Restaurant Review: Is Wood Fired Pizza Wine Bar the best pizza in Tampa Bay?

After a life spent in the corporate sector, Taylor decided it was time to do something he loves. "It's the culmination of a 20-year effort," he explains. He spent that time visiting the world's finest pizza regions, learning the iconic food's origins and styles, then reverse-engineering the pies to see what made them good.

In Naples, the birthplace of pizza, he found artisans who controlled their supply chain and sourced the best ingredients they could get from producers they could trust. In New York, he discovered how high-heat ovens allowed pizza joints to make great pies, even though "they use crappy ingredients." He visited famed pizza-maker Chris Bianco in Arizona, whose Pizzeria Bianco is a pilgrimage destination for lovers of hand-crafted pies.

The result? "I took the best they had to offer," says Taylor. "My pizzas are one-third Neapolitan, one-third New York, one-third me."

He cultivated his own wild Florida yeast, his dough undergoes slow-fermentation to maximize flavor, and it's cooked in a blazing wood-fired oven that's the centerpiece of the restaurant's dining room. "In order to really get the last ounce out of a pizza crust," Taylor says, "you need an open flame."

[image-1]That oven is also where Taylor now spends his days, a six-foot pizza peel in hand, sliding his pies into the oven, focused on each for the scant few minutes it sits in the intense heat. He'll slide it from one side to the other, or lift a pie off the hot stone to finish in the scalding heat collected at the top of the oven.

The result is a glorious, thin crust sporting dark blisters on the edges, a bit of crunch, a bit of chew and a deep flavor that barely needs the accompanying toppings. Taylor doesn't neglect those either, however.

While New York influenced the size of his pies, and the heat in the oven, his topping style is very Neapolitan. Sauce is made from San Marzano tomatoes, bright and intense despite the restrained amount he uses. Taylor makes his own mozzarella, after despairing the quality of buffalo mozzarella he had imported from Italy. Straight from the oven, his homemade cheese is ideal, gooey and rich, with more heft than the water-logged mozzarella balls you might buy down at the deli.

At Wood Fired, that simple concoction of bread, sauce and cheese - Taylor calls it the Raquel, after Raquel Welch - is exquisite, one of the best pizzas I've ever tasted. Even simpler is the Sophia - after Sophia Loren - a classic Neapolitan pie with just sauce, garlic, olive oil and a scattering of grated hard cheeses like pecorino and grana padano. You won't miss even Taylor's mozzarella.

There are also white pies dressed in creamy ricotta, with one variation covered in a mound of peppery arugula and shaved parmigiano. Perhaps Wood Fired's best pie is the white Rosa, modeled on a pizza he tasted during his Arizona visit to Pizzeria Bianco: red onion, mozzarella, pecorino, crushed pistachio nuts and rosemary. The herbaceous scent of the rosemary melds perfectly with the tart, sweet onions and profoundly rich pistachios. It's an incredible combination of flavors that will leave you wondering if you'll ever again be able to abide the mundane crap served at chain pizza joints.

Despite the chew to the crust, Wood Fired's pizzas are too delicate to support a heavy load of toppings, which makes the pie covered in sliced meatballs, sausage and pepperoni an anomaly. For Taylor, the "Carnivore" is a nod to many men's need for protein. It's difficult to eat, the hunks of flesh flopping from the slices with abandon, but even here the ingredients are so damn tasty you'll find a way, and then likely order it again on another visit.

While the pizza is almost flawless, there are a few minor problems with the Wood Fired experience. The dining room looks like it was 80 percent designed and decorated, then left incomplete, especially around the bar area. Lighting can be glaring, especially with Taylor's domain around the oven brightly spotlit at night. And, despite the inherent entertainment value in watching a man do what he loves best, the oven area needs a space to hide ingredients that are often just stacked on the pretty prep area facing the dining room. Minor problems, especially in a place that is so focused on a single, incredibly well-executed type of food.

After my visits, it seems clear that Wood Fired will become a destination spot for Bay area foodies who appreciate the art of pizza, but Taylor's plan for the place is more about catering to women who live in neighboring New Tampa. Upscale, no televisions, no draft beer, just a place where a group can enjoy a salad, a bottle of wine and a light pizza with some casual conversation. He'll have to wait until he gets his wine and beer license next month to finish that plan, however.

He has no plans to open more spots, at least not yet, to further "monetize" his passion. "My model, right now, dictates that I make every pizza," says Taylor. "No matter what's going on, you still need to be able to coax the best out of that pie. You can't put someone else in front of that oven and have them take a laizzez-faire attitude."

Now that Wood Fired has been open for a couple of months, and after his 20-year research effort, I asked Taylor if his pizzas live up to his passionate ideals. "If I make 100 pies in a day, less than five reach my goal," he said. "C'mon, I'm going to spend the rest of my life figuring it out."

Wood Fired Pizza Wine Bar

4 stars

2822 E. Bearss Ave., Tampa, 813-341-2900

It's tough to maintain a passion for food when confronted with the daily grind of running a restaurant. But some people manage to maintain the joy that comes with working in something as artistic, useful and necessary as food, even amidst the nagging details of the business. Usually, that passion is reflected in what comes out of the kitchen.

You can taste it in every pie served at the new Wood Fired Pizza Wine Bar in northeast Tampa. Owner and pizza-maker Peter Taylor has a stock phrase to sum up his goal in starting the small shop: "I'm monetizing my passion."

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