TAMPA — I'm just going to come out and say it: Tasmanian pepperberry kangaroo pizza. For some, the vision of marsupial pie may prompt sleeping with the lights on, for others it is cause for a road trip. Ambereen and Tony Swortzel are banking on there being plenty of us in Group Two. • Dale Mabry has nearly as many pizza places as red lights, several of them quite solid, many of them innocuous. Most traffic in pepperoni, maybe a little ham and pineapple if you're going rogue. How many offer barbecued emu or Australian crocodile as toppers? That would be exactly one. Down Under Pizza opened at the end of March in an unsexy strip mall. Ambereen, a New Zealand native who grew up on Australia's island state of Tasmania, got the idea for an Australian pizza place a couple of years ago.
At exactly the time actor Paul Hogan was charming Americans with conversation starters like "g'day, mate" in the 1980s, gourmet wood-fired pizzas were becoming a huge trend in Australia. And while prawns and "chicken on the barbie" were common toppers, it makes sense that indigenous meats would find themselves riding alongside mozzarella and tomato sauce. Kangaroo meat is free range, high in protein, low in fat. It's not farmed, essentially a nuisance animal with 3.5 million shot each year by hunters in Australia. Emu are farmed and Australian crocs have bounced back from a population dip in the mid 1980s.
These are the major draw at Down Under Pizza, which does the bulk of its business as takeout and delivery (very limited seating, with a counter inside and a couple of cafe tables in front). Order at the counter and watch the small staff work the dough in the clean, spare kitchen.
There are other menu items: pleasant but unremarkable garden and Caesar salads (both $5.95), buttery garlic knots (6 for $2.75) and the ultimate Australian acquired taste, the Vegemite sandwich. While you hum the salient Men at Work song, I will explain: This dark brown yeast extract paste is most commonly spread on bread, tasting somewhere between freshly laid macadam and the crust on the bottom of a boat, only saltier. You can try one at Down Under for $2.50, and as Tony Swortzel says, you may only need one.
On one of my visits they were out of emu, on the other they were temporarily out of croc. They buy it in 1-pound fillets from an importer in Denver, then roast and slice. The kangaroo looks a little like well-done London broil, cut against the grain. On the pizza ($22.50 for a pie that feeds three people) it is slightly overshadowed by a roasted garlic sauce on the crust, then paired with roasted red bell peppers, red onion, mozzarella and a flurry of cilantro. The most interesting thing about the meat is the occasional Tasmanian pepperberry you'll chomp, kind of like a pink peppercorn only less pungent and a little more floral.
The emu I would have liked to see a little rarer. It's a deep red meat without a lot of fat, mild in flavor. On this pizza ($22.50), with barbecue sauce, caramelized onion and roasted red pepper, it read like benign but not particularly high-quality filet mignon.
Beyond the Australian pies, Down Under does a bunch of small, personal-sized pizzas that come with a thicker, more rustic crust. I was smitten by the crust (tooth-resistant, with a lot of elasticity and a pillowy center), shown off to best effect with a chicken curry version dabbed with mango chutney and festooned with slightly crunchy sweet potato slices and cilantro. A funky little pie that ducks preconceived notions about what a pizza is supposed to be.
There's no liquor license so you won't be able to order a Foster's or any other boozy Aussie offering. Down Under Pizza is equipped with a simple soda fridge and your basic paper plates and plastic cutlery. It won't win any beauty contests, but as a slice of Australia, it certainly brings something fresh to Dale Mabry.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.