lecce, Italy, and became the only non-Neapolitan to win the title of World Champion Pizza Maker. He received master credentials from the Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli and is the proprietor of the International School of Pizza, which certifies chefs from around the world, and has been named the US Ambassador of Neapolitan Pizza by the city of Naples.

He’s written several cookbooks, appeared on countless TV shows and, more recently, expanded upon a budding restaurant empire that began with Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Gemignani opened the second location of his Pizza Rock concept in Downtown Las Vegas last year and is preparing to open more restaurants in the coming months at Station Casinos properties in Green Valley and just off the Strip.

Pizza Rock has been a runaway hit in Downtown Las Vegas. Has it provided any surprises for you? I think when we came into it, we knew this might be a meat-and-potato kind of town. There’s nothing wrong with that, but some chefs have issues with it. We knew the New York pizzas would be popular, and the Chicago styles. Putting the slice house connected to the restaurant has been more successful than I thought. It really took off.

There is so much variation to the menu, so many different styles of pizzas. Have you considered removing some of the less popular pizzas? No, we’re actually adding. We’re adding Detroit style, which is kind of in a renaissance in this industry even though people don’t realize it. It’s slipping in under the radar. I finally got the right pans in here to cook it. We’ll also start doing deep dish by the slice soon ... Vegas is very big on Chicago. There are a lot of people from Chicago here, and I listen to my customers.

How many more styles of pizza can you do? A lot. You’d be surprised. You should see the menu at Tony’s in San Francisco. But you can’t show everything at once. You’ve got to tease a little. As soon as everyone catches up, thinks they know what we’re doing now, that’s when we drop the hammer and launch three new styles, and it’s like, Oh sh*t.

Tony Gemignani poses with a Cal Italia pizza at Pizza Rock restaurant at Third Street and Ogden Avenue in downtown Las Vegas Thursday, Oct. 17 2013.

Pizza has changed a lot since you started at Pyzano’s in 1991. How has traveling and teaching and competing and opening restaurants changed the way you think about pizza? Yeah, [Pyzano’s] was that place with the video games in the back, 80 seats, to-go or dine-in or delivery, ham and pineapple, barbecue chicken, had a salad bar ... it was that pizzeria of yesterday. It’s a little different now. Some chefs come into our arena like, F*ck that. It’s gonna be this way and that’s it. It’s pizza. You don’t have to get that serious about it. It’s really about the customer. If somebody wants to put pepperoni, sausage and mushroom on our margherita, I’d detour them. Maybe you want a different pizza. But at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people become a little too serious. I am serious when it comes to what I do, but we’re not pretentious.

I think you’re going to see some of that old pizzeria when we do Little Tony’s at Palace Station. It’s a hybrid of most of my other stores, a little more affordable with some smaller size pizzas, a lot of fun and a little more approachable, and customizable pasta dishes. It almost comes back to what I first started with my brother but at a higher level.

You’re opening Little Tony’s at Palace Station and a second Pizza Rock with a Slice House at Green Valley Ranch Resort in the coming months. You already have a restaurant with Station Casinos at a California property. Did you plan to expand in Vegas with Station before you opened Downtown? We didn’t know but we were hoping, and the success of Pizza Rock Downtown really sealed the deal. The Fertittas, especially Frank, he loved my food, and he’s a pretty tough guy when it comes to food. I’ve been fortunate to work with them and it’s been a grand slam. But we really wanted to start Downtown to show we could make it in an area people kind of gave up on, then expand to the suburbs, then to the Strip. We went the opposite way of what most people would do.

Is it easier for you to operate in Las Vegas than other cities? The skill set here is totally different. When we opened [elsewhere], we were limited for good servers. You come into a town like Las Vegas and you’re interviewing guys who have been at Caesars or Wynn. The talent in this city is crazy. To execute a concept like Pizza Rock, there’s no better place than Vegas. You have 100 bartenders to choose from and they all know how to make great cocktails. It’s not always like that in other cities. You’ve got great kitchen guys here that have been in all kinds of situations, when normally you have to do serious training to get your team like that. It’s very comfortable.

Is Las Vegas a great pizza town? It’s probably the most universal pizza town. There’s a little bit of everyone here. In New York or Chicago, you kinda know what’s there, but you almost have everything and everyone here and that’s what’s interesting to me. I thought we’d be the first to do Detroit style here but we’re not. You don’t find that everywhere.

Why do you think pizza continues to grow in popularity? I think more chefs have come into the industry thinking white tablecloths are done, and they’re looking for more approachable and affordable methods, and street food these days has become almost like fine dining. A lot of people are looking at their concepts and trying to restructure. Pizza is one of the elements you can use to be artisan, or to be hip and cool, or to do everything in one. The weird thing now is you have chains and franchises getting into the game and building concepts that are kind of in the middle—they don’t look like chains. But it’s also cool to see some of the old-school guys still making pizzas getting respect and getting known.

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Brock Radke is Las Vegas Weekly's food editor and author of the Strip-focused column The Incidental Tourist. He has written ...

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