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Tony's Pizza Napoletana

An Award-Winning Pie

"Respect the craftsman," state the backs of the T-shirts worn by the waitstaff at Tony's Pizza Napoletana. "Respect the craft," retort the shirts worn by the pizza makers. The shirts tell the story: These people are dead serious about pizza.

Owner Tony Gemignani is an award-winning dough tosser, master of the high-flying pizza acrobatics that nabbed him fame on the Food Network. But he's more than a mere showman: Gemignani is also the only American to win Naples' coveted World Pizza Cup. His North Beach palace, while small, houses four different pizza ovens to produce four different crusts: Italian, Sicilian, American and Neapolitan, plus a vat of fat for deep-fried calzones.

The tiled, wood-fired oven — which heats up to a blistering 900 degrees to produce the Naples-style pizza in the joint's name — holds pride of place in the open kitchen, where craftsmen and women (including Gemignani himself, sporting a red neckerchief in classic Italian-American style) stretch dough, work the meat slicer, and shove pie after pie into the flames.

Out of this oven comes the pizza margherita ($18), the recipe that won Gemignani the 2007 World Pizza Cup. The menu describes it lovingly as being made with "dough mixed by hand using san felice flour then, proofed in Neapolitan wood boxes, San Marzano Tomatoes DOP, sea salt, mozzarella fior di latte, extra virgin olive oil from Campania." About the only thing foodies can ding it for is not being locally sourced. It's simple and very good, with a chewy, smoky, thin crust supporting rich tomatoes and very milky mozzarella.

Other Neopolitan-style pizzas are made with a slightly different flour, and you may have to settle for it: Gemignani's encyclopedic menu cites a complicated numerological reason why he only fires 73 margheritas a day. If you're dying to try it, go for lunch, eat at an outside table, and gaze upon the humanity passing through Washington Square. Most non-Italians couldn't tell the difference between the two crusts, anyway — they're both high in gluten and cooked hot to get that distinctive Neopolitan chew. The richer toppings, like quail egg, fontina and the smoked northern Italian pork known as speck, might mask the pureness of the crust — but they're luscious.

Fans of pretty much any type of pizza will be happy here. Italian-style pizzas show a drier crust with toppings including four cheese ($15), all Italian, of course, and an appealing sweet/savory Cal Italia ($18), a mix of prosciutto, fig jam, and gorgonzola. American pies have a doughier crusts and classic pizza-parlor ingredients like pepperoni ($13) as well as a thin-crust Bronx variation ($15) featuring chopped garlic and salami. Deep-dish Sicilian pizzas ($29) are baked and served in an enormous cast-iron pan that makes the soft crust appealingly crunchy, while Roman-style pizza bianca ($32) is a heavenly-smelling focaccia-like slab strewn with mozzarella and herbs. There's even a clam-and-garlic version of the Neopolitan pizza ($21) served “New Haven style” — a tribute to Connecticut's little pocket of pizza tradition.

A no-reservations policy plus only a few dozen marble tables mean a potentially long wait, but the super-friendly staff is happy to put your name on the list if you call ahead, or take a cell number and call you if you'd like to wander around North Beach. If there's room at the bar, grab a stool and order off the all-Italian wine list, or go spelunking in the inventive cocktail list, including a nice, not-too-sweet Pear Fizz.

Order an app while you wait: Deep fried string beans ($7) arrive surprisingly and pleasantly un-battered, fried calamari ($11) is crunchy-tender, and lardo ($10) is served in a foie gras-like presentation with walnuts, bread, and honey.

Gemignani is also so serious that you can take classes to become a certified pizzaiuolo (Neapolitan-style pizza master) at his International School of Pizza, which will come in handy if you've caught the pizza bug yourself and have plans to build four different pizza ovens in your backyard. Until then, you can always order takeout — they'll box any pie to go.

North Beach
Italian, $$
Reservations Essential? Not accepted