Pizza to Cry For

Twelve inches of glory and so much more...

click to enlarge THEY HAD US AT THE SHRIMP: This shrimp - appetizer, gamberoni basilico, is anything but - pizzeria fare. - VALERIE MURPHY
THEY HAD US AT THE SHRIMP: This shrimp appetizer, gamberoni basilico, is anything but pizzeria fare.

I'm a pizza snob. I admit it. After living in Connecticut and New York (motto: Pizza so good it makes you cry), it was very difficult for me to come back to Florida, where often the best pizza in a 10-mile radius comes in a box printed with spotted game pieces. One would think that with all the northern transplants hanging out in the Tampa Bay area, there'd be a great pizza place on every corner. Now, before every dough-flipper in town starts writing me nasty letters, I am well aware that it is possible to get a decent slice around here — and each one is made all the more precious because of its rarity. So if you find a good pizzeria, even if it's a bit out of the way, hang on to it. My parents, for instance, have been known to sweet-talk certain beachside pizza delivery guys into braving the traffic-clogged bridges that cross the intercoastal waterway — all in the name of good pizza. Therefore, I've been familiar with the Indian Rocks Beach favorite, T.J.'s, for some time, but I had no idea that there was more cooking in the restaurant's brick oven than fabulous pizza.

And it is some great pizza. Great marinara, high-quality mozzarella, and a variety of toppings ranging from the standard pepperoni and pineapple to the more unusual broccoli and hearts of palm are all important to the pizza's make-up, but it's the delicious, brick-fired crust that truly sets T.J.'s pies apart. Crust on pizza, like bread on sandwiches, is the base upon which all the other ingredients literally rely. At T.J.'s, they've opted for a thin but crunchy crust (the difference between "crunchy" and "crispy," for you denizens of Pizza Hut, is the same difference between a high-class baguette and a Lay's potato chip). And unlike lesser crusts, T.J.'s version is flavorful enough not to leave behind in some sort of pizza-bone graveyard.

The regular pizzas are priced as follows: 12" for $7.95, 14" for $8.95 and 16" for $9.95. Toppings are an extra dollar apiece on small pizzas and $1.75 on medium and large pizzas. There's also a white version, featuring olive oil and fresh garlic rather than marinara ($8.50/$9.95/$10.95).

I'm a pizza purist, but the more adventurous can try anything from a spinach/mushroom pie with homemade ranch dressing and three cheeses ($11.95/$14.95/$16.95) to the very hoity-toity white shrimp-asparagus pie ($15.95/$17.95/no large available), which includes a generous sprinkling of enormous, fresh-caught Gulf shrimp and chunks of crunchy asparagus. Pretty tasty stuff, if you like your pizza fancy. I'm more of a basic kind of girl, but I could appreciate the mix of flavors found in T.J.'s more gourmet specialties.

The rest of the menu more than lives up to the example set by the pizza. Any of the restaurant's enormous salads make a superb light lunch. The spinach salad ($5.95) is a veritable mountain of greens with egg, mushroom, onion and a sweet, tangy honey-mustard dressing. I also sampled an appetizer that single-handedly catapulted the restaurant from standard pizza joint to purveyor of fine Italian cuisine — the well-designed and intriguingly presented gamberoni basilico ($8.95). A dozen peppercorn-seared shrimp rested on their heads in dollops of bright green basil aioli in this surprisingly beautiful appetizer. My dining companion remarked that a few orders of this dish would tide him over for the duration of the meal — but we hadn't reached the entrees yet.

The most stunning of our entrees was the fabulous seafood medley ($23.95), which included a sweet, tender, 4-ounce cold-water lobster tail (with butter) and seared scallops and shrimp, with tomato, spinach leaves, hearts of palm and artichoke tossed in a garlic cream sauce over bow-tie pasta. Yes, the dish was every bit as big as it sounded, and there was more than enough seafood for everyone at the table to have a taste. Another item I enjoyed quite a bit was the homemade four-layer lasagna ($10.95). A low ricotta/mozzarella ratio, large chunks of ground beef and the perfect complement of spices made this dish another treat. Though I hardly expected to find such a wintry, casserole-style dish at a restaurant on the beach, I was pleased with the lasagna and found it gave the perfect amount of homey Italian substance to complement T.J.'s abundant house style.

Still hungry for dessert? T.J.'s Italian Café has an especially sweet deal residing right next store at T.J.'s House of Sweets, a free-standing ice-cream parlor where you can satisfy your cravings with ice cream flavors from mocha to Moose Tracks, and a killer hot fudge sundae.

The interior of the restaurant is sleek and shiny, but the outside seating is located on a wide white porch that would be the envy of any Key West home. This dichotomy of design would only work in Florida, where beachside dining can be both classy and casual. One strange detail was a thick, leather-bound wine list. I was surprised at its length until I peered inside and realized it was organized more like an advertising flip book, with each wine choice occupying an entire page and including a lengthy description and a color print of the label. Though I suppose that might be helpful to people who recognize labels more easily than names, to me it gave the impression that T.J.'s was trying to pass off its wine list as something more impressive than it really was. There's no need to pad anything you have on offer, T.J. The quality of your café more than speaks for itself.

Freelance Planet Food Critic Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She can be reached at [email protected]. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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