Restaurant review: Pizza Fusion in downtown Tampa 

Successful pizza chains tend to either focus on bulk sales — à la Dominos, Papa John's and the like — or work a gimmick that sets them apart from both the larger chains and neighborhood joints. Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza is one success story that's moved into the Bay area in recent years, using the blazing heat of coal to power ovens and forge an identity.

Pizza Fusion, the latest chain to enter the local market, has a more complicated story to tell, as well as pizza that doesn't necessarily conform to the norms.

Two outlets of the international chain have sprung up in the past few months — in Westchase, and downtown Tampa at the Skypoint building — both small and smartly designed. The decor is modern, with molded green chairs, flowing wall art and natural woodtones. Green and natural are the watchwords at Pizza Fusion.

Calling it a gimmick might downplay Pizza Fusion's commitment to green issues. Their efforts are admirable and extensive: company-owned hybrid cars for deliveries; offsetting energy use with wind purchases; discounts for customers who bring back boxes for recycling; all printed materials — even signs — made 100 percent from recycled materials; LEED-designed stores. There's more, but you get the gist.

That devotion is reflected in the beer selection, with two of the four drafts devoted to local Cigar City brews — Jai Alai and Maduro. Sodas are all-natural and juice is high-end organic kid's stuff.

It's also reflected in the food, albeit a little more subtly.

On its menu, Pizza Fusion's green focus extends beyond environmentalism into healthy eating. There's a bevy of gluten-free items to choose from, including pizza crust made with bean and rice flour, beer built on sorghum instead of barley, and brownies. The sauce and crust is vegan, and there's soy "cheese" on hand, which also happens to be lactose-free. If you have a dietary problem, you can probably eat well here.

And that's the real secret behind the gimmick at Pizza Fusion — the food is good. Salads range from a beautiful house concoction of arugula, romaine, red onion, basil and tomato with toasted bread to gem-like roasted beets tossed with feta and candied walnuts. Both are better than almost anything you'll find at most pizza places, chain or no.

The pizza is almost as tasty, although it does conform to a style that may not suit individual preferences. Pizza Fusion's regular crust rarely has any snap to it, but the flavor is good and the toppings are all as fresh as the salads. Throw on some goat cheese and sundried tomatoes to accompany the bright and acidic tomato sauce and milky mozzarella, and the crust easily recedes into the background.

Unless you order the whole-grain style, that is, which has a little more heft and chew to it, along with a graininess from the seeds and bigger grains. In some ways, it makes for a more interesting pizza than the ordinary crust, thanks to the obvious textural differences. It works best with fresh vegetables, or just cheese and sauce.

Appetizers and sandwiches are Pizza Fusion's weak point, but even there the restaurant just succumbs to the types of simplistic flavors that are common at more typical chains. Meatball sliders are a mess of sauce and cheese, gooey bread and soft meat, while stuffed mushrooms seem like soggy catering food. Sandwiches feature meat or grilled portobello mushrooms that taste pre-fab.

Stick with the salads and pizza, however, and you'll do fine. Your food will likely be healthier than anything you'll find at other pizza joints — even with all that cheese — and it'll taste a little more unique than most. You'll also be helping the environment a tad (unless you drove across town to get there).

Good food, nice dining rooms and environmentally friendly. I've heard of worse gimmicks.

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