Tony Gemignani has accomplished what no American — and no non-Italian— has ever done.
Gemignani, co-owner of Pyzano's Pizzeria in Castro Valley, Calif., took first place in the Trofeo Citta di Napoli (City of Naples Trophy)/World Pizza Cup, a championship for the globe's best pizza makers and pizza acrobats.
The two-year-old event, held June 12-13 in Naples, Italy, drew nearly 50 contestants from around the world who were challenged to bake multiple styles of pizza the old-fashioned way — the truly Italian, Neapolitan way.
Tony Gemignani (third from the left) accepts his City of Naples Trophy/World Pizza Cuptrophy in Naples, Italy.
The making of true Neapolitan pizza is governed by the Verace Pizzaioli Napoletani (translated "makers of true Neapolitan pizza), an oversight group which inspects and approves Neapolitan pizzerias claiming to serve the paper-thin-crusted pizza. Guidelines govern not only the use of specific types of flour and tomatoes, but specify that each pizza must be hand-formed to a width of 13 inches and baked in a wood-fired oven at 900° Fahrenheit.
"Winning in Naples is something I've always wanted to do because I have so much respect for the Neapolitans," Gemignani said. "They know what pizza is really supposed to taste like and how to make it the way it's been made there for hundreds of years."
Gemignani traveled to Italy two years ago to learn the VPN standard, then built a wood-fired oven in his backyard to practice the craft.
"Over the last year I went hardcore making hundreds of pizzas just trying to get it right, just trying to master what they do," he said. He also imported every ingredient in order to adhere to the VPN process.
The job of tasting each pie fell to his wife, Julie, who has spent time traveling throughout Italy with her husband.
"Since a lot of people here don't understand the VPN method, it's hard to get some true insight into whether what I was baking was right or not," Gemignani said. "This is not the kind of pizza you see every day in the United States. Winning this just blew me away."
Although he was an eight-time world champion pizza acrobat, Gemignani had never won a baking championship in Italy. Italians have historically dominated the TCN and other pizza contests, making Gemignani's unprecedented win a complete surprise.
Contest has become an international event
All Verasce Pizzeria Napoletana pizzas must be made from Italian ingredients and include "00" flour. It must be topped with San Marzano tomatoes, Italian olive oil and sea salt, and fresh mozzarella or buffalo and mozzarella cheeses.
VPN pizzas must be hand-formed and baked in a wood-fired oven. The average temperature is 900 F, which cooks the pizza in about 90 seconds.
The World Pizza Cup is a 2-year-old event, held annually in Naples, Italy. Some four dozen contestants from around the world participate annually in the challenge.
Gemignani called his victory "a huge credibility boost for American
pizza makers." It also reflects a growing number of U.S. pizza makers' interest in practicing Old World pizza-making techniques.
TCN/WPC's co-organizers, Ernesto Cacialli, president of Margherita Regina, an association promoting true Neapolitan pizza, and Claudio Ospite, vice president of Margherita Regina, said they were impressed by Gemignani, who, at 33, has earned the respect of many Italian masters.
TCN/WPC promoter Nancy Puglisi has helped the event become an international contest by drawing pizza makers from around the world, including Fran Carroll of Ireland and Hisanori Yamamoto from Japan.
"In a short period of time, this event has become not only one that truly represents what Italian pizza is all about, it's become a showcase for the talents of some of the world's best pizza makers," Puglisi said.
"The Italians acknowledged that what Tony has done is something remarkable," she said. "They didn't expect him to win, but he really earned their respect because of it."
The win also ensures Pyzano's move to a new pizzeria that will include a wood-fired oven in which Gemignani will bake his now famous world's-best Neapolitan pizza.
"We'll still do pizzas the way Pyzano's has always done them," said Gemignani, who operates Pyzano's with his brother Frank. "But what we're planning to do is have the wood-fired oven running three nights a week, and that's when I'll come in and do Neapolitan-style pizzas. That's going to be a lot of fun."
Gemignani's pizza skills have led to appearances on shows including "Emeril," "The Tonight Show" and "Good Morning America" Along the way, he has met celebrities including James Caan and Michael Douglas.