Since 2009, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana has been the best all-around pizza restaurant in the U.S. I’d even say world, in terms of the place that perfects all major (and some minor) styles of pizza. Many may consider these fighting words, but other pizza lovers and critics have said the same as I.
I’ve yet to see anyone come close to Tony Gemignani’s mastery of multiple styles of pizza, including New York, Neapolitan, Jersey/Trenton tomato pie, Sicilian, St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit styles. I’m no stranger to these categories, consuming literally thousands of pizzas in my adult years, including my many travels in Italy, all over the U.S. and globe — not to mention my years growing up in north New Jersey just outside NYC, both pizza havens. I also live in a damn great pizza town itself: San Francisco.
Gemignani has won a good 13 world titles in pizza making, including World Champion Pizza Maker at Italy’s World Pizza Cup, the first American and non-Neapolitan to ever do so. Tony’s has been among the top pizza restaurants globally and topped best U.S. pizza lists at 50 Top Pizza (#1 in 2021, #2 in 2022 after NYC’s Una Pizza Napoletana, which was in SF for some years and is wonderful but hones one style of pizza: Neapolitan). All the accolades are backed by the painstaking detail with which Gemignani perfected each category of pizza, including different ovens, flour and tomato sources for each style. He’s trained and launched a whole generation of great pizzaiolos, including Capo’s former head chef Laura Meyer, now a 3-time World Pizza Champion herself, who is set to open her own Pizzeria da Laura in Berkeley in early 2023.
I’ve called his pizzas best anywhere since Tony’s debuted, alongside Capo’s, which he opened November 17, 2012, just now passing it’s 10th anniversary. Both are in North Beach a few blocks from each other, with Capo’s the Chicago pizza-focused joint, adding on Detroit-style pizzas when they reopened Summer 2020 after a pandemic shut down. Tony’s Pizza Napoletana (TPN) serves all the other pizza styles, including a Trenton/Jersey-style tomato pie that “bests” all I had growing up in my teen years in NJ. I nearly wept when I first tasted it in its tomato-garlic purity.
These days, Detroit-style pizza has trended all over the nation — and Tony was doing it long before at TPN since 2009. Over the years, as the style became widely popular, there have been numerous excellent spots for Detroit pizza in town, especially Square Pie Guys, Cellarmaker House of Pizza and good, but not as excellent as those two, Joyride and Pie Punks. And when it comes to superb Chicago deep dish, there are far fewer who perfect it (locally the other deep dish “kings” would be longtime Little Star and East Bay legend for decades, Zachary’s).
But even in the great food city of Chicago, where I’ve been researching the past 15 years, I’ve eaten at all the deep dish legends and numerous others besides. I’ve found none that compare even with SF’s top three I just mentioned, especially Tony’s (up till now, Pequod’s is the better I’ve had in Chicago, while many of the legendary spots have been downright bad with gummy cheese, bland crust and tomato sauce).
So when I first visited Capo’s as it opened late 2012, it was a revelation. In fact, Tony and team nailed not just deep dish, but all historic Chicago pizza styles: cast iron pan, stuffed and cracker-thin. Consulting four of Chicago’s legendary pizza families — Marc Malnati of Lou Malnati’s, Leo Spitziri of Giordano’s, Jeff Stolfe from Connie’s, Tony Troiano of JB Alberto’s — Tony installed three ovens for the Chicago pies back when Capo’s opened: one wood-fired and two brick, heated to different degrees. They were the only West Coast restaurant using Ceresota flour from one of Illinois’ oldest mills, a staple of Chicago’s revered pizzerias. Similarly, Tony’s Detroit pies perfected historic Detroit technique, cooked in 10” x 14” Detroit steel pans, topped with Wisconsin brick mozzarella cheese and white cheddar, sporting that perfect parmigiano crust on the underside.
While pizza is what you come for, there are other “OMG good” delights at Capo’s, including spot-on, thinly shaved Italian beef (another Chicago classic, here in sandwich form and on my fave Italian Stallion pizza), house-made Calabrese sausages in spicy honey and mostaccioli (all hail the vodka cream sauce version with Calabrese peppers).
Cozy, rustic and festive as the Tony’s Pizza space is, I prefer the old school American-Italian vibes of Capo’s with its brick walls, cork floors, hand-painted tin ceiling, Art Deco-inspired bar (custom built by Tony and Neapolitan-born carpenter Ricardo Jacobus), red booths, Prohibition-era memorabilia, 1950s-60s hubcaps (nodding to Tony’s classic car love and personal collection; he restored a 1950 chop-top Mercury tributing Capo’s) and an original Detroit teamster 299 jacket. Photos of infamous Detroit and Chicago mobsters line the space, including the obvious Chicago mobster with SF connections: Al Capone.
The Capone booth sports Capone’s poker chips, matchbooks, whiskey bottles and more under a glass tabletop. I adore the mural above the Capone booth of Adolf Restaurant, housed in the Capo’s space circa 1960’s, discovered and restored as they built out Capo’s. From day one, this space felt as if it had been here for decades, entirely at home — as are all of Tony’s spots — in the neighborhood. From his superb bagel shop and Italian bakery, Toscano Brothers/Dago Bagel, to Italian grocery, Giovanni Italian Specialties, named after his son, Gemignani is certainly a staple of the city’s most-European-yet-so-SF neighborhood, North Beach, but he’s also a patron saint of pizza the world over, down to his recently closed pizza school upstairs from the original Tony’s.
Dan, “The Renaissance Man,” and I returned to Capo’s with my sister and brother-in-law on an early December night to celebrate Christmas and my xmas day birthday. As we have done over past visits bringing family and friends, we took home more than half our food from the large, dense portions. We feasted and laughed, in a deluge of red wine and red sauce.
Though we had too much breading coming, we couldn’t resist Capo’s garlic-heavy garlic bread. The meatballs (also in sandwich form) are always a tender delight, the ‘njdua (spicy pork spread) crostini is blessed with salty anchovies, while baked artichokes are decadent swimming in spinach and provolone cream. Seasonal fried ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms were the definition of dissolve-in-your-mouth. Capo’s nailsclassic Caesar salad. Ditto a mixed greens salad laden with dried cherries, gorgonzola, candied walnuts and red onions in bright cherry prosecco vinaigrette. The aforementioned mostaccioli alla vodka remains my favorite non-pizza dish.
But back to the pizza. It’s hard to go wrong. Mix-and-match your preferred pizza recipe with any type of crust/style. In some ways, I live most for the classic Red Top Margherita pizza, Chicago-style, because it best allows the purity of Tony’s craft — quality of the crust, cheese and “sweet dreams are made of these” red sauce — to shine.
My all-time favorite Capo’s pizzas, however, include award-winning Cal Italia, a white pie originally (and still) at Tony’s Pizza and worth ordering in any form. This combo of gorgonzola, asiago, parmigiano, imported fig preserves, prosciutto di Parma and balsamic reduction is a Tony classic. But the Italian Stallion likewise deserves to be so. Another white pie, I find this one best in Chicago cracker-thin form to partner with that thinly sliced Italian beef. This crispy, meaty combo is enhanced by crumbled Chicago-Italian sausage, chives, oregano, spicy-sweet peppers and the clincher: horseradish cream sauce. Flour-based crust gains texture from a dusting of cornmeal, while a key to its impeccable taste and crunch is European butter and a bit of lard.
My number one pick for Detroit-style (again, you can get any pizza in each of these styles) is the Deville, which came on the menu as Capo’s added the Detroit emphasis in 2020, but which I first had at Tony’s. It’s red sauce heaven, subtly layered with soppressata picante and ‘nduja pork jam. Meaty essence peeks out but doesn’t garishly overwhelm the tomato sauce. Local honey and hot red pepper oil add sweet-spicy contrast, while arugula, mozzarella and parmigiano cheese round it out. Hell, yes.
Cocktails are solid, classic and bracing from a menu initially launched by Elmer Mejicanos (who has gone on to create menus at nearby Red Window and 25 Lusk). Think a simple but crushable Artichoke King cocktail of bourbon, Cynar (historic Italian bitter amaro with botanicals including artichoke), lemon, grapefruit and rosemary bitters. Whiskey dominates on the spirits/bar side, there are eight local beers on draft and the wine list is, again, solid, heavy on Italian and Californian reds, ideal with all that blessed red sauce and meat.
I visited Capo’s three times the first month it opened and many times since, even as I don’t have the luxury of being a regular anywhere as I research at over 600 restaurants every year. But over the years, I’ve tried every dish on Capo’s menu. Though I have my favorites, most the menu tops 15 years of Chicago deep dish research and Detroit-style besides. This is the kind of perfected crust and red sauce I dream about and get homesick for.
Capo’s is an ode to Chicago, Detroit and to San Francisco’s rich Italian-American immigrant history, as it is to the neighborhood’s deep Italian roots, community and free spirit. SF continues to lead in innovative fine dining and boundary-pushing chefs, but we have countless restaurants that hone classics and glorify tradition, too.
Tony and his team continue to create drool-worthy creative pies in all styles of pizza, but they are grounded in tradition, regional differences, quality ingredients and sheer devotion to perfection. Most of all, they are centered in mouth-watering, totally-worth-it, calorie-heavy deliciousness. Pizza that tastes as superb heated up on the stove the next morning as it does fresh out of the oven the night before. Happy 10th anniversary, Capo’s.
// 641 Vallejo Street, https://sfcapos.com