SAFETY HARBOR — Jamie Culliton tosses the dough high up into the air. Swiveling back and forth, taking care not to bump into the tables crammed full of diners, he skirts across the room, weaving and bobbing, all the while stretching the dough with his hands, the round disc growing bigger by the second.
In the background, a man strumming a guitar croons out a tune while Culliton twirls around him, spinning and dipping in step with the beat as if performing some bizarre interpretive dance routine.
“Hey soul sister, ain’t that Mr. Mister on the radio, stereo …”
The dough is up. It’s down. It’s behind his legs, in front of his legs, between his legs and over his head. Then it’s on the ground. Scooping up the discarded piece of dough, Culliton stands up, grins, takes a little half bow and heads back to the kitchen. The crowd cheers wildly; the guitarist keeps on playing.
It’s not just pizza you’re getting at the Nona Slice House in Safety Harbor — it’s a show.
The show is all Culliton. The self-proclaimed “pizzaiaolo” of this operation has been in the pie business for the past 25 years. He’s a regular on the competitive pizza championship circuit, having won two gold medals at the World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy, and multiple others stateside.
And that interpretive pizza dance? It’s got a name: freestyle pizza acrobatics.
Nona Slice House (named for Culliton’s kids Noah and Naomi) is a casual, family-friendly spot with a similarly whimsical and laid-back attitude about the food. Tables are covered in red-and-white checkered tablecloths, and pies are delivered straight from the oven to paper plates. The wine and beer list is short and simple; the service is friendly, if a bit uneven on busier nights.
There are three different types of pies: New York-style, Olde World and Detroit. The first is familiar: hand-tossed, topped with crushed plum tomatoes and whole-milk mozzarella. Crispy but still packing a good amount of flop, it’s the type of slice you can easily fold in half. The Olde World is a much flatter style, with plenty of crunch but less flexibility.
The pizzas are baked inside a 500-plus-degree Blodgett deck oven, which renders the crust crispy throughout, though the pizzas lack the char, chew and bubble-pockmarked characteristics of a wood-fired pie. Both styles are served in either 14- or 18-inch portions. Creative toppings for both styles abound, and I particularly love the New York-style Pistach-I-Dew ($20 for a small, $25 for a large), topped with crunchy pistachios, peppadew peppers for tang and creamy wisps of ricotta cheese. Fresh arugula adds a spicy kick, as does a drizzle of hot honey.
Of the Olde World pies, the classic Margherita ($16/$19) is a straightforward take on the genre, topped with crushed San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, olive oil and basil. It’s a fine piece of pizza; in 2011, Culliton won the American Pizza Championship with it. But I’m going to go on the record and say that the Detroit-style pies are the winning attraction at this restaurant.
In true Motor City fashion, the thick-crusted pies are baked in blue steel pans and served in tall square slices. The topping-to-crust ratio allows for plenty of dense, crispy-edged crust to sop up the sweet tomato sauce, melty smoked provolone and hefty pepperoni portion in the appropriately named Death by Pepperoni ($19/$25). Also, the Detroit-style pies are topped with Wisconsin brick cheese — a cheddarlike cheese that spreads out across the pie into all the nooks and crannies, so that the top is crispy and caramelized from the center to the edges.
I especially loved the Bee’s Knees ($19/$25), which comes sans sauce but is topped with a heaping of spicy arugula, red onions, shaved Parmesan and hot honey. I’d gladly make the drive to Safety Harbor on a weekly basis for this pie if my schedule — or waistline — allowed for it.
Beyond the pizzas, which make up the majority of the menu here, there’s a small collection of appetizers, sandwiches and salads. Don’t skip the buttery knots of dough covered in fresh garlic, grated Romano cheese and fresh basil, still warm from the oven ($4). With a dunk in the accompanying bright and juicy marinara, it’s hard to stop in time to save your appetite.
The burrata ($14) is a simple but winning take on the Italian cream-infused cheese, delivered to the table in a pool of reduced balsamic vinegar, basil chiffonade and cherry tomatoes. It’s not served with bread, though, so an order of those garlic rolls is advised — great for sopping up all the delicious juices on the plate.
A grilled caprese ($9) is interesting in theory, but there are better ones to be had elsewhere, and both the skewered mozzarella balls and cherry tomatoes felt like they could have used a few more minutes on the grill to really capture the essence of this dish.
Culliton spent years working for the Brooklyn-based Grimaldi’s pizza chain, and the New York-style cheesecake ($6) is a holdover from that era. Smooth and creamy, it’s a classic — and delicious — version of the East Coast confection, with a buttery graham cracker crust, sweet strawberry topping and a dollop of whipped cream.
If at the end of the evening you still haven’t caught one of Culliton’s performances, it’s best to stick around a little while longer, order that cheesecake and hope for an encore.
What the ratings mean
1-2: Don’t waste your time
3-5: Fair, but could be better
6-8: Pretty darn good
9-10: What are you waiting for?
If you go
997 Main St., Safety Harbor; (727) 351-7570; thenona-slicehouse.com
Hours: Lunch and dinner, 2 to 10 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers and salads, $4 to $12; pizzas, $13 to $25.
Recommended dishes: burrata; the Bee’s Knees pizza; cheesecake