Their accents are pure Brooklyn with an overlay of Mother Italy, all "aeh" vowel sounds and dropped r's. In my experience, these accents are strongly correlated with having supernatural skills when called upon to make pizza. Brothers Joe, Marco and Lenny Cristino are not anomalies in this regard. I've been a fan of their thronged Clearwater pizzeria, their flagship restaurant on Fort Harrison, since early in 2007, largely on the strengths of the pies, but the housemade gelatos heighten my ardor.
They had been considering a Cristino's Coal Oven Pizza No. 2 for some time. But where to put it? With its density of late-night noshers, historic Ybor City made sense. And coal-oven pizza itself is historic, with fans of Lombardi's on Spring Street in New York pitted for most of a century against fans of Patsy Grimaldi's in Hoboken, N.J.
Truth is, there's a lot of pizza in Ybor already, found both in casual pizzerias like Old Manhattan and New York, New York and restaurants that offer pizza as part of their lineup, such as New World, Bernini and Tampa Bay Brewing.
What makes coal-oven pizza different is heat. These ovens cook a pizza in under five minutes, the results thin-crusted, cheesy and with those charry black bubbles pocking the crust. So the brothers have that to distinguish themselves from the other neighborhood pies. But then they also have their tremendous lineup of gelatos, a broader menu of classic Italian pastas and entrees, a full bar and a wide and inviting patio in their favor.
It took them more than six months to overhaul the old Spurs and Play bars, the finished space clean, bright and fairly capacious, located right across from Game Time and Crowbar. The menu is an expanded version of what they serve in Clearwater with an array of hot and cold paninis, pastas and more ambitious fish and meat entrees added to the mix.
Still, it's about the pizza. I've never visited their hometown of Mola di Bari, Italy, but I like to think this pie is just like there. Two people can almost dispatch a large (but when has a little leftover pizza ever been a problem?). The best on my visits was the Italia ($14.99 small, $17.99 large), topped with housemade mozzarella, tomato sauce, prosciutto and a big tangle of fresh arugula, and the four-cheese version ($12.99, $15.99) with moz, ricotta, goat and gorgonzola (but it's not a white pizza, there's still tomato sauce on this one). On both, the cheese-to-sauce-to-crust ratio is excellent, although I wish the prosciutto had been less abundant and more thinly shaved because it kept flapping down my chin in a most unbecoming way.
The eggplant rollatini ($7.99) and eggplant parm ($8.99) are both comfort food doozies, the former tucking ricotta into the mix along with the tomato sauce and a mantle of molten moz. The chain Anthony's has gotten plaudits for its marinated wings given tender treatment in the coal oven and then topped with caramelized onions, but Cristino's gives them a run for their money (10 for $8.99), the finished wings moist on the inside and just crisp-edged.
Still, I think my favorite dish at the new Cristino's is the panzarotti ($8.99). A dish from Apulia (but a specialty of South Jersey), these are smallish calzones made of a softer dough, stuffed with sauce, moz, ham and basil that release a cloud of steam once pierced. Although the coal oven is the star attraction at Cristino's, these are slightly more delicious when ordered deep fried.
If you order one fried, you might be slightly less gung-ho about tacking on cannoli ($3.99) or New York cheesecake ($5.99), but surely you can manage a scoop of fruity or chocolatey gelato. The Cristino brothers will tempt you with a few little plastic spoonful samples (if they give you a spoon of stracciatella, you'll be helpless to resist).
Opened just before Christmas, service is laudably together in this newcomer. It doesn't yet have the homey bustle of the Clearwater location, but based on the strength of its pizzas, that will come.