TAMPA — Just a few years ago there was a refrain as predictable as a cuckoo clock at high noon. "Tampa Bay doesn't have pizza as great as (New York, New Haven, Boston, wherever you're from)." Wow, what a difference a couple of Dick Clark New Year's Rockin' Eves make. • Maybe the poor economy contributes. What do we want when the wallet is beleaguered? Something cheap, gooey and sustaining. Cristino's in Clearwater, three Anthony's locations in the area, Pizzaiolo Bavaro (which just had its first anniversary) in Tampa and a number of other solid newcomers have changed the playing field. One place has quietly been charming South Tampa for a while. Skip Glass opened a little takeaway pizza place on Dale Mabry four years ago, moving Paci's Pizza to a sit-down location two years later.
His dough takes a couple of days to make, using only bottled water. His aim? "A thin crust, well done. Not floppy or limp — a slice should crack but not break when folded." Done and done. Paci's makes big (20-inch), simple pies, with a thin crust (not cracker thin; tooth-resistant and a little chewy), classic calzones ($6.99) with ricotta cheese, and smaller rolls ($4.99), like little strombolis with less dough. There's good gelato from Tampa's Gelateria Del Duomo, cannoli (the shells brought in from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx) and fabulous New York cheesecake made by a customer from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, named Francesca.
All the bells and whistles are solid, although it's the pies that people come for. You can take them home, but they suffer slightly in transport. Best to grab a table (which can be tricky on a weekend night) and get to work. The most popular pie may be the margherita with spinach ($17.99 for the pie, $1.60 extra for spinach). It's tomatoes, olive oil, sauteed spinach and a mantle of cheese, what they call East Coast blend (it's a mix of reduced fat and whole fat mozzarella so it's rich and cheesy but not too oily). Each pie is sliced into eight massive wedges, ideally sized to fold in half lengthwise.
A sucker for variety, my fave is the half and half ($16.99). Like it sounds, half is sauced with vivid tomato (not too much sauce) with moz and not much else, the other half gets moz and little dollops of ricotta. It will serve three hungry people, a perfect meal with a simple Caesar salad ($4.50) thrown in.
The dining room is pleasant but bare bones, very family friendly (except your teenagers may mock you for singing along with the cheesy classic rock soundtrack). Perhaps it was Creedence Clearwater Revival-assisted, but Paci's reminded me of the comfy pizzerias of my youth. Now who says Tampa doesn't have to-die-for pies?
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Read her dining 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.