A few years back, I fell in love with a man named Peter Taylor. He’d spent 20 years in the corporate sector, but the entire time he was working on his passion for pizza. Sampling pies from around the world and from the iconic pizza joints of the United States. Crafting his own pizza philosophy. Cultivating herbs, yeast and tomatoes. Taylor was obsessed, and that obsession found expression in his Wood Fired Pizza restaurant in New Tampa.
At the time, he had some worries. He was working himself ragged because he didn’t trust anyone else to work the blazing pizza oven, which he tended himself, wooden peel in hand, carefully monitoring the heat on his beloved pies from open to close. “My model, right now, dictates that I make every pizza,” said 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 laissez-faire attitude.”
Taylor riffed on his desire that customers not order pizza for takeout — because the wait in the box would detract from the quality — and claimed that “If I make 100 pies in a day, less than five reach my goal.”
From my perspective, his sacrifice was worth it. His pies were fantastic, combining exceptional crust with thoughtful toppings to create edible works of art.
Now, a couple of years later, Taylor has expanded his personal fiefdom with a location in St. Petersburg next to the newish World of Beer on First Avenue South. It’s bigger than his home base, with a large dining room and a massive wooden deck spanning the area between his restaurant and the beer bar. There’s also a long and winding bar that runs the length of the place, servers scurrying in and out and a general liveliness that was lacking in the smaller New Tampa spot.
Good for him, sure. But what about the pizza?
The dough is still made from Taylor’s personally cultivated strain of yeast. There’s still fresh mozzarella and interesting combinations of toppings. And the pizza is still damn good.
Take the Pistachio Pie, topped with chopped nuts, fresh mozz, red onion and rosemary. The nuts are almost blackened and the leaves of the rosemary seem flash-dried by the scorching heat of the oven, each bite incredibly fragrant and rich. It’s one of the best Wood Fired makes and the St. Pete location nails it.
But other pies seem to fall short in the hustle and bustle of the busy restaurant. Taylor’s signature Pizza Raquel — an old school Margarita — is lackluster, the crust pale and less charred than the pistachio version, the sauce lacking the tart acidity it needs to carry a pie with just a scattering of fresh mozz and barely any basil to speak of.
The Bianca is better, but Wood Fired’s Carnivore is similarly bland, the meat having to do extra duty to carry a pie that has little more than the toppings carrying it along.
That said, even the misses are better than most pies in the Bay area, thanks largely to Taylor’s incredible crust. It’s snappy and chewy and has a rich flavor that’s brought out by the dark char that speckles the bottom and edges of the crust. Bake one up without any toppings at all and I guarantee people would still pay good money for it.
Taylor has also expanded his menu since the early days, offering his crust coated in cheese or bacon jam, dips to scoop up with sections of crust, salads and sandwiches. Although it’s all tasty stuff, especially the bread schmeared with sweet and savory bacon jam, I suspect it’s all just a calculated commercial maneuver to accommodate folks who might want something other than Wood Fired’s pizza.
You know … crazy people.
Truth is, despite the drop in quality without Master Taylor manning the peel every hour of every day, this move is a good thing for everyone. His pies are still some of (if not the) best in the entire Bay area, and now people outside the suburbs don’t have to drive to New Tampa to eat them.
Politicians could learn a thing or two from Peter Taylor. Sometimes compromise means a better deal for everyone, no matter how passionate you are about your life’s work.