This past month, I had the pleasure of photographing the July event hosted by Fresh Starts Chef Events, a project to support Homeward Bound of Marin, a homeless shelter in Marin County, California, providing food, shelter and job training for those in need. This month’s Marin County Cooking Class event featured 11-Time World Pizza Champion Chef Tony Gemignani, owner of ten restaurants, including Tony’s of North Beach, Pizza Rock and Capo’s, and author of The Pizza Bible. He is also the master instructor at the International School of Pizza, a two-time Food Network gold medalist, and a reality television personality.
Chef Gemignani was also named U.S. Ambassador of Neapolitan Pizza by the city of Naples, a prestigious title given to only three people in the world, and he was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the largest pizza and for setting the record for the most consecutive rolls across the shoulder. Although we didn’t get to witness him rolling the pizza dough along the back of his shoulders, Chef Gemignani did wow us multiple times with his pizza tossing skills, even spinning one over my head! He added that dough tossing is often practiced using rubber dough or two beach towels cut into circles and sewn together.
Throughout his childhood, Chef Gemignani spent much of his time cooking with and learning from his mother, who would rely on fruits and vegetables from their backyard. It’s always nice to hear when a chef says there’s “not a better cook than my mom.” He started working at his brother’s pizza restaurant, Pyzano’s in Castro Valley, before he began his own venture into pizza-making. What makes him so unique is that he’s an expert in multiple regional styles — Neapolitan, Sicilian, Roman, New York, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis—as well as the types of flours and starters to make them. His restaurant, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, houses seven different ovens to accommodate all his different styles of pizza.
Gemignani’s mantra in pizza-making is, “It’s all about the dough.” And boy, was that dough good! I’m not a crust person and usually leave my plate filled with half-eaten crusts, but this crust was truly delicious! Gemignani’s famous dough contains high gluten, high protein flour plus a browning agent, like sugar, molasses or honey. However, it wasn’t easy coming up with the perfect dough for his pizzas. He shared a story about how the sidewalk in front of his first restaurant teemed with pigeons trying to get to the garbage cans filled to the brim with dough.
The menu for the evening began with a delicious caesar wedge salad, followed by three of Gemignani’s signature pizzas.
Aren’t these rows of grilled lettuce pretty?
The first pizza served was Chef Gemignani’s New Yorker Pizza, a delicious new york pizza made with ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, pepperoni, sweet fennel sausage, calabrese honey sausage and lots of garlic — yum!
While Chef Gemignani was instructing guests in the front of the house, one of Gemignani’s pizza-makers was twirling up a storm back in the kitchen!
Usually when chefs come to these events, the students do the majority of the cooking, but tossing dough is not a task that can be learned on the spot and is much trickier than it looks!
This New Yorker Pizza was drizzled with olive oil and then topped with pepperoni and two types of sausage. Plus, see those big garlic pieces?
And look at this knife! Now that’s a pizza cutter!
Chef Gemignani adds the final touches of dolloped ricotta onto his pizza.
I wish my slice was a bit bigger.
The next pizza was his Sicilian Purple Potato and Pancetta. In the restaurant’s 900 degree oven, this pizza can be baked in only 9 seconds.
Although the crust looks almost like a focaccia bread, the crust was so light because it gets punched down 3 times, resulting in more time for the yeast in the dough to eat the sugar. The longer the yeast feeds on the sugar, the lighter the dough.
Here it is before it’s baked and then after.
See all the holes? These holes keep the crust nice and light.
This delectable pizza was topped with thinly sliced purple potatoes, smoked pancetta, mozzarella cheese, feta, rosemary and finished with a drizzle of basil pesto. So good!
The back of the house was where all the pizzas were made. Everything had to be timed just right.
Chef Gemagnani shared some great tips throughout the evening including the type of counter surface that the dough should be stretched on, like granite and marble which keeps the dough cold for stretching, instead of wood. And he also shared that the more water you add to the dough, the crispier the pizza. He suggested using two pizza stones — one to bake the pizza on and another to finish the browning of the crust. If you don’t have a pizza stone, you can put the pizza on an upside-down backing sheet, or even better, a baking steel. I found this interesting article online about baking steels and the benefit of using two stones that explains things very clearly.
After the pizza is baked, it’s drizzled with a fresh, vibrant green pesto sauce — really such a pretty pizza.
The final pizza of the evening was Chef Gemignani’s Cal Italia Pizza, which won the gold medal for best pizza on the Food Network. This pizza is special because the contestants were not allowed to use any of the top 10 pizza ingredients.
This sweet and savory pizza was made with asiago, mozzarella and gorgonzola cheeses, proscuitto, balsamic vinegar and a base of fig jam. Love that combo of the sweet jam with the salty proscuitto and cheeses.
The dessert for the evening was a house made panna cotta — a perfect way to end a delicious meal!
Come back next month for the event, “Celebrate West Sonoma” with Ziggy the Wine Gal and the chefs from Forestville’s Backyard restaurant, Chefs Daniel Kedan and Marianna Gardenhire. In the meantime, try Chef Gemignani’s Cal Italia Pizza!
Cal Italia Pizza
Makes one 13-inch pizza
370 grams (13-ounce ball) pizza dough
3 parts flour mixed with 1 part semolina, for dusting
55-gram (2 ounce) piece of Asiago cheese, cold for shaving
170 grams (6 ounces) whole-milk mozzarella cheese, shredded (1 1/2 cups)
45 grams (1 1/2 ounces) Gorgonzola cheese, broken into small pieces
40-60 grams (2 to 3 tablespoons) fig jam, preferably Dalmatia brand
85 grams (3 ounces) thinly sliced prosciutto (about 6 slices)
Balsamic glaze (recipe below)
1. Move the dough to the peel. As you work, shake the peel forward and backward to ensure the dough isn’t sticking.
2. Using a vegetable peeler, shave the Asiago over the surface of the dough, leaving a 3/4 inch border. Mound the mozzarella in the center of the pizza and use your fingertips to spread it out evenly over the Asiago.
3. Slide the pizza onto the top stone. Bake for 7 minutes.
4. Lift the pizza onto the peel and distribute the Gorgonzola pieces evenly over the top.
5. Rotate the pizza 180 degrees, transfer it to the bottom stone, and bake for 3-4 minutes, until the bottom is browned and crisp and the top is golden brown.
6. Transfer the pizza to a cutting board and cut into 6 wedges. Spoon small dollops of fig jam (about 1/4 teaspoon each) around the pizza. Tear the prosciutto slices lengthwise into 2-3 strips and drape the pieces over the pizza slices. To finish, squeeze a thin spiral of balsamic glaze onto the pizza.
To make 1/4 cup or 95 grams of balsamic glaze, you will need 1 cup of balsamic vinegar.
1. Put the vinegar into a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Once steam rises from the surface, reduce the heat to the lowest setting to keep the vinegar below a simmer. No bubbles should break through the surface. If the lowest setting is still too hot, place the pan over a diffuser.
2. Once the vinegar has reduced by three-fourths, remove it from the heat.
Note: The glaze can be stored in a covered container at room temperature for several months.