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Find Great Italian Food at Tony's of North Beach

On a recent weekend in Sonoma County, I found myself having dinner twice, both Friday and Sunday, at Tony’s of North Beach in Rohnert Park. In between suppers, I ate the leftovers – pizza cold, pizza reheated, half a meatball sandwich, and a Caesar salad blissfully kicked up with anchovies.

It’s a very nice habit to have, now that Tony’s is a fixture at the Graton Resort & Casino and, unlike the poor slobs who visit the original locations in San Francisco, I don’t have to stand in line or make reservations weeks in advance in order to get in.

While busy, this Tony’s outpost usually has walk-in seating available and, for single diners, there’s often space at the centerpiece bar.

On this recent Friday, as I walked with my pizza box back to my car, a man stopped me in the parking lot. “Pizza!” he said. “Do you have any good pizza in California?” I explained this was New York style, absolutely superb, and he grinned. “I’m from New York!” he said. “Oh man, I’m going in!”

Part of Tony’s appeal is its wide variety of pizza styles, including Neapolitan, classic Italian, California baked in a 900-degree wood-fired oven, classic American, New York/New Haven, Sicilian, Roman, a weekly changing Santa Rosa Farmers’ Market pie, and even a stout honey Malted Guinness Beer-based crust or gluten free recipes. You start by asking recommendations from the wine list, then ask for recommendations from the pizza list.

With so many styles, does restaurateur Gemignani stretch the pizza dough too thin? No, he’s actually just obsessed. He is president of the World Pizza Champions, the first and only Triple Crown winner for baking at the International Pizza Championships in Lecce, Italy, and was named the 2007 World Champion Pizza Maker at the World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy, where he was the first American and non-Neapolitan victor.

He has appeared on popular shows like The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Good Morning America, and is a regular on Food Network. Gemignani also received his Master credentials from the Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli, and is the proprietor of the International School of Pizza where he certifies chefs from around the world.

There’s more: He was named the official U.S. ambassador of Neapolitan pizza by the city of Naples, a title only given to three people in the entire world. In 2011 and 2012, Tony also won two world titles in cooking, making him an 11-time world champion.
So there’s that. But what keeps this place so popular is the ingredients, such as in the classic Italian Prosciutto e Pomodorini smothered in prosciutto di Parma, arugula,
cherry tomatoes, Parmigiano and olive oil ($19); or the more modern pie gussied with quail egg, white rose potato, silky guanciale, a kiss of lavender sea salt, calabrese peppers, mozzarella, chorizo, fromage blanc, and rosemary ($20).

This particular Sunday evening, my group started with the antipasto board. Like everything else here, it’s a generous serving, laden with house-cured artisan salumi, assorted olives, marinated artichokes, local cheeses like Redwood Hill Farm, Camellia Goat, Vella, Toma, Valley Ford Estero Gold, provolone, and sweet peppers ($15).

We also divvied up a caprese, anchored by first-rate house-made mozzarella ($12), and the Peroni beer-battered artichoke ($9), a mound of marinated, deep fried knobs that’s messy to eat but worthy the hot, tempura-crunchy effort.

The Americano pizza is one of my favorites — what’s not to love about the mix of pepperoni, salami, mushrooms, sausage, bell peppers, onions, chives, linguica, bacon, black olives, cherry tomato, and tomato sauce ($21)?  The bacon is crispy, the tomatoes pop in the mouth, and the crust is perfect, thin-ish but chewy.

Sunday dining includes another bonus — the Spaghetti Sundays special starting at 4 p.m., bringing spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread and Caesar salad for two for $17.99 ($34.99 for four), plus $20 bottles of wine or no corkage. Normally the dish is $18 for a single serving and tonight, like most meals here, I ended up taking a fair amount home.

I wouldn’t normally focus on a burger at a pizza and pasta specialty house, but Tony’s burrata version is exquisite, in a big, juicy Snake River Farms kobe patty decorated in sweet caramelized onions, arugula, bacon and balsamic — the creamy burrata oozes into the layered crevices in milky molten goodness ($16, with rosemary garlic fries or purple potato chips and a housemade pickle).

The chicken parmigiana is another winner, a classic indulgence of crisp-breaded breast smothered in mozzarella and tomato sauce over pasta Pomodoro ($20). After filling up on pizza, we barely made a dent in it, with the same fate for a quite good “dirty steak,” so named because the 16-ounce cut is served with bone marrow, alongside a mound of rosemary fries ($35).

Dessert? Why not loosen that belt. The mud pie needs at least four people to do it justice, in a big wedge of vanilla bean and coffee ice creams set atop an Oreo cookie crust, capped in chocolate ganache, hot fudge, house-made caramel and homemade whipped cream ($8).

Now and then, we see Tony himself in the restaurant (he splits his time between several other shops in San Francisco). And, if we’re lucky, we can see the skill that got him inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records twice for creating the largest pizza, as well as the most consecutive rolls across the shoulders, a unique throwing trick which involves rolling the pizza dough along the back of the shoulders. If we don’t see him on a Friday, we can always come back on a Sunday.

Tony's of North Beach, 630 Park Court (in Graton Resort & Casino), Rohnert Park, 707-586-0777, tonysofnorthbeach.com.

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