In the hands of an ordinary pizza maker, dough is mere food.
But in the hands of Tony Gemignani, 28, it's a show prop, a marketing tool and warm, soft cash.
Gemignani is an undefeated, three-time world champion and two-time national champion dough thrower whose talent for spinning skins have landed him on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and in countless newspaper articles and TV reports. His commercial work performing at pizza store openings has led him to Thailand, London and all across the U.S.
The dough dynamo has never marketed his shtick. The calls come to him and he comes calling.
Tony Gemignani demonstrates his trademark "off-the-toe" dough spin at Pizza Pizzazz in February.
Even Italians are amazed at the swarthy American lad's spinning skills. When Gemignani went to Italy to compete in the 1995 Pizza World Championships, he beat the should-be masters on their own turf.
"They asked me if I went to school -- they actually have traveling schools for pizza throwing," said Gemignani, co-owner of Pyzano's, a pizzeria in Castro Valley, Calif. "Over there everyone pretty much does it the same way. So when I went there to compete, it was unheard of to do a trick off your foot."
That's right: off his foot. And through his legs, behind his back and across his shoulders.
"I came in to the restaurant once and he was wearing a blindfold" while tossing dough, said brother and Pyzano's partner, Frank Gemignani, 33. "I said, 'What are you doing?' And he said, 'I'm going to do it blindfolded.' And he did. And he won again that year."
A Simple Pizza Man
At 18, and just six months out of high school, Tony paired up with Frank to open Pyzano's. Like most openings, theirs was inauspicious, but business improved steadily.
One employee, who thought himself pretty deft with dough, shared a few of his secrets with Tony. But when he didn't pick them up quickly enough, he got some ribbing from the employee and Frank.
"He used to say to Tony, 'You can't do this,' and then show Tony a trick," said Frank. "Now we just stand back and watch."
Pyzano's open kitchen became the perfect showcase for Tony's tricks, which gradually took on increased complexity. As word spread about his power over flour, customer counts grew and kids started asking for dough of their own to try and emulate him.
In 1995, when he was 21, Gemignani traveled to Las Vegas for his first competition, the now-defunct Pizza Olympics. Competitors there were masters of high tosses and fast spinning, but none had Gemignani's flair and style.
"The other competitors were so serious, but my brother was so relaxed," said Frank of that first Las Vegas victory. "A lot of people can do tricks, but it's more robotic when they're doing it."
World championships and another Olympic title followed, and still no one even threatened Gemignani's reign. After winning his second world championship in 1997, he received a call to appear on the "Tonight Show." The experience was nerve wracking, he said, but one he saw as a career stepping stone.
"The assistant producer there wasn't very helpful at all," Gemignani recalled. "She said to me right before I went on: ' "Seinfeld," "ER," "Jay Leno" -- this is our biggest ratings night. Good luck.' Like that didn't put any pressure on me! That was live, no cuts, no editing, nothing; they want it to be spontaneous."
That night, an advertising executive working for Minneapolis-based Green Mill Restaurants was watching Leno's show. The next day he called Green Mill president, Todd King, and pitched the idea of making Gemignani the chain's spokesman. King was easily sold, and Gemignani was hired to throw dough in the St. Paul, Minn., Winter Carnival Parade.
"It's humiliating to even try what he does. It's like being Michael Jordan's brother -- the last thing you want to do is play him in a game of basketball."
"Believe it or not, he sat on the back deck of the convertible I was driving and did his antics along the parade route," said King, adding that the temperature was 35 F that day, positively balmy for carnival season. "Tony's jumping off the car doing his thing with the crowd and ... that got us about five straight minutes on (TV) during the parade. It was a hit."
Gemignani became a regular feature at Green Mill store openings, performing his dough-tossing routine complete with music and costumes.
"When the press comes out to photograph Tony, they follow us to children's hospitals and schools," King said. "He has a lot of fun with the kids, literally going from room to room to see them."
It's Still About Business
Gemignani said Pyzano's sales are $1.3 million a year, a respectable number for a town with only 100,000 residents. Many locals leave town during the day to work in nearby San Francisco, but when they return and want pizza for dinner, they come in droves between 5 and 8 p.m.
"We only have 90 seats and we're not open for lunch," said Gemignani. "So we do quite a bit of volume in a short amount of time for just 2,500 square feet."
Frank credits his brother's skills with bringing a lot of new customers to the shop. The attention is always positive, he said, but one drawback is that people often forget that the spin-meister is there to make pizzas first and do tricks second. "I wouldn't call it a detraction at all, but sometimes people want to see him entertain when he has 40 or 50 pizzas to make on a Friday."
HQ: Castro Valley, Calif.
Dough-tossing customers: P&G, Green Mill, PZ-44, Francis Ford Coppola
Aspiration: To own a supper club restaurant in San Francisco
Hobby: Dining out in San Francisco
That his brother gets the majority of the attention, Frank added, doesn't bother him. Tony is naturally outgoing, while he's reserved. Serving in a support role for his sibling -- covering Tony at Pyzano's when he's gone or preparing his dough for performances -- is the perfect place for him, he said.
"I joke around and tell him I'm his roadie," Frank said. "I'll help him get his dough ready and do as much as I can for him -- like he would do for me."
And just like Gemignani unselfishly does for others, said King.
"I'm a Boy Scout leader, and he saw an antique Boy Scout book in a store," King said. "Tony just bought it and sent it to me, just to be nice. He's really a genuine person."
At Draeger's, a high-end Bay Area grocery chain where Gemignani teaches pizza-making classes, culinary director Pamela Keith said he's a popular draw.
"He's a great teacher, and people love him," said Keith. Students of Gemignani's classes pay $85 apiece for each three-hour session, and spots are always sold out. Keith books him six to 10 times a year. "He's charming and engaging, and it's a hands-on experience, which makes it more fun."
Pyzano's comes first, but Gemignani books demonstrations when his schedule allows. And despite having clients as large as Procter & Gamble (he tossed pizza while making coffee in a Millstone commercial, but had another actor's head morphed onto his body), he accepts offers from small operators, too.
"If a guy who owns one shop asks me to do it, I'm not going to charge him an arm and a leg to do it -- I own one shop, too," said Gemignani.
But surely his regular call from Francis Ford Coppola piques his interest a bit more than the usual "toss for me, please" request. The famed movie director hires Gemignani to lead celebrities in a dough-tossing contest during an annual fund-raiser at his winery.
"James Caan's pretty good at it, and Cheech Marin's another," Gemignani said of the actors' dough-tossing skills.
But no one's as good as Gemignani. He's so good, in fact, that the Italians in charge of the annual world championships asked him to skip the competition in April and serve as a judge instead.
"As far as the stuff he does, he's one of a kind," said Frank. "It's humiliating to even try what he does. It's like being Michael Jordan's brother -- the last thing you want to do is play him in a game of basketball."