Q&A: Tony Gemignani
Pizza restaurateur Tony Gemignani opened his first Vegas location downtown, and today, he and his partners run two Pizza Rocks and a Slice House in the Vegas valley (downtown and at Green Valley Ranch), with more planned. Las Vegas Magazine’s Nina King caught up with him recently to talk about his inspiration and the future.
So, you started out in your brother’s restaurant?
Yes, in 1991 I got into the pizza business. I was 17 going on 18, I just graduated high school, all my friends went to college, close friends, and I was kind of stuck in my hometown, which was Fremont (Calif.), and I didn’t really know what I was going to do, if I was going to college, if I was going to stay with my girlfriend or whatever. So, my brother was in the middle of building and he said, “Hey, why don’t you come do this with me,” and I became a manager very quick—an employee to a manager very fast—we opened in 1991, end of summer.
What made you decide food was going be your path?
It’s funny, I always loved to cook. Watching my mom cook was a big part of my life. I grew up on a farm, we lived with my grandfather. My grandfather was a big Italian farmer; we had about 35 acres. We had apricots, cherries, fava beans. Up until I was 18, I pretty much farmed my entire life. In our back yard, we had everything; we had basil, tomatoes, squash, orange trees, nectarines, you just name it. I took a lot of home chef courses, when I was in high school, which is kind of funny, ’cause I didn’t know back then what it was going to lead to.
Cooking and fresh ingredients were a staple, but doing it for real, getting that job, where somebody paid for that pizza and you have a ticket on the board, and you’re trying to make their pizza… I fell in love with it. I didn’t know what was going to happen. You know when you fall in love with something, you’re kinda struck. It’s like a bolt of lightning and you didn’t realize it was all there and in front of you. I made that pizza cut it, gave it to that guest—instant gratification.
I was content, but I was content to make it better; I practiced like a lot. I’m known for that. If you know me, people say “Where’d I get my work ethic from—am I a workaholic?” I am. And I think I get it from my grandfather. He was a farmer, he woke up before anyone was up, he came back when the sun was coming down, he ate in his shed, some hard cheese and his wine. He didn’t come back for lunch. He worked. I got that from my grandpa. My cooking, I guess you could say my style of cooking, my palate, really came from my mom and what she cooked. It’s a big part of it. We came home from school at three, my dad would come home at six—from three to six we’re either doing homework or watching my mom cook. … She was an amazing cook.
Why did you decide to open here in Vegas? You had several restaurants in California.
I opened Tony’s Pizza Napoletana; after 17 years of being with my brother, I finally got my store. And it was one of those like, “Wow, he’s grown like crazy”—well, it took me 17 years to get one. I opened up SliceHouse, which was next door, Capo’s, Pizza Rock Sacramento. We had these four in the Bay Area and at the time there were some little things kind of popping up here and there. What happened there was we were asked to look at downtown Vegas. When we went to downtown Vegas, every single person I talked to from San Francisco, at least every chef, was like “Downtown? Why aren’t you on the Strip?” I said, “Well, we’re looking at this area; it’s across from the Lady Luck (at the time; it’s the Downtown Grand now).” It’s a little sketchy downtown at that time. The same group that had Pizza Rock Sacramento owned the property downtown; they said look what you did in Sacramento, take a look. We went and looked at it, and we believed in it.
And nobody believed in downtown. This was before Zappos came in. There were hints of Tony Hsieh, and he’s gonna do this, and there’s gonna be a park down the line (which is Container Park now). Mob Museum was opening, there was Triple George and then you had 8 million people on Fremont Street. Now, 8 million people on Fremont Street—if you build it, will they come?” We believed that downtown needed great pizza, and we believed that there was not great pizza downtown in that area at all. We also believed that if we made a mark downtown, we could eventually grow into other areas—Summerlin, and Henderson, (we’re now in Henderson). We did something into Palace (Station) with the Stations group, and you’re also going to see us looking at the Bend, see us looking at the Strip. We love the Strip, but when I got interviewed by USAToday when I first opened downtown… I said I want to end up on the Strip; I don’t want to start on the Strip.
(Pizza Rock downtown) is my second-busiest restaurant, right behind Tony’s Napoletana Pizza. It’s a machine, that place. It is busy, and it’s big—it’s almost 9,000 square feet. You know what’s also unique about that concept? I tagged it—It’s a fast and full restaurant. It’s fast casual and full service. The Slice House, the diners and drinkers and get outta here. It’s rare you see two concepts in one, and that was our prototype, and the future Pizza Rocks will most likely have that prototype.
You touched on your plans for the future.
Where do I want to go next? We love Summerlin, we love the Bend, and I want to end up on the Strip, I always said this, I want to end up on the Strip, I don’t want to be that guy from San Francisco or New York or L.A. coming into Vegas that says, “Let’s just land on the Strip and open up a mega-place. I wanted to do it backwards. I wanted to prove to the neighborhoods, I say neighborhoods, that we could do it there and then get one on the Strip. I’ve turned down a few. We had some hotels off the Strip come to us that we said no to. But we really want to end up on the Strip, we’d really love to talk to a hotel about that idea. We really like the Las Vegas market.
What’s really interesting about Pizza Rock is the multiple styles—you have transplants from everywhere in Las Vegas. The model worked great in San Francisco, because if you were from New Haven or New York or Chicago and you liked cracker-thin or maybe a New Yorker-style pizza or a 20-inch slice, Pizza Rock is a one-stop shop. The model of how it worked in San Francisco is actually perfect for Vegas, because people are from everywhere. The menu’s so diverse, that people who maybe haven’t gotten back to their home town in many years, it’s like “They brought a slice of my home town to me.” For me, it’s rewarding because that’s something I like to hear.
Anything that brings you back to when you were younger, a kid, when things weren’t so stressful, when it was a simpler time. Or you were in Italy on your honeymoon, and you had a margherita pizza in Naples—I’m talking about my own honeymoon—and there was that flavor profile, that old-world taste, and it just takes you back for a second, that moment, and suddenly you’re away from all the chaos…
Those are the things I think we do in our restaurants with multiple styles, multiple ovens. It was a concept nobody thought could exist—we’re not taking about two or three, we’re talking 10 or 12, and be able to have that in one place. They said you couldn’t execute it—just because no one’s attempted it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done. I kind of faced that my entire career. I was already doing more styles at Tony’s at a very, very busy place. In the San Francisco market, you have to execute. You have writers and critics who are on you, and they’re very tough and can make or break you. Coming into the Vegas market and slowly introducing other styles, it hasn’t been that difficult, just understanding the environment.
How often do you tweak the menus?
We try to tweak it; it’s a giant menu. We scale it back once in a while. I’m not that proud of a guy that if the clam and garlic isn’t selling, and it’s one of my favorite pizzas, then we don’t do it. You do see us tweak and introduce styles. We’re one of the first to introduce Grandma-style. We did it here at Green Valley Ranch when we opened. Grandma’s getting hot, Detroit’s getting hot, Roman’s getting hot, but my Roman is a thin-crust, and Sicilian’s getting hot. Kind of what’s old is new again. Coming into the market, there were a lot of things that were maybe done at a couple of places but I don’t know if they were doing them exactly right, and some nobody was doing at all.
You do see us take things off the menu if it it’s not working. We introduce new items and test the water. What works in San Francisco sometimes doesn’t work here, and definitely doesn’t work in Sacramento. Vegas is definitely a meat-and-potato kind of town. Pepperoni and sausages—my New Yorker—it’s pepperoni and sausage pizza with dollops of ricotta, but it’s beyond that, it’s sliced Aiello mozzarella, it’s blotted sauce, it’s sausage made in-house, it’s not your typical corporate pizza. Are we selling a ton of those? Yeah. What does that tell you, the margherita’s not No. 1, but a lot of standardized pizzas are valued. People like the Sicilian with seven toppings on it. As long as I’m selling pizzas, I’m OK, I’m not that proud.
What’s your role with the Pizza Expo and how did you get involved?
I’ve been going to the Pizza Expo for almost 30 years now. I’m a writer for Pizza Today magazine, so I’ve had my own column for several years. I am a speaker there, so I have my own stage now. It’s pretty neat. You walk into the expo, it’s like the Superbowl of pizza, everybody’s there if you’re a player. It is my favorite week of the year; it’s my hardest-working week of the year. Back in the day I’d party, “Let’s go to Vegas and have a good time.” Now it’s, wow, it’s crazy. I do seminars on pizza styles; I do dough seminars. You see a lot of guys in Las Vegas, half of them are in our dough seminars. Grandma, Sicilian, Neopolitan seminars. You may see guys from San Francisco in the dough seminars, you may see a national chain—one of the national chains reached out to me recently for something; I had to deny them. I run a school of pizza, I wrote books on pizza, for me, it’s not a giant secret. Well, maybe 1 or 2 percent is secret. But it’s really what’s on the inside that makes a pizzamaker, a chef, who they are. Anyone can google Detroit-style, “Oh, this is how you make it.” For me, it’s always the experience. Have you been to Detroit, have you been to Buddy’s, a place that’s been selling it 50, 60 years, have you eaten it there? Have you been to Naples, do you know how to tell the story of it?
So right now, the evolution of pizza, you get a lot of guys who google it and they opened up a pizzeria and they kinda have their social media by night, then we have an old-school Metro pizza, guys who have 50 years in the industry and grew up in New York. It’s interesting in Vegas now, all the seminars, all the booths, and who is sitting at those seminars, which is always interesting. But yeah, I get national, international, it’s my busiest time of the year. It’s great, I love it; I have my own booth for my school, I have my stage and I have panel discussions.
What’s new on your plate?
There’s a new style we’re going to introduce that is unique. I was in Italy with a team of pizzamakers and I was in a two-day course. So this guy’s looking at me, couldn’t believe I was sitting there, and he’s doing a blend of black rice flour blended into a dough, that is opposite of what I teach. … The flour doesn’t exist in the U.S.; my distributor is flying to Italy to import it.
You’ll see a limited edition of these pizzas around. That excited me, because it’s a new style, nobody has the flour yet; we’ll be the first ones to launch this. You’ll see this at Expo next year. A lot of what you’ll see at Expo is something that we landed six months, a year or so, before. That’s something I’m excited about, because how you make it is opposite how I teach. I always say old dough is better than young dough—it is, it’s more digestible. There’s a method now of mixing dough and cooking it within five hours. It’s almost impossible … to have this dough come out, and it feels like a dough that you’ve let rise for 72 hours. This whole technique, it’s a new method and it’s unique, and I don’t know that many people do this method anywhere. That’s super-exciting. We’re launching it Tony’s Pizza Rock and we’re going to launch it at Expo next year and it’s going to be a hot new thing.
I’m working on a stadium in California. I’m doing a new Roman concept.
(I’m) getting my son to make pizzas; he’s three and a half, turning four. If you ever see any videos of me now—I still toss pizzas—I have some festivals that are popping up with these giant food festivals. I’ve been asked to kind of come back in the circuit. I kind of do a cooking and acrobatic show. Now, my son’s kind of right behind me tossing pizzas in a very comical, clumsy kind of way, so now he’s kind of part of my act. You see me doing my thing, you’ll see him following me, it’s kind of fun. My son loves to cook, so that’s kind of like the future. There’s always a hand-off—am I going to hand off something to him? Growing hot pepper oil, my retail line—my flour’s already out, my hot pepper oil’s retail line is something that’s important for growth and Pizza Rock, next five years, we want 20 Pizza Rocks—that’s our goal, we’re trying to grow Pizza Rock. We think the next one’s in Vegas.
What’s your favorite pizza?
That’s like asking a dad who’s his favorite son. I love our New Haven-style New Yorker. It’s one of my favorites on the menu, it’s actually one of everyone’s favorites. Our Detroit is getting a lot of momentum here; it’s a bit of belly-buster though, it’s rich and definitely that Midwest, substance-type food. Those are two I love. Margherita’s always a go-to for anything; that’s easy.
The design element of the truck, is that from San Francisco, too?
We kind of started in Pizza Rock Sacramento, we had this semi truck elevated over the bar—it was like 100Gs—it was elevated over the bar; downtown we had it on the ground and in Green Valley Ranch we kind of had a beer truck crashing into the building. It was kind of my idea and George ’s this beer truck, we were trying to figure out something over-the-top. Will there always be a truck in a Pizza Rock? Maybe it could be a chop-top Merc or a VW bus. It’s always been a Peterbilt truck, and they’re always from the ’50s. A guy builds them, and it’s always a solid truck. A DJ is in the truck and plays at certain times. Kids love the truck, dads love the truck. My son’s name is Gino and this is actually named after my son. Those were all old beer boxes we collected…