Both of my parents were born in Italy, and I’ve visited the boot on numerous occasions, dining from Milan down to Sicily.
I was raised with the best tomato sauce and cooking around, so I’m picky about pizza and pasta by default. It was quite a revelation when my never-eats-out-for-anything mother recommended Cristino’s.
The Clearwater restaurant opened in 2007. Friends Averi and Katrina — two gals my mom used to nanny, who address her as “Grandmama” — got jobs as servers there. They introduced us to Lenny Cristino, who owns the eatery with older brothers Joe and Marco. All three Cristinos were born in Mola di Bari, Italy, in the region of Puglia (along the ankle of the boot) — two hours from my mom’s hometown. The brothers moved to the U.S. as children and did some of their growing up in Brooklyn, so their demeanor is a mix of New York gusto, homey Southern Italianness and Euro refinement. Cristino’s’ menu and trappings reflect all these qualities.
Lenny, a resident of Belleair Beach, says that he missed pedestrian-friendly urban settings. “On days off I’d visit Ybor because it’s the one place here that reminds me the most of New York,” he said. “I’ve lived in Manhattan and miss city life. I love the excitement and characters in Ybor.”
His city-life yearnings led him to open a second Cristino’s in Tampa, just around the corner from Centro Ybor, across the street from Crowbar. Cristino’s Ybor opened its doors during the holidays last month.
When Lenny first showed Marco the dusty, nondescript establishment at Eight Avenue and 17th Street that Cristino’s now occupies, he wasn’t impressed. “I said no!” Marco exclaimed with an accent slightly stronger than Lenny’s. “I walked away!”
But Marco consented, and the brothers signed the lease in June 2013, taking over a building that some might deem jinxed — there isn’t a lot of foot traffic, and the bars that opened there in recent years have been short-lived. If anyone can break the curse, the Cristino family can.
Their 100 percent coal oven-fired pizza is just right — pleasantly blistered crust (not charred) comes topped with fresh mozzarella cheese and other quality toppings. I recommend the Margherita del Lusso, a classic Neapolitan-style pizza with three fresh and homemade toppings — marinara, mozzarella and basil.
Like the location in Clearwater, Cristino’s Ybor has homemade pasta and ravioli and luxuriant gelato, made on the premises. I got to see the “gelato lab” in the back, where concoctions of almond, hazelnut, coconut, mango, strawberry, pistachio and stracciatella (vanilla striped with chocolate chips) are created.
Marco designed the Ybor floor plan, around 6,000 square feet total. He said he went back and forth with contractors to bring the project to completion. The corner spot has wrought iron railings, shiny tile floors, light beige stucco walls, marble countertops and sleek mahogany furniture. Features include an outdoor and indoor bar, a large patio that seats around 200, a gelato counter and two brick ovens.
Lower-priced items like panini (try the eggplant Parmigiana) and panzerotti — the Pugliese version of calzones — are great lunch options if you’re not in the mood for pizza (whenever that is).
Cristino’s Coal Oven Pizza, 1701 E. Eighth Ave., Ybor City. 813-248-2056, cristinospizzeria.com.