Who has Tampa Bay's best donuts? 

Brian Ries searches for the "hole" truth.

Is there anything more distinctly American than a piece of sugary bread fried in fat and served topped or injected with additional sugar and fat? Donuts are almost exclusively an early-morning pleasure, tied to hangovers and coffee and disheveled, pre-shower trips to the local store or pre-work attempts at pseudo-breakfast fortification. I'm salivating already, thinking of that first sleepy bite, teeth crunching through the crackling crust of glaze into the pillowy soft flesh of a yeasty 'nut.

Thanks go to the Dutch for introducing the donut to American shores. In the early days, it was just a "nut" of "dough," without the distinctive ring shape. Legends surround the origin of the hole, but the fact that donuts were notorious for undercooked centers probably explains the change in shape. Just about all donuts fall into one of two varieties: yeast-raised -- including the classic glazed doughnut -- and unraised "cake."

When I lived in Atlanta, there was a Krispy Kreme on every corner. Contrary to what devotees may tell you, Krispy Kreme does not make the best doughnuts in the world. Except, well, for one thing: When the sign starts blinking "Hot Donuts Now," let nothing in the world prevent you from immediately pulling over for a couple of glazed. Hot Krispy Kremes are sublime, so airy that each bite dissolves in your mouth with a puff of yeasty sugar. They go down so easily, it's like drinking a donut.

When I lived in Boston, there was a Dunkin' Donuts on every block. There are just two things to remember when it comes to Dunkies -- the coffee isn't nearly as good as they claim, and the donuts are rarely made in the storefront. Yep, the "time to make the donuts" guy now punches a clock in a regional baking facility with a bunch of other sleepy factory workers; product is then shipped out to local branches. The results aren't necessarily bad, but they aren't especially good, either. You might as well buy a Red Bull and Snickers at the quickie mart.

Dunkies has invaded the Bay area over the last decade, taking over local joints with abandon. When I started calling independent donut shops, more than half of the places on my list answered with the same, chilling refrain: "Dunkin' Donuts. Can I help you?" Uh, no thanks.

Yeah, that's not for me. Only the local joints, worked by individuals who put their own special touches into every batch, every morning, six or seven days a week, can satisfy people who truly pay attention to these holy pastries. Here's a rundown of the Bay area's few surviving independent donut shops.

Lighthouse Donuts 4 stars
215 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach, 727-517-8722, 6 a.m.-1 p.m. daily.

Unless you live out near the beach, or are heading for an early tanning session, Lighthouse is a bit out of most people's way. Make it a destination.

Shoehorned into an old wooden house, Lighthouse has been making fresh donuts for over eight years. You can sit inside, which can get cramped when the joint is jumping, or take the newspaper, coffee and pastry out to the covered wooden deck at the back of the parking lot. Even better, grab a dozen and head across the street to the beach. It'll remind you why you live in Florida.

That was Matthew and Janice McGarry's point when they opened the shop. After 20 years in rubber hose manufacturing and sales -- and another few renting beach cottages -- Matthew got tired of walking a mile in the morning for a cup of gas station coffee. In his youth, he'd cooked donuts as a summer job. Now, he caters to Indian Rocks Beach locals, with prices geared more toward daily working folk than beach-going tourists.

Although I might ask for a little more lift in Lighthouse's raised donuts, the pillowy-soft texture is nigh perfect, and each bite comes with a noticeable waft of yeast. The cake-style donuts are even better, crumbly but moist, soft but hefty. You can tell that the McGarrys aren't into assembly-line donut manufacturing, as most batches show signs of little imperfections that make them all the better: an extra-thick layer of glaze here, some folds and creases that crinkle from the fry there, and darker surface caramelization across the board. They look, and taste, loved.

You'll love 'em when you eat them, too. All the donuts are worth it, but the best are the earthy and dark double chocolate and the plain glazed. Lighthouse also makes some of the best coffee I've had at a neighborhood donut joint, along with store-made breads and bagels.

Nicola's 4 stars
902 W. Busch Blvd., Tampa, 813-932-1303 or nicolasdonuts.com, 5:30 a.m.-noon daily.

The most important piece of information you need about Nicola's is to ignore the hours posted on the door. Open until noon? Unlikely. The fine folk at Nicola's close the doors when they run out of donuts, which they do just about every day of the week, often by 10 a.m. or earlier. If you need a dozen without fail, either head out before 8 a.m. or call the day before -- up until 10 p.m. -- and leave a message with your order.

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