The pizza tossing sport involves tossing mounds of stretched pizza dough in the air and performing jaw-dropping tricks with it.
At the age of 17, Tony Gemignani began to spin pizza dough. While working at his brother's pizzeria in Castro Valley, California, he would impress onlookers by throwing the dough up to 15 feet high and then effortlessly maneuvering it through his legs, across his shoulders and around his back like a basketball. Gemignani never failed to impress both himself and the customers, per The Washington Post. Now at 49 years old, Gemignani is a renowned pizza acrobat who has amassed 13 world championship titles - seven for acrobatics and six for cooking. He has also achieved several Guinness World Records, one of which was for spinning the "largest pizza base" in just two minutes.
He said, "Tricks that you see a Harlem Globetrotter do with a basketball, we do with a pizza." Pizza acrobatics, also referred to as pizza freestyle or pizza tossing, has been in existence since the 1980s and it is recognized as a sport. The activity entails throwing stretched pizza dough into the air and executing impressive stunts with it. The dough appears to defy gravity, ascending straight into the air in faultless circular disks. Some acrobats even handle two pizzas at the same time.
Although it may appear unusual, tossing pizza is a serious pursuit that requires focus, coordination, physical strength and, most importantly, practice, similar to other competitive sports. Gemignani, a seasoned pizza acrobat, commented on the demands of the sport, stating, "It's hard. You need agility. There's some stamina involved. You'd be surprised." He honed his skills initially by using wet beach towels that he cut and sewed together to create a 16-inch circle.
Gemignani highlighted the fragility of pizza dough, in comparison to conventional juggling props, and how its elasticity is impacted by various uncontrollable factors, such as warm weather, which makes the dough softer and more vulnerable to tearing while in the air. He stated, "It's flexible, it can rip, it changes in shape," and explained that acrobatic pizza dough is made differently from regular pizza dough, containing triple the amount of salt and special flour for durability. "It's always a little different every time you do it. The dough is always changing," he added.
However, the challenge is what draws Gemignani to the sport. Over the years, he has participated and emerged victorious in numerous pizza acrobatic competitions, such as the World Pizza Games held annually in Las Vegas, which is part of the International Pizza Expo & Conference, and the Pizza World Championships in Parma, Italy, which is considered the largest pizza show globally.
Contestants are typically required to pay an entrance fee of around $100, but many are sponsored by companies in the industry. While cash prizes are occasionally awarded to winners, in most competitions, the real reward is the "bragging rights and medals," according to Gemignani, who has started approximately 40 pizzerias across the United States, including the renowned Tony's Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco's Little Italy.
Regardless of the competition, participants create their own three-minute routines choreographed to music and performed live in front of an audience. A panel of expert judges evaluates the performances on a variety of factors such as dexterity, difficulty, showmanship, synchronization and creativity. Deductions are made for dropped dough. "You shouldn't drop it that much," Gemignani explained. "You've got to pull it off and be the best you can." Gemignani is not only a pizza acrobat but also a passionate pizza maker who appreciates every style of pizza. He has a diverse collection of ovens to suit different pizza styles. “I celebrate every style of pizza. I have every type of oven,” he said. His "Slice House" franchise, which follows a fast-casual concept, offers a range of five different pizza styles, including Detroit, Grandma, Sicilian, New York and California, along with gluten-free options.
Gemignani said, "I could never get sick of pizza. I could eat it every day."