Tiny House Hunters may have run its course (seriously, people, stop kvetching about closet space; the whole house is 300 square feet), but I have the next HGTV hit: Really Microscopic Restaurants.
It's a trend nationally, food trucks leading the way, with repurposed shipping containers and other odd spaces sparking entrepreneurs' creativity. In cities with outrageous commercial per-square-foot averages, it's a way of keeping rents down; for customers it has the same appeal as a doll's house or maybe a clown car: How can all of this deliciousness come out of a space so small?
Surely Pizza Box, debuted in April, is among St. Petersburg's smallest restaurants. At 750 square feet, with just 28 seats, there's no real kitchen, no dishwasher, no ice machine, no stove or hood. So what is it Kelley McKell, her husband Adam Duff and Adam's brother Andrew are working with? Everything comes out of a Le Panyol clay wood-fired pizza oven, a modular kit they built themselves over a couple of days. This was in addition to building all the tables and painting the tree mural inside and a Siamese cat mural out back. The DIY spirit is strong with these folks, who inherited a sign and a cool old record player from previous tenant Pickwick Antiques, the latter of which they promptly refurbished and painted.
Adam was born and raised in St. Pete, Kelley in Tampa; they met waiting tables at the Chattaway. After years of working in local restaurants, they moved to New Hampshire and launched a tiny pizzeria in their friends' bed and breakfast. Missing family and Florida, they returned to bring their funky, hip pizza spin to St. Petersburg. It's a town with a lot of pizza already (Bavaro's is on the same block, Tony's and others just a few blocks east), but it seems like a food we can't quite get enough of.
The Pizza Box aesthetic is a bit different. Offering only about seven pies at any given time, they are approximately the size, thickness and texture of a classic Neapolitan style, but the restaurant doesn't employ the traditional 00 fine-milled flour, and toppings can veer toward the iconoclastic (beer cheese!). For now they are using compostable paper plates and plastic flatware and offering soda in cans — McKell washes all the wine and beer glasses herself in the three-bay sink. In short, it's a mom-and-pop on a shoestring, with ambitions of growing larger and sourcing more local and sustainable products. Oh, and maybe getting some ice.
How's the pizza? The crust has great flavor, with a slight nutty tang, and good tooth resistance. Sauce is bright and simple, a straightforward puree of San Marzano tomatoes, and topping combinations are nicely orchestrated. They offer just a couple of sides or appetizers, from very solid beef meatballs ($8) sturdied by bread crumbs but still tender and sitting in a pool of tomato sauce with a bit of lush ricotta, to a jumble of onions and peppers, cooked in the wood-fired oven and served over mixed greens with a sweet balsamic vinaigrette ($8).
But you're really here for the pizza. The margherita ($10 small, $14 large) is always a good litmus test for a place, and Pizza Box's is quite good, with a careful sauce-to-cheese ratio (clearly fresh moz, very sumptuous), a flurry of fragrant fresh basil and a good chew on the crust. The St. Michael's Supreme ($10, $14) is another crowd-pleaser, the toppings a jumble of caramelized onions, peppers and mushrooms (all cooked in the wood-fired oven) along with Boar's Head pepperoni, the cheese on this one a blend of grated cheese, not the fresh mozzarella.
Prices are fair, ingredients are good (although I would watch bandying the word "organic" too much — the oven is organic, meaning it's made of all-natural materials, no concrete, etc., but ingredients at this time are not organic) and it feels like a sweet, homespun neighborhood joint. The tininess can be vexing — one time the paper plates themselves were the size of saucers, pizza slices hanging over the edges, and if you want to share a number of dishes the tables are so small you may have to do it in courses — but that's a little like kvetching about closet space.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.