Tampa Bay Pizza Marathon: Jon's journey

Thirty-two pies, 12 months and one five-star-worthy champ.

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click to enlarge Tampa Bay Pizza Marathon: Jon's journey - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Tampa Bay Pizza Marathon: Jon's journey

The sky is bright blue. The blinding sun casts dark shadows on the cobblestone streets of San Gimignano, the medieval Manhattan in the heart of Tuscany. I embarrass a friend by shouting, “Attention, Kmart shoppers!” into a walkie-talkie that broadcasts my voice loudly from his front pants pocket.

Luckily (as I find out later), the crowd in the little boutique where I make my declaration is all American tourists, but it doesn’t matter who they are: I have had a pizza epiphany, and I need to tell people about it.

Step back in time with me to a takeout window open to a narrow street. I order a slice of Margherita pizza — something I’ve done dozens, if not hundreds of times over many years.

But unlike all the previous occasions, this pie takes my breath away. Perhaps it’s the excitement of being in Europe or the dreamlike quality of this oh-so-special ancient Italian city, but the reaction is as unexpected as it is real. The taste is heightened; the textures on steroids. A perfect storm of simple ingredients has all the culinary fire of the intertwined parts of an impassioned late Beethoven quartet.

This is the pinnacle of pizza art.

The leopard-patterned char adds extra dimension to the salty tang of the sourdough crust. It’s part chew, part crisp and totally intoxicating. I swoon, but recover as the bright, light acidity and natural sweetness of fresh, fresh, fresh, almost meaty, tomato flavor snaps me back to reality. Then, the indescribably creamy slices of warm mozzarella coat my tongue as the sharp herbal notes from the torn basil leaves bounce from mint to pepper to anise in a melisma of flavor. The aromas work their way into my sinuses in an olfactory tidal wave. The hedonistic, sensory overload ends in a sigh and a smile.

Perfection on a paper plate.

Could I find it again in Tampa Bay?

I decided to find out.

After researching on the Web, combing the slings and arrows of Yelp, Chowhound and Urbanspoon, and reviewing past Best of the Bay loves, I settled on 32 tasting targets around the region, in addition to six purveyors of generic pies, for a 12-month marathon costing nearly $1,000 and covering 883 miles. Was the pizza of my dreams merely an illusion? What could be gleaned from such an odyssey?

On this journey, my intent was to compare (as much as possible) apples to apples. This meant ordering the closest thing to a Margherita pizza at each of my 32 stops. When the only topping is cheese with basil, there’s no place to hide.

Which brings me to category one: generic pizza.

All the chain pizza restaurants we know so well fall into this category. They’re undistinguished variations on New York pizza. Essentially, they’re hot bread with melted cheese. Their flavor comes largely from toppings, which you can shape to your personal cravings. However, when compared to the mom-and-pop pies on our list, they can’t measure up. “But I really like [insert corporate logo here],” you say.

In truth, pizza is a favorite food for a good reason. What’s not to love? Carbs, especially in the form of warm pizza dough with its enticing aroma, trigger primal senses in our brain. “Attention, Homo sapiens, this food is cooked. Eat this, not the salmonella-botulism-trichinosis-filled rotting animal remains you’ve been hoarding in your cave/dorm room.”

The acidity in tomatoes causes us to salivate. Saliva transports food molecules to our taste buds, so the “mouth-watering” effect from the sauce makes a slice of pizza taste especially good. Cheese contains proteins called caseins, and as we digest, it releases opiates that are known as casomorphins. Put this all together and even mediocre pies are addictive.

More than that, pizza is also personal. Most often, we go beyond a Margherita and customize our pies with every topping combo imaginable. There isn’t a single pizza I tasted on this journey that was inedible. In fact, most were enjoyable, but nearly interchangeable. When you’re looking for incremental differences that elevate one component or other, though, certain pizzas rise.

So don’t feel bad (or angry) if your favorite pie missed out. Just enjoy your tasting and pile on the toppings, and next time, try a pizza that’s new to you, in a style that stretches your culinary experience. There’s a world of choices at your fingertips.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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