.Tony Gemignani Brings Slice House to the South Bay

The Fremont of Tony Gemignani’s childhood looks a lot different than the Fremont of today. The world-renowned pizza chef and restaurateur remembers a landscape filled with farms and a wide expanse of city. He remembers cruising up and down the boulevard and dirt biking across his neighbor’s land. Mostly he remembers the farms.

“It sounds like it was 100 years ago,” the renowned pizza entrepreneur recalls in a phone interview. “At one time Fremont was filled with corn and apricots and cherry trees.”

Gemignani grew up amidst some of that, helping work his grandfather’s farm until he was about 17 years old. They grew apricots and cherries, naturally, but also fava beans, oranges, lemons, tomatoes and zucchini on about 20 acres of land—a number that seemed like 50 to a young Gemignani. Eventually his grandfather began to sell off the farm piece by piece, like so many others in the area. The dot com boom came for Fremont and its farmers. Gemignani left in his 20s.

That’s when he began to change, too, entering pizza-throwing competitions and making a name for himself. In 2007, he earned the title of World Champion Pizza Maker at the World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy. Two years later, he opened his first restaurant, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, in San Francisco. After that, his restaurant network expanded, almost in an inverse state to Fremont’s farms, spreading further across the country and gaining momentum. With the opening of his latest restaurant in Mountain View, however, Gemignani may just be working his way back home.

The Mountain View Debut

Slice House is Gemignani’s fast-casual pizza franchise, a rapidly growing piece of the chef’s robust portfolio of restaurants. On May 18, when the Mountain View location opened, it was the franchise’s 12th location in the West and somewhere in between Silicon Valley’s first and second location (there’s also a Slice House in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara).

Slice House Mountain View sits in a modest storefront on the ground floor of The Village at San Antonio Center, a 675,000 square foot “open-air dining and entertainment destination,” according to the press release about its debut. In reality, it is surrounded by parking and tall buildings, across the street from a Hyatt. When I arrived, all of its doors were open to the sidewalk and ’90s rock was at a pleasant volume. The scene was undeniably suburban but welcoming.

I was there to meet a connection from Gemignani’s past: Pritika Rajasanshi, his former high school classmate and now the owner of the franchise location.

Rajasanshi is somewhat new to the business, though not unfamiliar. Her family has owned restaurants most of her life, but this is her first time “going solo” and operating her own space. After ending up in the health industry, she was looking for something different, a way to spend more time with her family. The solution came about in, of all places, a Slice House in the East Bay.

“We were at his [Gemignani’s] Walnut Creek location after a basketball tournament and my youngest son ate, I don’t know, 200 dollars worth of slice after slice after slice. He was like, ‘Mom why can’t we own one of these? Don’t you know this guy?” she recalls.

PIZZA PALS Pritika Rajasanshi, who owns the new Slice House franchise in Mountain View, went to high school with Tony back in the ’80s.

It was a compelling enough prospect that Rajasanshi messaged Gemignani on Facebook—just as he was looking to expand his franchises. The Mountain View location took about a year and half to come together and a few weeks beyond that to find the right people and get the word out. Now, barely two months in, Rajasanshi is determined to grow the business.

“Being that I know Tony, being that we’re acquaintances, friends,” she tells me, “I don’t want to be the one that doesn’t succeed for him, because everybody else is very successful.” She admits the pressure is self-imposed.

Luckily, business seems promising already, with a clear demand for an offering unique to the Mountain View location: a New York-style pizza dubbed Apricot Fields. It’s a kind of co-creation between Gemignani and Rajasanshi, after he asked her to list her favorite things and then put his spin on it. The result is a pizza loaded with sausage, smoked bacon, mozzarella, ricotta, house-made hot honey, red onion, hot pepper oil, pesto, romano, oregano, garlic oil and, in a final twist from Gemignani, apricot preserve, an homage to the area’s roots.

“The apricot was the only thing that I wasn’t 100% on but then, wow. I tasted it and I was like, yeah that has to be it,” says Rajasanshi.

I had my reservations, as well, mostly about the sheer amount of stuff loaded onto a single slice. Upon opening my box I may have sworn aloud in disbelief about the magnitude of its size (I confirmed it wasn’t a special “press-sized” slice) and the density of its toppings. Good news followed, however: everything worked together in delicious harmony. Customers agree; it’s become so popular that the restaurant had to start offering it as a full pie instead of only by the slice.

THE WORKS The Apricot Fields pizza is exclusive to Slice House Mountain View. Photo by Lisa Plachy

The restaurants’ busy times, too, have been a positive but unexpected occurrence. People want to come and sit down, Rajasanshi says, and they’ve been arriving in droves for dinner. About 70% of their business is happening in house instead of takeout. They’re working on building a second patio.

A big draw, of course, is the name and reputation Gemignani’s brand carries. “I love marketing,” he told me when we talked about his success. It shows—from the red and black color palette that follows you from his website to his restaurant, all the way to the stacks of Gemignani-branded pizza boxes and cans of tomatoes adorning the kitchen and its walls.

“He’s like a rockstar,” Rajasanshi says. “Almost everyone knows of him. They’re here because of his name.”

A Young Gemignani

The Gemignani name has spread far and wide over the 33 years he’s been making pizza. In that time he’s won 13 world pizza championships and opened six restaurants in San Francisco and several across Nevada and California. Now he’s rapidly expanding his Slice House franchise across the country, with over 140 locations either open or under development. Still, Rajasanshi insists he hasn’t changed much from the nice guy she knew in high school.

“Pretty much the Tony you see now was the Tony then,” she says, adding, “especially back in the ’80s and ’90s where kids could be real jerks.”

Fremont wasn’t always welcoming to Rajasanshi, who moved there from India when she was eight. Gemignani stuck out to her because he was the exception to the rule, when popular kids were often unkind.

For his part, Gemignani reflects on his upbringing fondly—the time and the place, but most of all the people who raised him. His mother, who taught him how to cook and brought together his family and friends at lively dinners with such massive quantities of food there were always leftovers for guests. And his grandfather, the hardest-working man Gemignani knew, who taught him how to pick out the best produce and work hard, and who also formed some of Gemignani’s fondest pizza-centric memories.

ORIGIN STORY Gemignani went to Washington High School in Fremont and says the city was an amazing place to grow up.

His grandfather, Gemignani says, always took him and his brother, Frank, out once a week. “Our spot was Uncle Joe’s. It was always Friday night, it was pizza night. I remember getting my extra cheese pizza that I loved. That was a special time growing up.”

Today, Uncle Joe’s is a Bronco Billy’s Pizza Palace. Residential homes occupy the former acres of the family farm. The pizza restaurant where Gemignani got his start as a chef, Pyzano’s Pizzeria in Castro Valley, is now a pho restaurant. And for the last four years, Gemignani and his family have lived in Alamo, on about one and a half acres of land.

It’s there that Gemignani’s been recreating his childhood for his own young son, however best he can.

A Farm Becomes a Garden

“I just got done picking my Blenheim [apricots],” he says. “My cherries just passed. Plums are really in right now. Figs are starting to come in.”

I try to keep up as he lists off what’s in season, as well as the impressive roster of what else is growing in his garden: lemons, limes, tomatoes, persimmons, pomegranates, oranges, nectarines, basil. In total about 24 fruit trees, not to mention the 400 vines he has for his small vineyard.

“It’s awesome. I have my son totally into it. I wanted him to kind of grow up in that environment,” he says.

The critical role of fresh ingredients has long followed Gemignani since his days at the farm. When Rajasanshi takes me through a tour of Slice House, she points out what’s homemade—the bubbling dough, the verdant green pesto, the sweet-spicy hot-house honey. She tells me that 90% of their ingredients are scratch-made. Apricots come from ApricotKing in Hollister at the Mountain View farmer’s market.

NEXT GEN GARDEN Tony Gemignani is recreating his Fremont upbringing for his son Giovanni with a fruit-filled garden in Alamo.

Gemignani also manufactures his own flour and sources his own tomatoes, a concept he started working on about a decade earlier and solidified over the years.

“I wanted my pizza to be different than others. That came down to the foundation,” the dough and the sauce, he tells me. His cheese of choice has remained unchanged for three decades: Grande.

Yet in all this time, despite the pull toward his former life, he never opened a restaurant in Fremont. As Gemignani’s career took off and took him away, he says he became more unfamiliar with the city and the market. It was never the right time.

Now that timing is turning around, with a new Gemignani property finally in the works for Fremont. Instead of Gemignani at the helm it’s Rajasanshi, who lives there and, he says, understands it better. She’s currently in the process of finding the right spot.

“I know that’s gonna be a very big opening,” she says. “It’s got that heritage factor.”

Slice House Mountain View, 2565 California St, Suite 501; 650.966.7772; slicehouse.com/mountainview

1 COMMENT

  1. Tony G is the best and we love him. He is a person of honor and respect. It is so great to see him getting the recognition he deserves and the success he has earned. Peace Tony!!!

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