Italian Restaurant is a bit of an umbrella term these days. When readers describe to me "this great Italian place that [I've] just got to try," I'm never sure if they are discussing fine Italian dining or a pizza parlor. Between these extremes are restaurants like Johnny's, where stromboli and seafood fra diavolo exist side by side, and where parents enjoy nightly cocktail specials while their children enjoy the kiddie menu. The eatery's style will seem familiar to anyone who frequents corporate Italian joints, but beyond the obvious benefits of being an indie establishment, Johnny's has something on every macaroni warehouse and spaghetti grill in town - two decades.
For 25 years, Johnny Nadeau has been presiding over this north Clearwater landmark, courting a clientele as keen for his 14-inch pie as they are for the dishes that require knives and forks. Local opinion posits that Johnny's is one of the best pizza places in town. I wholeheartedly agree. After years of living in New York and New Haven, where pizza is more of a religion than a food, I found the pizza scene in Tampa Bay a bit difficult to swallow. Too many places serve slices with soggy, tasteless crusts, saccharine tomato sauce and bland, gummy cheese. Luckily, there are restaurants like Johnny's around to prove that geography is not to blame in the matter: there is good pizza in Tampa Bay.
Johnny's pizza has all the qualities of a traditional, New York style pie: thin, hand-tossed crust topped with spicy marinara and stringy-in-a-good-way mozzarella. The toppings, which range from the usual pepperoni et al to eggplant parmesan and Buffalo chicken, are applied with a generous hand. Base price is $8.99 for a medium and $9.99 for a large, though the cost varies according to size, number and type of toppings. Already a fan of the thin crust style, I branched out, and tried the square Sicilian style. The super-thickness of the Sicilian crust did not overwhelm the flavor of the toppings, and I found the thicker pizza was every bit as flavorful as the thin version - though naturally, more filling.
But at Johnny's, pizza is only the tip of the iceberg. I'm a big fan of the Johnny bread, which is served with a to-die-for dipping sauce of olive oil, parmesan cheese, herbs and enough garlic to take out the whole cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We also tried a sampler platter ($9.99), which featured a half-pound of boneless, Buffalo-style chicken nuggets, deep fried cheese wedges and bruschetta. The "wing ding" buffalo nuggets were standard sports bar fare, and I was mystified by the fact that the cheese wedges were made with Monterey Jack rather than the more traditional mozzarella. Both of these appetizers were perfectly acceptable (and for a real eye-opener, try the cheese wedges dipped in Johnny bread sauce). However, the true sampler standout was the bruschetta. My date, who has been known to whip up some damn fine bruschetta himself, stamped his seal of approval on Johnny's version. Recently, I pointed out how often restaurant bruschetta can be soggy. Johnny's neatly sidestepped the problem by serving the chopped and seasoned Roma tomatoes in a little bowl, surrounded by crunchy slices of grilled focaccia. Again, we took advantage of the remnants of the garlicky Johnny bread dip to add an extra kick to the toast. (It makes a killer salad dressing, too.)
Looking beyond pizza for the entrees also yielded several delights. I'm a big fan of the spicy fra diavolo marinara, which came tossed with vermicelli and a choice of chicken or a handful of different seafood. Though my favorite kinds, chicken breast ($10.79) and fresh jumbo shrimp ($10.99), might not be as traditional as scungilli ($9.99, and Johnny's spells it "scungielli," but it's conch either way), I felt they set the sauce off to the best advantage. A simpler entrée, ziti primavera ($9.49), had a more subtle flavor, with fresh veggies sautéed in wine and garlic stealing center stage in an otherwise humble pasta dish with a mild marinara. The ziti primavera was comfort food at its finest.
During my visit, most tables groaned beneath an elevated pizza tray (or two) and a pitcher of beer, demonstrating that no matter what else is served at this restaurant, it hasn't strayed too far from its pizzeria roots. The wine list is minimal, though the specialty martinis held more interest. However, my favorite drink was the not-too-sweet red sangria, which was made fresh with red wine, juice and enough fruit (even in the $5.49 small carafe) to satisfy my FDA food pyramid requirement.
Regular readers of this column may have noticed my vulnerability when it comes to Italian cuisine. This is not to say that I "go easy" on Italian restaurants - if they are a poor example of the genre, my disappointment is felt even more keenly. However, when they do well, I'm particularly pleased. To serve up good Italian (or Italian-American) you don't need to be high end; to get butts in the seats, you don't need to have a corporate marketing budget. It's difficult to distinguish yourself in this sea Italian restaurants. But year after year, decade after decade, diners bypass their corner Italian joint and drop into Johnny's. Maybe it's just the pizza. I'm inclined to think it's the whole package.
Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.