Above: Capo’s owner and all-around pizza guru Tony Gemignani
Pizza is pervasive, even in a pandemic. It’s knocking at your front door, chilling in your freezer, and flashing across the T.V. There’s a pizzeria on almost every corner in San Francisco. But one place stands out among the rest: Capo’s by Tony Gemignani. This spot is the answer to all your pizza prayers.
Where to Get It
You can find Capo’s in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. The bar and restaurant crafts superb Detroit and Chicago pies, led by owner Gemignani. The world-renowned chef and pizza maker has spent decades building a restaurant empire and bringing people together with great Italian food.
Nearly 30 years and 30 concepts later, he’s now facing one of the biggest challenges of his long career: COVID-19. But Capo’s is doing better than ever, proof that an amazing slice can overcome just about anything, starting with your boring takeout.
What to Order
Capo’s has a new menu with small plates like ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms and Calabrese sausage with spicy honey. There’s rich pastas including penne with vodka cream sauce, plus a full bar. But right now, you’re here for the pizza.
You can order your Chicago pie deep-dish, cast iron pan, stuffed, or cracker thin. If you’re a newcomer at Capo’s, go classic with an Old Chicago topped with Italian sausage, meatball, garlic, and ricotta.
For seasoned patrons, The Italian Stallion with Italian beef, Chicago Italian sausage, horseradish cream sauce, and spicy sweet peppers will hit the spot. This robust meat pie is one of Gemignani’s favorites.
Whichever one you choose, make it deep-dish. This hearty style will put your usual slice to shame. It’s also ideal for social distancing, since you’ll be so full that staying home on the couch will sound pretty good.
The Chicago pies at Capo’s didn’t happen on a whim. Gemignani visits the city often. He’s tossed pizzas at Wrigley Field and even judged Chicago Pizza Wars on the Cooking Channel. He brought the flavors of Chicago home to San Francisco.
He first introduced stuffed, deep-dish, and cast iron skillet styles at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, his flagship restaurant in SF’s Little Italy. But the hefty pizzas were taking too long to cook and started affecting wait times.
“I really thought that it really needed the concept of its own; its own brick-and-mortar. And Capo’s was born,” says Gemignani.
He also brought Detroit pies to SF at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. When their popularity soared during the pandemic, he was overwhelmed by the response. That’s when he decided to bring these square-shaped slices to Capo’s.
“I really thought I could do a lot more with that style, especially in San Francisco, because they just kind of fell in love with it,” he says.
Where to Enjoy It
You can order delivery, take a pizza to-go, or dine outdoors at Capo’s. Gemignani has set up seating in the parking area of the restaurant so guests can sit and stay a while.
But that’s not the only thing that’s changed. The restaurant was rebranded with a fresh logo and a new head chef, Chef Laura Meyer. The menu was downsized and Detroit-style pies were added. “There was an overhaul,” remarks Gemignani.
“There’s been a lot of great ideas that come out of bad things,” he says. “When you get pushed down, you become creative, you rethink things.”
Capo’s is doing better now than before the virus hit the West Coast. It’s one of only two of Gemignani’s many restaurants to increase business during the pandemic. He credits its success to out-of-towners and old high school buddies that have visited the eatery.
“They just didn’t come to have great pizza. They really came to support you,” he says. “Having that support has been really special.”
San Franciscans are still waiting for food and beverage restrictions to be lifted. In the meantime, Gemignani is facing an empty indoor dining room, and it hasn’t been easy.
“It was a hard transition to understand. Sad walking in your restaurant. Tables or pizza boxes are everywhere, and your tables are turned upside down, and no one’s in the kitchen,” he says. “I mean, it’s just, it’s just sad to see nobody in your restaurant.”
“I’m a people person,” he continues. “…I make pizzas, but I shake hands and kiss babies. So, when you can’t shake hands and you can’t kiss babies, it’s tough.”
The indoor dining room is a slice of the past, featuring 100-year-old Chicago brick found in a local’s backyard and mob-era decor. Hubcaps hang on the wall alongside vintage editions of the Chicago Tribune and the Detroit Free Press.
It may be mid-October before SF residents can experience the retro ambiance of Capo’s. Until then, all you can do is sit outside the restaurant, order the heaviest, cheesiest pie on the menu, and eat your feelings.
Why You’ll Love It
Gemignani’s long and decorated career reads like a love letter to pizza. He’s written three books on the subject. He’s a 13-Time World Pizza Champion. His dedication to pizza making is what sets his pies apart from others in the Bay Area.
“When I made it for the first time, it was just there…And I just wanted to make it better and become the best at it,” he says. “And I really, I really fell in love with it.”
Gemignani grew up in the kitchen. He was born and raised in Fremont, California and enjoyed fresh fruits and vegetables from the family farm. “One of the highlights to me growing up was watching my mom cook from 3:00 to 6:00, and she would always have something on the stove, in the oven,” he recalls.
According to the longtime chef, the key to cooking Italian food is simplicity. “For me, it’s always been about substance,” says Gemignani. “…You know, the simple ingredients are important, not too complex in Italian cooking. Five ingredients or less is always important.”
When it comes to taste, the secret is in the sauce. Gemignani takes care not to overcook his sauces to preserve sweetness. “A lot of times the longer you cook a tomato, you cook out the flavor of the tomato.”
His wife, Julie Gemignani, is Sicilian and shares her husband’s culinary expertise. She runs Giovanni Italian Specialties, a retail shop in North Beach that makes and sells fresh pasta, while he manages Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and Capo’s.
Their six-year-old son cooks with them at home. Gemignani is hoping his little one will follow in his footsteps. “I love to bring my son into the kitchen, and have him look around…Seeing what I do. Hopefully he’ll fall in love with it like I did.”
For Gemignani, making people happy is the best part of being a restaurant owner. “…It’s pizza, and food in general, it always takes away from the chaos…Being able to do all that, it’s just very rewarding and gratifying.”
He points out that restaurant owners simply enjoy connecting with guests. “We just love what we do.” Gemignani’s pies have been perfected through decades of devotion to both pizza and people.
So why will you love Capo’s? Because the chef does, too.