Paci's Pizza in south Tampa has made us a convert 

Here at CL, we're very happy that the Web allows us to give readers a lot more say than in the past. Sometimes, we go to you directly and ask for suggestions or input on stories we're working on. But often, just to make it easier for everyone involved, we ask you to check a box and vote on something we think you're interested in.

There are, however, occasional problems with purely democratic systems that don't subscribe to "one person, one vote" safeguards. Ballot-box stuffing is more common -- and easier -- on the internet than on the streets of Chicago, so restaurants with a mobilized fan-base can easily take control of most online polls. That's what happened a few weeks ago when we asked our readers to help us fill out the final five spots on our list of Tampa Bay's Top 50 Restaurants. And damn if I'm not ecstatic that it did.

Admittedly, when the results first came in I did spend some time grumbling. The number one vote-getter was Paci's Pizza, a small pie joint on Dale Mabry, just three years old and barely a year in its current location. I missed it when I ate my way through 64 Bay area pizza places a couple years back for CL's Tournament of Slices, and nobody had bothered to point me to Paci's since. A neighborhood pizza joint shoehorned into the precious Top 50? This, I crowed, is why the hoi polloi shouldn't be given the opportunity to speak up!

Then, probably to quiet my curmudegonly nattering, CL editor David Warner stopped by Paci's and brought some food back to the HQ. I popped the box on a big pie, ready to rip into the "readers'" favorite. And was stopped in my tracks. It looked good. Maybe great. I turned off my outrage and pulled a piece.

Paci's pizza is clearly New York-style, obvious from the first glance. The crust is glorious, bubbled and blackened at the edges and stained a mottled black and brown on the bottom, crisp enough to support a slice with just a little dip towards the floor at the pointy center. Take a bite and snap, the curst crackles under your teeth, with a bit of elastic chew coming once it's in your mouth. From the first bite, it was clear that Paci's could compete for the best pizza in the Bay area thanks to crust alone.

Thankfully, the rest of the pie is almost as good. Toppings are scattered across the pizza, enough to provide good coverage without weighing down individual slices. The sauce is bright and crisp with pure tomato flavor shining through in every bite. Herbs are subtle, mostly found in a brief shake of dried oregano on the finished pie and fresh basil (at least on the margarita version). Cheese is gooey and rich but, like the other toppings, isn't a dominating factor on the pie. It's about perfect.

Paci's serves only pizza and pizza-variations, including calzones and, well, smaller calzones called "rolls". Those are fine options -- as tasty as most in town -- but the joy of the restaurant's crust is lost when thickly-wrapped around a mound of mozzarella and fillings. At other places, I might recommend them, but here the pizza's the thing.

That's not to say you shouldn't cap your pizza experience with something cool. Paci's serves a big variety of gelato, sourced from the incredible Gelateria Del Duomo over at International Plaza. That's one advantage to eating in, but otherwise the place has little atmosphere besides a boombox broadcasting classic rock and the ongoing show of the white-haired guy behind the counter flinging dough into the air and slapping it into the oven.

Paci's tagline is "a little slice of Brooklyn" -- which suits the pies perfectly -- but that's actually a remnant of the original proprietors. The current owners are from Jersey and, according to our poll, pretty good at mobilizing their obviously devoted fans. After a few trips to Paci's over the past week, I can understand. I'll likely cast a few dozen votes for this incredible pizza myself, the next time someone asks for an opinion.

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