Forging Dante’s Inferno

A spicy new creation at Wood Fired Pizza

click to enlarge One spicy pizza. - Andy Huse
Andy Huse
One spicy pizza.

I’ve been a fan of Peter Taylor’s pies at Wood Fired Pizza ever since it opened in 2009. His location on Tampa’s northern edge is close to work for me, and for the price, offers some of the best quality food in the area. Besides his stellar execution, the variety of the menu has something for everyone. The toppings are topnotch across the board. I dine there often, a rewarding lunchtime ritual I repeat every week. (And good news for Pinellas fans: a branch of Wood Fired Pizza is opening soon at 4th Street and 1st Avenue South.)

This year, Peter is serving new Wood Fired items inspired by regular customers. Some customers from the Middle East brought spices for Peter to top their pies with, and he was impressed with the flavors of sumac and thyme. Now Peter serves a Mideast flatbread with spice-infused oil for dipping or drizzling over the bread. Another customer brought Peter some bacon jam for a BLT pizza and I was lucky enough to taste it. Peter then introduced molten bacon jam wedges to the menu. Another regular’s creation, the “Fit 4 Life” pie, opts for tomato sauce, Brussels sprouts, spinach, mozz, and Canadian bacon.

As impressive as Wood Fired Pizza’s menu looked, there was nothing spicy on the menu. When I brought this to Peter’s attention during lunch one day, he challenged me to invent my own hot and spicy pizza. I wanted consistent heat that would not vary wildly. I began with fresh jalapenos, but the first experiment was inconclusive. I crowded the pizza with fresh sliced jalapenos, tomato sauce, caramelized onions, pepperoni, three cheeses and so on, but the flavors didn’t unite in a special way. Peter suggested that I break it down to basics next time.

I rethought my approach, and considered using a different source of heat. Spiking the tomato sauce would ensure that the entire pizza would smolder. I steered away from the salt and vinegar-dominated American hot sauces like Crystal, Louisiana and Tabasco. Sri Racha is a much better option. The rooster-labeled hot sauce has risen to the status of an indispensable condiment in Asian restaurants around the world. I thought its persistent heat and touch of garlic would be perfect for my pizza. Peter had never heard of it, and I assured him it is rather fashionable. I mixed two tablespoons of Sri Racha into Peter’s excellent tomato sauce. The heat level was perfect: you know it is there, but it won’t hurt anybody.

Then came the toppings. I knew I wanted dollops of smooth ricotta on the pizza to be a creamy foil for the spicy Sri Racha. I felt that pepperoni was too strong-flavored and salty. Peter had always wanted a pizza to feature his house-made meatballs, and their mild flavor would still let the Sri Racha light up the stage. A dusting of dried herbs would bring it all together. Peter saved one last flourish for the table: grated artisanal Dante, a sheep’s milk cheese.

This time, our collaboration was a great success. The flavors are more focused, and they all serve the spicy theme quite well. Peter added the new pizza, “Dante’s Inferno,” to Wood Fired Pizza’s menu in March. It quickly became the most popular pizza in Peter’s repertoire, garnering positive reviews among chili heads and beer lovers — my kind of people. Peter’s willingness to experiment made the process fun, and I’m already thinking about another new pizza.

Wood Fired Pizza and Wine Bar is located at 2822 E Bearss Ave., Tampa. 813-341-2900, wood-firedpizza.com.

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