“I loved it, and customers loved it,” said Gemignani.
More than three decades later, Gemignani, now 49, has become an acclaimed pizza acrobat, with 13 world championship titles under his belt, seven of which are for acrobatics, and six for cooking. He has won several Guinness World Records, too, including “largest pizza base spun in [two] minutes.” (The pie was 33.2 inches wide.)
“Tricks that you see a Harlem Globetrotter do with a basketball, we do with a pizza,” he said.
Pizza acrobatics, sometimes called pizza freestyle or pizza tossing, has been around since the 1980s. The sport — it is actually considered a sport — involves tossing mounds of stretched pizza dough in the air, and performing jaw-dropping tricks with it. The dough seemingly defies gravity, launching straight in the air in perfect circular disks. Some acrobats can keep two pizzas twirling at a time.
It may be an unusual hobby, but tossing pizza is no joke. Like other competitive sports, it requires focus, coordination, physical strength and — perhaps most important — practice. Lots of practice.
“It’s hard. You need agility,” said Gemignani, who initially practiced pizza spinning with wet beach towels that he cut and sowed together to form a 16-inch circle. “There’s some stamina involved. You’d be surprised.”
Plus, he added, pizza dough is highly fragile compared with typical juggling props, and its elasticity is influenced by various factors that are beyond an acrobat’s control. Warm weather, for instance, makes the dough softer — and more susceptible to midair tearing.
“It’s flexible, it can rip, it changes in shape,” Gemignani said, explaining that dough for acrobatics differs from regular pizza dough, and is made with triple the salt and special flour for durability. “It’s always a little different every time you do it. The dough is always changing.”
The challenge, though, is part of what draws Gemignani to the sport. Over the years, he has attended — and won — many pizza acrobatic competitions, including the annual World Pizza Games in Las Vegas (which is part of the International Pizza Expo & Conference), and the Pizza World Championships in Parma, Italy — the largest pizza show in the world.
International pizza makers — or “pizzaiolos” — travel from near and far to attend the yearly events.
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“Competitors from around the world all fly in and compete,” said Gemignani, who was born in Fremont, Calif., and has Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Native American roots.
Athletes, as they’re called at the competitions, hail from across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Morocco, Sweden, France, India, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and of course, Italy. They spend all year preparing and practicing their acrobatic acts.
There is usually a fee of about $100 to enter in the competitions, though many contenders are sponsored by companies in the industry. Winners occasionally take home cash prizes, but in many competitions, “it’s bragging rights and medals,” Gemignani said.
While each competition has its own set of rules and protocols, contenders always choreograph their own three-minute routines, which are accompanied by music and performed in front of a live audience. A panel of several expert judges then critique them on various factors, including dexterity, difficulty, showmanship, synchronization and creativity. Points are deducted for dropped dough.
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“You shouldn’t drop it that much,” said Gemignani, who has started about 40 pizzerias across the country, including the famous Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, in the heart of San Francisco’s Little Italy. “You’ve got to pull it off and be the best you can.”
While pizza acrobatics is a niche sport, it’s actually somewhat conventional compared with other unusual contests out there, including bee-bearding challenges, nail art competitions, extreme ironing tournaments and worm charming championships.
Even though Gemignani has performed “thousands of times” over the course of his career, “I still get nervous,” he said, adding that in addition to competitions, he has traveled the world — from London to Thailand — tossing pizzas at cancer camps, local festivals, sporting games, talk shows, fundraising events and other gatherings, large and small. He especially loves performing for kids.
“It’s so rewarding,” said Gemignani, who has an 8-year-old son named Giovanni. In 2009, Gemignani published a children’s book about pizza acrobatics, called “Tony and the Pizza Champions.”
In addition to performing tricks with dough, Gemignani’s primary passion is making pizza. When it comes to pizza style, he does not discriminate.
“I celebrate every style of pizza. I have every type of oven,” he said, adding that his new fast-casual franchise concept called “Slice House” offers five different styles of pizza: Detroit, grandma, Sicilian, New York and California. There are gluten-free options as well.
“I could never get sick of pizza,” said Gemignani, who also teaches cooking courses, including at the Pizza University & Culinary Arts Center in Maryland. “I could eat it every day.”
In recent years, Gemignani has focused more on cooking than performing, though he is still very involved in the pizza acrobatics scene. He helps organize the annual competitions in Las Vegas, and is the keynote speaker for the upcoming World Pizza Games, which will be held from March 28 to 30 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
He has become a friend and mentor to many up-and-coming pizza performers, including Tara Hattan, 26, an award-winning acrobat from Tulsa. She has clinched six gold medals and was the first woman to win the World Pizza Games.
“I love the excitement,” said Hattan, who is the co-owner of Zasa’s Pizza & Wings — which has two locations in Tulsa. “My body takes control, and I just throw dough.”
Like Gemignani, she started tossing pizza in her teens while working at a pizzeria in Owasso, Okla., to make some extra money. She learned several tricks on YouTube, and quickly got the hang of it.
Hattan enjoyed it so much, that she eventually decided to drop out of college and pursue a career in the pizza industry full-time.
“This makes me happy,” said Hattan, adding that she attributes much of her success to her pizza master predecessors — including Gemignani — who have guided her along the way.
“All of them are just so experienced and so knowledgeable,” she said. “It’s so great to have people like that.”
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Although competition can be stiff, the pizza tossing community prides itself on being supportive. It may be a serious sport, but most contenders do it for fun.
At the end of the day, Gemignani said, pizza is one of the most popular foods in the world for a reason.
“Pizza always takes you back to a time when things were much simpler in life,” he said. “No stress, no politics. It’s just about eating great food and having a good time.”