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Tony Tutto and the Passion of the Pizza

After a long strange trip in the music business, pizza master is doing what he does best.

Tony Tutto won't ever forget the day he opened his pizza joint on East Blithedale two years ago.

It wasn't the realization of his dream to share his pizzas with the world that made the day so memorable. It was, quite simply, the kind of inauspicious debut that more closely resembled a nightmare, albeit one he can laugh about today given the success he's had ever since.

Tutto was scrambling that first day, waiting for deliveries and getting his inventory set. He'd planned about as soft an opening as possible, with no signs and zero publicity. When the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir walked in, looking for a six-pack, Tutto was put back on his heels.

The two men had met before, as Tutto, under his given name of Greg DiGiovine, had been a manager for nearly 30 years for the likes of Carlos Santana and Narada Michael Walden. They made small talk, and Weir gave Tutto $20 to pay for the beer.

Then Tutto had a series of realizations: He didn't have any change. He didn't even know how much the beer cost, as he hadn't set prices yet. And he didn't know how to operate his new cash register.

"It was pretty embarrassing," Tutto says with a laugh.

Tutto says Weir couldn't have been nicer in the whole exchange, and has been back since. Little did he know - little did almost anyone know, for that matter - that Tutto had pretty good reason for not being his sharpest at that moment.

Just a few days earlier, in the midst of the frenetic buildup to opening his business, he'd suffered a heart attack.

"All I could think when I found out was, 'this can't be," Tutto says of hearing in the emergency room at Kaiser Permanente in San Rafael that the feeling of being punched in the chest he experienced was the result of a heart attack. "I didn't have any family history of that kind of thing. But all of a sudden, it was like that old Sanford & Son bit, 'This is the big one baby.'"

Doctors put him on a slew of medication that dramatically clipped his energy level, which is why Weir didn't find Tutto at his most focused a few days later. He didn't put a sign up at Tony Tutto Pizza for more than three months.

"I didn't have the energy and I didn't want to disappoint people," he says.

Flash forward two years later, and Tony Tutto is feeling healthy, and Tony Tutto Pizza has drilled its way into the hearts and stomachs of Mill Valley, particularly the Sycamore Triangle community, for which his place has become something of a gathering place.

Having a heart attack on the eve of opening his own business, after a lifetime of helping musicians realize their own dreams, might be enough of a rollercoaster ride for most people. But it was merely the latest twist in Tutto's wild ride.

For 30 years, Greg DiGiovine was behind the scenes for some of the biggest hits in music, including Santana's massive 1999 album, Supernatural. But he was also Tony Tutto, the pizza nickname given to him by one of the many friends, family and famous musicians who flocked to his home over the years to get their hands on one of his organic, vegetarian pizzas featuring ingredients from the farmers market. Now he's put his music business career on the back burner, and the Tony Tutto side of his personality is front and center.

Greg DiGiovine grew up the eldest of six kids of an Italian father and a French-Canadian mother in the suburbs of Maryland. At 19, after a short stint in junior college, he left home in 1971.

"There were too many kids at home and I was anxious to see the world," he says.

His mother drove him to the nearest exit of Interstate 95 so he could hitchhike south, and even helped him make a cardboard sign that said, "South," not telling him until years later that she cried the whole drive home.

He ended up in Miami, at a party "full of musicians and DJs and drug dealers and all kinds of the hip underground scene at the time," he says. He hit it off with some musicians who'd formed a jazz-rock fusion band that had big plans. With the job of roadie unfilled, DiGiovine, who knew his way around sound gear and instruments, latched on.

The band's drummer was Narada Michael Walden, who would one day become one of the most sought-after record producers in the country, churning out hits for people like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Over the years, DiGiovine and Walden both got heavily into meditation, became roommates and grew close.

When Walden was picked by John McLaughlin to be the drummer in a revamped lineup of his vaunted Mahavishnu Orchestra, DiGiovine became the band's roadie. He was hooked on the music business.

DiGiovine stayed with Mahavishnu for three albums, and another with McLaughlin's Shakti outfit. He became Walden's manager in 1976 when Walden landed a record deal with Atlantic Records.

Now in the Bay Area, the pair stayed together for nearly 14 years, through a slew of solo albums and a string of hit songs, including Franklin's Freeway of Love" and several of Houston's monster hits. When they parted ways, DiGiovine connected with track star Carl Lewis, of all people, landing him a book deal and several appearances after the 1988 Olympics, though they parted ways before Lewis' infamous national anthem debacle.

DiGiovine's life took a detour in 1990. He and his wife Lynn moved to Hawaii and started working for his father in law's taxicab company in Honolulu. Over a six-year period, he estimates that he drove more than 40,000 people, more than half of whom were handicapped or people on state assistance.

He made his way back to the mainland with a helping hand from Carlos and Deborah Santana. The couples had been close over the years, with Lynn and Deborah's friendship dating back several decades. Carlos wrote letters to a host of potential management clients for DiGiovine, including the Jimi Hendrix estate and famed jazz artists like Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

Before long, Santana himself asked DiGiovine to be his management consultant. Santana hadn't had a hit song in 20 years, and was looking for someone who could help him navigate back into the cultural mainstream without sacrificing his ideals. Santana reconnected with music mogul Clive Davis, and a Supernatural was born.

DiGiovine helped shepherd Santana through the 15-month recording process of Supernatural with a slew of the young stars that propelled the record into the stratosphere. It was released in June 1999, nabbed nine Grammys and has sold 25 million copies worldwide.

Santana was back to being a mega-star, and he and DiGiovine parted ways in 2003.

"He needed someone to help him get to this place and he more than got to that place," he says. "It was never about the money with him. It was about him getting a bigger platform to spread his message and his music."

DiGiovine moved on, managing Night Ranger for a stretch and a few other acts. By then, the music business was under assault from file-sharing and the record labels' inattention to the technology that was revolutionizing the distribution and marketing of music.

"It brought a multi-billion dollar industry to its knees," he says. "Everybody was scared."

With the music business shaving off pieces of its food chain left and right in an effort to cut costs, jobs like DiGiovine's dried up. It was a difficult period that forced him to consider the possibility of leaving the music business. It took a while before he started to think about heeding the decades-long calls of his friends to open his own pizza place.

"Pizza has been my major passion and hobby for as long as I can remember," he says. "I have always been in search of the perfect pizza, and I got really good at it over the years. But I only cared about pizza. I never cared about the business of pizza."

He sat on the fence for two years, all the while digging into the rainy day fund.

"That rainy day ended up being a long rainstorm," he says. "By then, I had a lot more time on my hands, so I decided to see if I could make it work."

He looked all over the North Bay for the right place, and had almost given up when he saw a Craigslist ad for 246 East Blithedale Ave., the former longtime home of Perry's Deli. Tony Tutto Pizza had found a home.

Despite the rough beginning in June 2008, Tutto has more than found his stride. His menu is full of the same pizzas he's been making for years, but now the guest list includes more than rock stars and his inner circle. He still makes almost all of the pizzas by hand, and gets his fresh organic produce from the Sunday farmers market at the Civic Center.

And while music is on the back burner professionally, his love for it isn't. The menu is chock full of musical references, from the "A Love Supreme" classic Margarita-style pizza to the red pepper-flaked "Bitches Brew."

"Everything you get here is absolutely delicious," said regular customer Jim Wetherby on a recent afternoon. "I used to make fun of vegetarians, but now I'm practically one of them, and I feel healthier than ever."

For Tutto, his success has come just as he'd hoped, through word of mouth about his pizza.

"The last thing I wanted to do was put up my gold and platinum records and bring all this attention to me through the people I worked with over the years," he says. "I wanted the pizza to stand on its own. So far, it has."

Maggie August 23, 2010 at 03:19 PM
I love Tony Tutto's! I live in Novato and it's worth the drive to visit Tony's. Not only is the pizza amazing, but I also love the atmosphere and the music playing and the outside patio.


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