Tossing pizza is an art form that takes years of experience, dexterity and some serious stamina. After 40 years in the pizza business, however, Dennis Milano has it pretty well figured out.
At his family’s new pizzeria, Urban Pizza Co. in Santa Rosa, he’s always up for a little fancy flinging, spinning the glutenous dough high into the air a few times, spinning it on one finger, then doing a couple of fancy twists. It’s mesmerizing to watch a blob of flour and yeast succumb to the forces of a veteran pizzaiolo, powerless against the physics of a perfect toss.
It’s also something that’s becoming a rare sight as prefab pizza doughs become the norm, frozen discs that any 18-year-old can throw into an oven. More than just for show (although it is a pretty great show), hand-tossing the pizza does three things: It stretches the dough to the proper size, creates a thicker crust around the edges and manages moisture so that the dough is slightly drier on the outside and moist inside.
At least that’s what Master Pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani, 12-time World Pizza Champion and owner of SF’s storied Tony’s Pizzeria Napoletana (along with Graton Casino’s Slice House and Tony’s of North Beach) says.
Considered the “Michael Jordan” of pizza tossing, Gemignani once visited Milano’s longtime San Francisco pizzeria.
“I asked him to come by once,” said Milano, former owner of the much-loved Milano’s Pizzeria in the Inner Sunset.
“He showed up on a Saturday night and started throwing pizzas,” he recalled, adding that Gemignani can actually throw two pizzas at once. “I learned a lot from Tony. He wrote the Bible on pizza,” a book which is literally titled “The Pizza Bible: The World’s Favorite Pizza Styles, from Neapolitan, Deep-Dish, Wood-Fired, Sicilian, Calzones and Focaccia to New York, New Haven, Detroit and more.”
Urban Pizza Co., housed in the former Borolo’s (500 Mission Blvd.), has been a long time in coming. After 35 years, Milano sold the restaurant in 2000, moving to Santa Rosa to raise a family.
Milano has done stints in construction and fine dining over the years but always threatened to open another pizzeria someday. Now that his son, John David, is in college at Santa Rosa Junior College and interested in helping run a family business, he says the time was right to dive back in.
Milano’s other teenage sons and wife, Kim, also help out at the pizzeria. John David is chief delivery driver, and quickly learning the pizza biz from his dad.
“I was 17 when my dad opened his restaurant,” said Milano, of the reasons he dived back in. “I wanted to run a small family pizzeria here. I love cooking, I love making pizza, and I’m a people person,” he added. That and fact that Americans can’t really get enough pizza, no matter where it comes from.
In fact, it’s become the number one comfort food — ahead of chocolate — in the country, with 83 percent of us eating it at least once a month, according to Technomic’s 2016 Pizza Trend Report. The sad news is that most of the pizza we eat is pretty uninspired, as anyone who’s stuffed down a frozen Totino’s at 3 a.m. can tell you.
Milano takes a different approach: not making things overly fancy but using good ingredients like whole milk mozzarella, homemade dough and sauces, and fresh produce on his pies.
The menu is also simple, with just a handful of combos, like the “Urban Combo” with mozzarella, salami, fennel sausage, pepperoni, mushroom, onion, bell pepper and garlic. After handing me a chef’s coat and apron, that’s the first pizza we make in the tiny kitchen.
And by we, I mean me taking instruction poorly as I pound the dough with a little too much vigor. A combination of feather-light and powerful hand movements are the key to pizza perfection.
I am, however, kind of a natural when it comes to throwing the pizza until it almost lands on the floor.
Handling the pizza oven, which is about 10 million degrees, is another issue altogether, but Milano makes the whole thing look like a graceful dance as he tosses, tops and slides in each pizza in a few fluid movements.
“We’re here to feed people, have conversations, and maybe make a little money,” says Milano. “You have customers and they become your friends,” he adds. “Well, most of them,” he laughs, turning back to the oven to make another pizza.
Pizzas range from $14.25 to $27 for an 18-inch specialty pizza. Pizza is available by the slice for $3.75.
Prosciutto Piadina, $9.50: Less than a pizza, more than a sandwich, this folded flatbread holds a mountain of mozzarella, pesto, prosciutto, tomatoes, arugula and lightly dressed cabbage. Served with a side of cumin-roasted carrots. Absolutely don’t miss. If you’re meat-free, try the piadina with roasted eggplant.
Jack and Delores Special: Pesto, mozzarella, Canadian bacon, onion, garlic and feta cheese make this one of the most flavorful pizzas. It also has a special meaning for Milano, who named it as a legacy for a favorite couple who visited his restaurant and asked for this combination for years. We love the tangy, aromatic pesto and salty feta as a combo.
Urban Combo: Milano’s signature pizza is a straight up pizzeria classic with plenty of tasty meats, roasted garlic and green peppers.
Thai One On: Personally, I can’t resist a pie with peanut sauce, chicken and fresh cilantro. The chewy crust is a perfect carrier for all the deliciousness.
Roasted Carrots, $6.95: Caramelized carrots with a drizzle of tzatziki sauce. Delish, and a great way to get in a few more veggies.
We’ll Return For…
The True Greek: Somehow we missed this tribute to Milano’s Greek heritage, with mozzarella, bell pepper, onions, black olives, oregano, feta, tomato and cucumber. Opa!
Arugula Salad, $9.50: Urban Pizza has several salad options, made fresh. The Arugula Salad has raisins, pumpkin seeds, Parmesan and apple cider vinaigrette.
Overall: This isn’t gourmet pizza, this is hand-tossed family-style pizza that everyone can agree on. With more than 40 years of experience, Dennis Milano wants to make Friday night pizza you’ll love for years to come. Plus, they deliver!
Where: Urban Pizza, 500 Mission Blvd., Unit B, Santa Rosa, 707-978-4668. Open Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday open until 11 p.m