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Grimaldi's Pizzeria opens at Citrus Park mall, expected at WestShore Plaza next spring

CITRUS PARK — Along with the Statue of Liberty and Times Square, Grimaldi's in Brooklyn has become a must-see tourist attraction in New York, with lines frequently stretching around the block.

But Tampa denizens don't have to fly to New York to try the famous brick-oven pizzeria.

Grimaldi's opened its fifth Florida restaurant at Westfield Citrus Park mall this week and is expected to open at WestShore Plaza next spring.

"We really want to keep each restaurant like the original one," said Eric Greenwald, chief operations officer of the Arizona-based chain.

Greenwald met Joey Ciolli, son of the New York Grimaldi's owner, in college at Arizona State University. The business majors and fraternity brothers decided to go into business together after college.

"(Ciollli) had a very clear vision of what we were going to do. He said, 'We're going to open up Grimaldi's all over the country,' " Greenwald said.

That's exactly what they have done.

The company opened its first Grimaldi's replica in Oldtown, Ariz., in 2003, and now have more than 27 pizzerias across the country, including one at Westfield Countryside mall in Clearwater, which opened last year.

"We use the same sauce and the same mozzarella. We've kept all the ingredients exactly the same," Greenwald said.

Even the water is the same. Before starting the chain, Ciolli and Greenwald hired a chemist to duplicate the chemical breakdown of the New York water that goes into the dough that keeps tourists waiting in hourlong lines for their pizza.

"And the real important thing we've kept the same is the oven. The specifications on the oven are exactly the same as the original in Brooklyn," he said.

The Grimaldi family has been credited with opening one of the first pizzerias in New York more than 100 years ago. At the Brooklyn restaurant that opened in 1971, the coal-fired brick oven was the centerpiece and part of the entertainment of the restaurant. Customers watched pizzamakers toss the dough as Frank Sinatra crooned in the background and the aroma of fresh pizza floated through the air.

"It's like a show … and the stage is the oven," Greenwald said.

He says they've tried to keep that tradition at each location, with the oven as the showpiece and the Sinatra tunes playing.

"I'm fascinated by the tourist attraction that it's become," said Josephine Isenbergh, a native of Brooklyn who lives in South Tampa. "It was a neighborhood thing."

When she lived in Brooklyn, she and her husband would go to Grimaldi's for pizza and then drinks at the cafe across the street overlooking the Manhattan skyline.

"It's one of the most romantic places in New York," she said, but one that only locals knew about for a long time. She's looking forward to trying the new Grimaldi's and hoping it will be a taste of home.

"It's a very unique pizza. … If they keep the tradition they have in New York, that's exciting."

Grimaldi's Pizzeria opens at Citrus Park mall, expected at WestShore Plaza next spring 09/27/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 27, 2012 4:30am]

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