We started with 64. Then, slice by slice, we ate our way down to the Final Four: Bona, Cappy's, Joey Brooklyn's and Vito & Michael's. Making it to the finals was a great accomplishment for the winning pizzerias, payback for all the sweat, sauce and tears shed in their quest for greatness. But the dance wasn't over yet. It was time for do-or-die, win-or-fly, gimme-your-best-pie. Here's how it all panned out:
In Hillsborough, the final two couldn't have been any more different. Bona is located in tony Westchase, amidst manicured lawns and planned communities, smack dab in the center of an eerily perfect mixed-use Main Street. N.Y. pies for Stepford wives.
Let's call Cappy's bohemian. Sure, the corner of Bay to Bay and MacDill isn't exactly low-rent, but there is still an alternative vibe to the area. The pizzeria is in a converted house, with creaky floors and a beautiful pressed tin ceiling to go with a cultural mishmash of photos and framed art that falls just shy of T.G.I. Friday's cheesiness. Everyone working the joint looks the part, young and hip, Mystic Pizza for a new millennium. Cash only.
The pies at Bona don't veer from classic New York style. Crust is thin, with a nice crisp snap when fresh from the oven along with a floppy elasticity that requires a half-fold down the center for easy eating. The tomato sauce is a proprietary but straightforward blend of sweet and tart, with a minimal bit of dried oregano shakes for another layer of flavor. Like almost all of the pies that made it to this level, the mozzarella was from Wisconsin's Grande, with the distinctively creamy character that makes this cheese so popular with independent pizzerias.
At Cappy's, they call one of their pies "N.Y. style," but it's thicker and more heavily cheesed than the thin pies that the Big Apple is famous for. It's a house style built on an incredible crust. Don't get me wrong: The cheese (Grande, again) and the sauce are tasty and balanced -- it wouldn't be a great pizza without them -- but the crust, man, that crust. Instead of the high-gluten bread flour typical at N.Y.-style pizzerias, Cappy's relies on softer all-purpose flour. That means there is no need for added oil -- just flour, water and yeast --which is allowed to proof and then undergoes an extended rise in the fridge for at least a day. That adds an immense complexity to the final product.
Instead of just striving for great crust, Cappy's makes great bread in crust form. When I spent a day tasting Bona's and Cappy's with Rob Tiisler from Tampa Digital Studios' Media Talk Live and CL Editor David Warner, the winner was broadcast over their faces. Cappy's was the best pizza in Hillsborough. No contest.
Across the bay in Pinellas, the competitors couldn't have been more similar, at least when it came to the pies. Personality-wise, they are generations apart.
At Joey Brooklyn's in downtown St. Pete, owners Quinn Duffy (a former actor -- his posters are on the wall) and Rocco Buzio (a restaurant veteran from Boston via L.A.) have the patter down. "Whaddya want?" It's a no-nonsense shop, pies slapped into cardboard and slices tossed onto paper plates all day long, as late as 3 a.m. on weekends. Don't drop a tip in the jar and Quinn might shake the plastic container and shoot you a look that clearly says, "C'mon, you're killin' me" without speaking a word. Brooklyn? Yeah, that's what it feels like.
Down near the water, Vito & Michael's faces a bounty of competition. Fortunato's recently opened an outpost next door, and Alberico's has been slinging slices a block down for a while now. Besides selling pies, V&M has a dining room and a menu of N.Y. Italian standards, with that "chianti in a straw basket" feel. Old school.
When it came to the pies, though, there wasn't a huge difference between Joey's and V&M. When we judged them live on the Studio 10 morning show on channel 10 last Thursday, it was hard to tell them apart at first glance. V&M had a more assertive tomato sauce, with the trademark bright and fresh flavors that got this pie into the Final Four. But the Joey Brooklyn's pie had a thinner crust, with better chew and a distinctive blast of peppery oregano and basil that stopped just short of overwhelming the pie. Both so good, I'm glad I didn't have to make the final decision on this one. Studio 10 co-hosts Tim Wilkins and Holley Sinn and CL Editor David Warner called it for Joey Brooklyn's. Close one.
So who won the Battle of the Bay, CL's epic clash of pies from across the area? Could Pinellas's Joey Brooklyn's close the deal or would Cappy's bring the trophy home to Hillsborough?
Wait for it. CL received over 800 entries in our online bracket contest, with one pizzeria mobilizing a mass of devoted customers to win the PZZA Reader's Choice Popularity Contest. Let's give credit where it's due -- Paci in South Tampa didn't make it past the first round (they had a tough match-up) but their pizza was No. 1 in your hearts, by a vast margin.
And just like in the NCAA, few of those 800 entries managed to come close to picking the Final Four. That said, Pinellas resident John Baker placed both Joey Brooklyn's and Cappy's in the final. He also picked the winner correctly. You'll be getting some swag, John.
And who was the winner? Both of the pies that made it into the championship were great, but to me the choice was clear. Joey Brooklyn's does N.Y. just right, but Cappy's does its own thing. Maybe I was suffering from style-fatigue (more than 90 percent of the pies I tasted were "N.Y."), but the fact that Cappy's pie was different -- and incredibly tasty, let's not forget -- pushed them over the edge.
So it's official: Cappy's is the winner of Creative Loafing's 2007 PZZA Tournament of Slices. Eat it up, Tampa.
With the help of Tampa Digital Studios, Creative Loafing presents this short video account of the next-to-final tasting round in the PZZA Tournament of Slices. Food critic Brian Ries narrates from behind the scenes (or from behind a fuzzed-out blur) as guest judges Rob Tiisler from Tampa Digitals Media Talk; Tim Wilkins and Holley Sinn, co-hosts of Tampa Bays 10; and CL Editor David Warner taste the Final Four slices from Hillsborough and Pinellas.
Credit: Tampa Digital Studios
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