Peter Taylor thinks differently about pizza than most of us do. He thinks about bromated flour (not good). He thinks about the ideal moisture content of coal versus pecan, live oak and shagbark hickory. He thinks about the differential between top heat and bottom heat in a pizza oven. You can view his eight-minute disquisition on pizza at tedxtampabay.com. He's a pizza zealot, and like Malcolm Gladwell says, expertise is born of 10,000 hours and, in Taylor's case, 10,000 hours of recipe tinkering, oven building and "reverse engineering" the world's great pizzas, from Brooklyn to Naples, Italy.
He opened his first pizzeria in New Tampa on Bearss in 2009. I was a fan, buying his pizzas for casual parties, heading to his Wood Fired Pizza on my nights off of restaurant criticism. I never reviewed it for the paper because, while I really liked the pizzas, there were too many other elements I couldn't praise (food other than pizzas, service). Taylor had his eye on the pie so fiercely that some of the other details got lost.
In late February, he opened a much more ambitious venture in St. Petersburg, a bigger Wood Fired Pizza with a massive outdoor deck, tucked between the new World of Beer and the Avenue. He figures, with a denser concentration of foodies and a robust number of late-night revelers, he could clean up with both pizza aficionados and those looking for a quick nosh (his pizzas take two minutes to make and two to bake).
He's off on the right foot, but there are still kinks to be worked out. As at his Bearss location, servers have weird blind spots and meals tend to stutter a bit. Easy enough to work out. The non-pizza part of the menu is a little odd. Wood-fired flatbread wedges are featured in a number of preparations; there are a couple of panini; and you'll find a selection of eight sophisticated cheeses served with crackers, honey and other accouterments. Before pizza, I tend not to want a lot of bread or a lot of cheese, but maybe Taylor sees these as alternatives to pizza, not appetizers per se.
Four salads indeed do provide good contrast to pizza, although a caprese ($8) had lovely housemade mozzarella marred by hard tomatoes. A baby spinach/arugula option ($9) is generous, with big shaves of parmesan and flavorful walnuts, while its canned mandarins and pear cubes seem incongruous.
With this new location, Taylor has brought his full attention to beverages, resulting in a great list of craft beers (he's happy to pair them with specific pizzas), a very respectable wine list (largely Cal/Ital) and a full bar with signature cocktails. I may not be ordering the margarita martini steeped with jalapenos too often, but it's so unusual to have cocktails and pizza that it's a hoot (oh, and he's got cigars). Also unlike most pizza locations, there's a full list of expertly made desserts, from key lime pie ($6) to gorgeous, crisp cannoli ($6).
On to the pies. They are super-thin crusted, offered in 10-inch or 12-inch rounds (a 14-inch will show up soon). Because they bake so quickly at such high heat, you will see blackened, bubbly bits. On one occasion, this veered perilously into burned territory — I believe within a couple weeks kitchen glitches like that will be a thing of the past. What makes Wood Fired different is the prominence of the crust. It is not lost under an avalanche of sauce and cheese. It is chewy verging on crunchy, the topping ingredients usually spare. But they are good, often novel ingredients.
My current fave: the Palombino pie ($16, $18), individual leaves of Brussels sprout and prosciutto, both crisp, accented with garlic, mozzarella and pecorino. A close second is the white pizza topped with chopped toasted pistachios and rosemary leaves ($16, $18), an uncommonly beautiful marriage of flavors. A tomato sauce of San Marzanos is simple, thin and brightly flavored, never heavily doled out, giving just a whisper of bracing acidity to pies like the Raquel (Taylor's version of the margherita; $10, $12) or more loaded pies like the Carnivore ($16, $20) with its melange of sausage, pepperoni and meatballs.
I've heard grumbling about the prices at Wood Fired. It's true, $16 is expensive for an individual pie. (The 10-inchers are slightly big for one person and slightly small for two people.) What you're paying for is top-tier ingredients, and for Peter Taylor's fanatical mission to finesse all the pizza variables.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.