Dan Bavaro was at the vanguard. Back in 2009 when he debuted his first restaurant in Tampa, there weren't too many Neapolitan-style pizzerias in the country. It's not New York style, it's not from Chicago or New Haven. It's not street pizza you fold along the vertex angle to make a skinnier triangle as you walk. It's not coal oven or deep dish. Made with super-fine 00 flour and a 100-year-old yeast culture brought over from Italy, zapped for 90 seconds in a 900-degree wood-fired oven, it is its own thing: crispy, puffed crust, with a tender, soft middle.
This is pizza you eat with a fork and knife.
Which has been an ongoing headache for Bavaro.
"Excuse me, waiter? This pizza is undercooked in the middle."
What you need to know: This contrast of textures — blistery outer edge and super-thin, very tender inner point — is intentional. It's the way they do it in Naples and increasingly the way they do it in some of the great pizzerias in the United States.
When Bavaro was in Italy he signed a contract as the sole U.S. distributor of Ferrara family pizza ovens from Naples. He brought in ovens and flew them around the country as a hired trainer for restaurants. He sold to Mario Batali and Donatella Arpaia, he trained the head pizzaiolo for Pizzeria Locale in Colorado. Eventually he thought, with all this new enthusiasm for Neapolitan-style pizza, why not just expand his own tiny empire?
His flagship was downtown in Tampa on Franklin Street, quite a bit before the area began to be the vivacious nighttime and weekend spot it has started to become. A second location in Winter Park was added along with a production facility in which he jars his pasta sauces, sold in more than 2,000 retail locations. On June 10 he opened his third pizzeria, in St. Pete's EDGE District, and in August he is scheduled to open another location in Airside C at Tampa International Airport. And he's got more plans beyond that.
But for now, he's introducing St. Petersburg, an already pizza-rich town, to the allures of Neapolitan style. In a couple of visits, I did think there was a teeny bit of variation on the finished pies, one of the four I tasted maybe a little undercooked, but in a pizza that is cooked so fleetingly, that's to be expected.
Tomato sauce is a San Marzano puree, not complicated but bright and balanced, the cow's milk mozzarella soft and velvety. This may be a reflection of my own preferences, but I found a less-is-more mantra with pizzas to be most satisfying: A margherita pie or simple mushroom trumped the pizzas with lots of toppings.
The best strategy at Bavaro's is to gather your besties on a Wednesday (half off all wines), then share first an appetizer like the bruschetta ($5) or the tender ricotta beef/pork meatballs ($10), then the verde salad ($9) with its lemon-licked peppery leaves of arugula, shaves of nutty Parm and bursts of cherry tomato. A drizzle of olive oil and pops of sea salt and that's all she wrote. Beauty in simplicity.
Then negotiate your pizza selection. The 12-inch size makes it a perfect two-person pie if you're also sharing a salad and pasta. No consensus on toppings? Then go for the quattro stagioni ($16). Literally "four seasons," it's a pizza divided into four quadrants: tomato sauce and moz on the whole thing, mushrooms over here, artichokes over there, a third quadrant of olives and, finally, prosciutto. Then a little swirl of olive oil, boom.
A nice touch with the pastas: Bavaro's offers an Italian imported gluten-free corn spaghetti. If gluten is your friend, the housemade cheese ravioli ($18) are plushly sumptuous, although I prefer the vodka sauce to the pomodoro, which seems a bit sweeter than the sauce on pizzas.
Because you've been splitting all this food among friends, you've got calories to burn on the back end, the best dessert options the super-crisp sweet ricotta-filled cannoli ($3.50) or an oddity that marries the traditional pizza crust with a slather of Nutella ($9), the hazelnut spread molten. (Here's a tip: Ask them for a little sea salt, the perfect foil for Nutella.)
Bavaro's has a stylish industrial indoor-outdoor design with rollup garage doors, a synergistic contrast to the retro-diner vibe of King Street Food Counter next door. With all that's going on in the EDGE these days, Bavaro's is yet another reason the district is edging out the competition as the area's happening new dining destination.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.