Luigi “Gigi” Montella’s culinary direction was crystal clear. There is one way to make Neapolitan cuisine – “Gigi’s way.” Montella left nothing to speculation. Variation in production, ingredient quality, or presentation was simply not permitted.
Now, one of his disciples has opened a pizzeria bearing Montella’s name on 24th Street.
20 years ago, pizzeria called Toto’s completely under Gigi’s control was graced with a young immigrant employee, Esteban Lopez.
“I had every job at the restaurant. I cleaned, bussed tables, prepped, and made pizza, salad, and pasta.” Lopez reminisced. He carefully studied and followed Gigi’s exacting protocol.
After years at Toto’s, the Lopez family took a giant leap into their own restaurant, Tavos, in Contra Costa. Gigi had taught them the culinary skills that ensured perfection. Gigi remained at Toto’s, but the entire Lopez family was a part of the new adventure. Esteban’s son, Gustavo, had been around the pizza business since he was six years old.
“I assembled pizza boxes for a penny a box.” Gustavo remembered. “All I ever wanted to do was to make pizza.”
Another critical ingredient for the Lopez’s new restaurant success was their customer awareness. Gigi would say, “If you don’t like it, eat elsewhere.”
The Lopez family respectfully said the opposite. They studied and embraced the desires of their diners.
The Mission District had some more good luck. The Lopez family decided to relocate there from Contra Costa County earlier this year. A careful evaluation of new locations brought them to 3161 24th Street, just east of South Van Ness Avenue. They named it after Esteban’s demanding first culinary teacher, Gigi Montella.
His strict rules would be the foundation of the restaurant. Montella Pizzeria’s decor is fresh, clean, with a traditional feel. Ingredients are local. The ambience is warm and welcoming.
The brick ovens insure perfect baking. Pizzas toppings employ block mozzarella, only.
“We never buy grated cheeses. You never know what may have been added,” insisted Esteban.
The sausage, salami, and pepperoni always come from local supplier Molinari. The greens, minimally processed, are local as well.
“The ingredients are either right or that menu item isn’t offered.” Lopez said. I could hear Gigi’s voice in there somewhere.
The Lopez family customer accommodation appears in things like how the pizzas can be cooked. Pizza can be baked to your specification. Standard options are: ½ bake – for take out and final cooking at home, ¾ bake – cooked just enough so you can eat the dough. Light Bake – like medium rare steak. Then there’s regular, crispy, and well-done – very dark almost burned. Adaptation might have been a little foreign to Luigi, but is the secret Lopez ingredient.
Montella Pizzeria offers a happy hour that includes wine, beer and appetizers. A rich combination of fruit is steeped in wine for 12 hours making a sangria that is rich and natural. The Margherita pizza with fresh Roma tomatoes, basil, garlic, and cheese is the Neapolitan standard. Gigi would be proud, even with the new stuff. A variety of pastas and a vegetarian pizza are also created with Gigi’s precision.
The Lopez family is mindful of the diner while the basic ingredients and preparation adhere to Gigi’s exacting specifications. The result is a wonderful casual meal.