The PZZA Tournament of Slices

Who will win the battle to be Tampa Bay's best pizza? Fill out your brackets and win lotsa pie!

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Success lies inside a simple but hallowed metal room. A door opens and the heat is palpable, pouring out in waves that cause eyes to shut and heads to bend reverently, gazes averted to savor the anticipation. A paddle slides inside, teasing the edges, checking, spinning, re-checking. This is no headlong rush to glory. Patience. Persistence. Those are the keys to victory. Only when the moment is right and perfection is achieved will the paddle stop, as if in contemplation, then surge forward to secure the prize.

The steaming masterpiece is dropped into a cardboard container to await its fate. A spinning metal blade, gleaming with grease and glory, slides effortlessly through blistered crust and bubbling cheese, emerging at each end stained red by the sweet blood of its victim. Pull a slice, and taste the culmination of hundreds of years of sweat, tears and secret recipes.

This is pizza, baby!

Everyone eats it. Everyone has a favorite. Loyalty? No other foodstuff can inspire the rabid fandom of a true pizza devotee. Maybe your obsession is with the joint down the street that has those floppy, cheap slices — "one is almost a whole meal" — or perhaps you drive across town for special crust, sauce or cheese. Maybe you're an adherent of a particular city's style, declaring all others, in your jingoistic regional fervor, treasonous.

The best pizza in the Bay area? You think you know where to find it. We all do.

Thank the Italians — especially those from Naples — for giving birth to this culinary wonder. Thank New Yorkers (let's be honest, mostly transplanted Italians) for establishing it firmly on our shores and heating it at unnaturally hot temperatures with coal-fired ovens, thus creating the most popular pizza style in the world. Thank New Haven for clams and sausage and the reminder that the Big Apple isn't the only place to get a decent slice. Thank Chicago for turning pizza into a mass of bread and cheese and sausage fit to fortify a body for windy winters.

Thank L.A. and Wolfgang Puck and Spago for forcing pizza into the modern era, with blasphemous ingredients like peanut sauce and bean sprouts that would give any Neapolitan a seizure. And, by all means, thank the national chains for spreading pizza — soulless and mass-produced though it may be — across the nation and into every living room, just a telephone call and a 30-minute wait away.

After weeks of controversy (and with the help of a complicated computer program stolen from the NCAA) we at the Loaf offices have narrowed down the area's pizza to the very best 64, the cream of the oven, to compete in the first PZZA Tournament of Slices.

You'll recognize some of the names, the powerhouses who dominate local Best Of lists and garner national publicity year in and year out.

Windy City is one, with the deep-dish style that made Chicago one of the founding cities of American pie. In Hyde Park, Gourmet Pizza serves a slice that has made a national Top 10 list. Maybe it's the favorite, but I think Sally O'Neal's or Cesare's might have something to say about that.

Can local chain Westshore knock off a mom-and-pop operation (besides the mom-and-pop operations that chains naturally destroy just by existing, I mean)? Perhaps mid-major Bella Brava — a restaurant, not a pizzeria — can topple St. Pete fave Pizze Rustica?

Or maybe a Cinderella slice can find the passion and skill to make an inspired run for glory. Will Gigi's rule the beaches, or can some sunburned joint get hot and crank out a pie to beat them all?

Who will reign supreme? Anything's possible. Prepare for the unexpected.

This is a tournament, folks, not a playoff. Each match is do or die — one misstep and you're out of the dance. Under-bake the crust, add a few too many shakes of oregano or clump the cheese, and you can pack your oven and go back to obscurity, crying into your canned tomatoes.

And don't start looking for an edge in toppings. This tournament is about the fundamentals: bread, sauce and cheese in perfect harmony. Pepperoni, clams or creamy garlic sauce can cover a multitude of culinary sins; they have no place here. Straight cheese, by the slice or by the pie, is all these competitors can, or should, rely on.

Yes, we left most of the national chains off the list; if Domino's is your idea of a good pie, then you need to start visiting some of these local specialists. We made one exception for the exceptional Mellow Mushroom, and allowed area chains some leeway; keep the quality up, and you will continue to live in the PZZA's good graces.

Think you can pick the winners? Pack the car and start a scouting trip, fill out the brackets and wait to see if you have the tastebuds to make it in pizza prognostication.

Next week, the PZZA field is slashed down to the Savory Sixteen, a shortlist of the best and brightest pies in the Bay area. That's when the competition heats up. During Week Three, we'll blaze through the Edible Eight and announce the pizzerias that have made it to the Final Four. Then we'll call on a group of local celebrity judges to help us crown the 2007 PZZA Tournament of Slices Champion, to be announced Week Four.

This contest can only be decided by those participants willing to grab hold of destiny, coat it in San Marzano crushed tomatoes and creamy full-fat mozzarella, and bake at volcanic temperatures for five to 10 minutes. Powerhouses and underdogs, favorites and unknowns — they all come out of the oven with a chance.

May the best pie win.

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