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10 unsung pizza joints

When it's good, it's really good. When it's bad, it's still pretty good. We speak, of course, of pizza.

You know the big pizza names in the Tampa Bay area already: Sally O'Neal's, Cappy's, Joey Brooklyn's, New York New York and so forth. We set out to unearth worthy pies among the area's newcomers and off-the-beaten-path oldtimers. Here's what we found.

Cesare's of New York Pizza

The scoop: Cesare Bastone has been doing a few things well for 32 years. In a bare-bones Tampa storefront, Cesare's specializes in a white, extra-cheese pizza with organic spinach and deliciously ripe roma tomatoes that Cesare picks himself in Manatee County.

The pie: His textbook pie is a thick-crusted 18-incher, heavy with cheese and apt to saturate your paper plate pronto. Add eggplant to this baby and it's a staggering $40. If you're lucky, Cesare zips out and asks how you like your pie (say crisp). Note the "absolutely, positively no other combinations" admonition.

Specialties: You'll find those luscious tomatoes on the Greek or tossed salad, both good foils for the weighty pie.

Prices: Pizzas, $12 to $40, slices $3 to $7. No credit cards, no checks.

Takeout or dine in? With a handful of tables, no beer or wine and not much ambiance, eating in is the way to go for eavesdropping on Cesare and staff. No delivery.

2117 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 254-2141. Noon to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday.

Tour de Pizza

The scoop: In these gas-conscious times, why not dine at a cycling-themed pizzeria? Owner and bike enthusiast Matthew McClellan, 32, took over the spot of former Nick-N-Willy's three months ago.

The pie: Loads of cheese that can get a little chewy once it coagulates (not a bad thing); not much sauce. The crust is thin but not crunchy — a chewy center wrapped in pleasant crispness. The 24 toppings are abundantly applied, including interesting toppers like Mandarin oranges, feta cheese and artichoke hearts.

Specialties: Thirteen specialty pies, from the Salad Pizza (basil pesto topped with a fresh garden salad) to the MAClellan (white garlic sauce, mozzarella, spinach, roma tomatoes, mushrooms, spicy sausage and fresh basil).

Prices: Pies $6.99 to $15.99; slices $2.50 and up.

Takeout or dine in? Cyclists will love the bike paraphernalia on the walls, but they deliver, with no set delivery radius, and offer you-bake, take-home pies.

Northeast Shopping Center, 212 37th Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 898-5555; tourdepizzaonline.com. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Eddie & Sam's

The scoop: When one of the ginormous cheese pies emerges from the pizza oven, it's easy to lose your cool. You want to stand there, fold a slice in half and inhale. It's pure NYC, get this, made with real New York City water.

The pie: Thin, pliable crust but with the right chewy tooth-resistance, it's the kind of by-the-slice manna that deposits a glistening orange grease rivulet on your shoe. New Yorkers were raised on this kind of pie.

Specialties: Slices can be topped with normal accouterments and stuck back in the oven. By the whole pie, the best choices are the Neapolitan (plain cheese, not too saucy) or the Bianca, with fluffy ricotta, moz and grated Parmesan.

Prices: Pies $15.50 to $23.50, slices $2.50 to $3.25.

Takeout or dine in? Walk up, order slice, consume rapidly. Repeat. With a $20 minimum, there's delivery within walking distance of the restaurant (downtown Tampa offices).

203 E Twiggs St., Tampa; (813) 229-8500; eddieandsamspizza.com. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday.

Mellow Mushroom

The scoop: Across the South, Mellow Mushroom is a college-town mecca due to its tasty pies, heroic craft brew selection and grooved-out, Peter Max-meets-H.R. Pufnstuf aesthetics.

The pie: Cheese is scant, but the 35 toppings — including tempeh, tofu, pesto, portobellos and jerk chicken — are bountiful. Some people swear by Mellow Mushroom's crust, a golden, wheaty, low-gluten, spring water-enhanced recipe. It's a unique blend, earthy and sweet.

Specialties: Eleven specialty pies. Some Mellows also have recipes unique to that location (at Citrus Park, Anease LaGaze created the fine chicken pesto pizza). But Mellow's biggest draw is a monumental beer list. The Citrus Park store was the first franchise to employ a full-time "beer guy," making it not only a great pizzeria, but a great bar.

Prices: Pies $8.50 to $24.75.

Takeout or dine in? Definitely dine in. It's a little pricey, but the service is great. No delivery.

Citrus Park: 11955 Sheldon Road, Tampa; (813) 926-3600. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Brandon: 10959 Causeway Blvd.; (813) 685-1122; mellowmushroom.com. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Best New York Pizza

The scoop: Their motto reads like a high school yearbook inscription: "Good, better, best. Never let it rest until your good is better and your better is the best." That may be overreaching, but this little stripmaller is spunky, with order-at-the-counter New York-style pizzas, calzones, hot subs and those buttery, slippery garlic knots you wish you could stop eating.

The pie: This is an archetypal thin-crust pie: not too thick (their Sicilian version has the heft of a blow-up mattress, too pillowy), heavy on cheese, generous on toppings. Crust is chewy-crisp and foldable.

Specialties: There are serviceable personal-sized pies, but the real deal is the 18-inch extra large, placed precariously atop one of those pizza-stilts on your table. Because toppings are liberally applied, the meat pizza is staggeringly meaty, the veggie pizza packed with a whole victory garden; you're better off building your own, more pared-back pie.

Prices: Pies $9.49 to $23.99.

Takeout or dine in? They've recently worked to make the dining room more pleasant, but table service still seems like something of a novelty to the staff. Better to take the pies home.

14741 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 963-7600; www. bestnewyorkpizza.com. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Valentino's Little Italy

The scoop: Valentino's is gunning for that molto Italiano feel, with big, flat New York-style pizzas and huge, Sicilian deep-dish pies alongside other staple Italian dishes.

The pie: More saucy than cheesy. The crust depends on the pizza — one square of thick, crunchy, Sicilian is a meal in itself. Hand-tossed is more manageable.

Specialties: Specialty pies include a traditional foccacia pie and a new "a la vodka" pie, with booze-spiked tomato sauce. But the best might be the three-cheese white — the creamy ricotta base coupled with sharp romano and sweet mozzarella for a complex combo.

Prices: Pies $9.75 to $18; slices $2.25 and up. Monday and Wednesday, pick-up-only 18-inch cheese pizza $7.

Takeout or dine in? Takeout. Seating inside is limited. Call ahead and pick up a gargantuan pie to dine on all week. Delivery radius is about 50 blocks.

1003 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 895-5610; valentinoslittleitaly.com. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Paul's Chicago Pizza

The scoop: We heard Chi-Town and thought deep dish. Nope, it's thin-crust style ("flat" pizza in Chicago), cut into squares. Paul's also does stuffed pizzas (two layers of dough, all the action in the middle). This has an insane topping density, making one slice a maximum serving.

The pie: Keep it simple and ingredients shine: sausage is fennel-seed zippy, tomato sauce has spunk. Thin crust has a good dough-cheese-sauce ratio, stuffed can be a little wet inside if you add too much (the "classic" cheese, sausage, pepperoni, mushroom, onion and peppers got weepy).

Specialties: Paul's has a "more is more" aesthetic, with a host of ingredients on many combos. Beyond pizza, Paul's offers classic Vienna beef dogs and a laudable cannoli.

Prices: Thin $5.95 to $18.79; stuffed $14.99 to $21.99.

Takeout or dine in? Dine in for the lunch buffet ($5.79) with baked ziti, an array of pizzas and salads, bread sticks and cinnamon sticks. Stuffed pizzas don't travel as well as thin-crust for takeout; Paul's also offers a "we make, you bake" take-home pie. Delivery to Clearwater and Safety Harbor.

1500 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater; (727) 723-9777. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Corteo's Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria

The scoop: Palm Harbor's Michele's closed in 2005, but Michele Corteo and sons decided they weren't done yet. So last year they opened Corteo's, which has mostly the same menu, including a good incarnation of a real New York pie.

The pie: Heat wafts from each pie's abundant, deeply toasted cheese and flavorful sauce. The Neapolitan pies are baked nearly brown. The crust is hearty, almost tough, with a crispy bottom. Pizzas come with a little garlic-bread knot in the center, a quirky touch.

Specialties: The Sicilian pie is popular, but we went with the pan-baked "Grandma Rustic Home Style," featuring a chunky tomato spread instead of sauce. It's enormous, with dark edges and salty, juicy tomato flavor.

Prices: Pies $9 to $19.25; slices $1.75 and up.

Takeout or dine in? Dine in. The ambiance needs work, but the staff is friendly. No delivery yet.

32922 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor; (727) 781-9114. 2:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday to Thursday, 2:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

East Coast Pizza

The scoop: This is supposedly Upstate New York-style pizza. These are thin-crust pies made with part semolina flour for a little textural oomph, baked in a super-hot brick oven for those fetching blister pocks. Last year manager Scott Childers won the gold at the Largest Pizza Dough Stretch in Orlando, then went on to the U.S. team and competition in Paris.

The pie: Keep the toppings simple — the 16- by 16-inch square-cut Sicilian is thicker and less appealing than the 18-inch round. Lift up a slice and you'll find a deeply browned underside, imparting a nutty flavor.

Specialties: During the day they've got 12 pies by the slice. At night it's more whole pies, straight-ahead pepperoni the most popular. The lasagna pie (sausage and meatball topped with ricotta and mozzarella) can leave you in a pleasant stupor.

Prices: Pies $7.99 to $20.99, slices $1.85 to $2.85.

Takeout or dine in? Pizzas travel well, but the dining room is pleasant. No delivery.

13340 Lincoln Road, Riverview; (813) 234-1700; eastcoastpizza.com. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Market on 7th

The scoop: A full liquor bar near the Acropolis and Gaspar's Grotto, Market on 7th is a favorite haunt among night owls on the Ybor strip. They have a stage set up for live music, and you can get pies until about 1:30 a.m.

The pie: Selection is limited — you've got cheese and pepperoni, with a handful of toppings. It's greasy, tomatoey fare, with a very crisp crust, almost like a thick flatbread.

Specialties: None. However, Market on 7th is first and foremost a bar, which means if you want a late-night snack with a little Grey Goose, you can go here to get it all in one spot. Plenty of pizza joints in Ybor City can't make that claim.

Prices: Pies $11 to $14, slices $2.50 and up.

Takeout or dine in? Dine in. Get a pie, get a booth, get your drink on, and shoot some pool while you wait for the music to start. No delivery.

1816 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City; (813) 248-2356. 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday to Saturday.

10 unsung pizza joints 08/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 11:34am]

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