Pizza places getting fired up for pricy pies

By Richard Mullins, Published: March 28, 2012 

Yolanda DeVesta gets a bit emotional talking about pizza.

“My husband is authentic Italian, and this — this is the kind of pizza he would make,” DeVesta says, pointing to an empty plate that once contained her lunch at Pizzaiolo Bavaro downtown. “They use fresh basil, fresh cheese, sauce from scratch. It melts in your mouth — there’s just no way to compare this to something like, like a Dominos.”

Pizzaiolo Bavaro opened three years ago after shipping a van-sized stone oven from Italy and making it the centerpiece of its Franklin Street location. Now, a rush of upper-tiered pizza restaurants are flooding the Tampa market.

Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza will open a third location today in Tampa, following the openings of Pizza Fusion, YourPie, Mellow Mushroom and Wood Fired Pizza — all focusing on especially authentic, gourmet pizzas, and hoping to do for pizza what Five Guys did for burgers.

That is, elevate an iconic meal for customers who are craving more local, organic and authentic options.

Sure, the U.S. market has hundreds of thousands of pizza restaurants, but “outside of Chicago or New York, I’m not sure how many people know what really, really good pizza is,” said Darren Tristano, a restaurant expert with Chicago market researcher Technomic.

“For a lot of people, Pizza Hut or Dominos is what they think pizza tastes like.”

That creates a huge opportunity, Tristano said, for gourmet pizza joints to attract a crowd of affluent and younger eaters who are willing to spend more.

Some gourmet pizzas in town can cost $20, compared with budget deals at chain operations offering two mediums for $15 — with delivery.

“This is like the success of Bonefish versus Red Lobster,” Tristano said, referring to the two seafood chains. “A step above in quality that addresses this big, unmet need.”

Still, fast expansion and franchising isn’t easily done with artisan pizza.

Ask operators of these restaurants their secret, and they will say it’s a technique that takes years to master because there are so many variables.

Compared with a major chain that ships a stock kit of ingredients to local restaurants, artisan pizza shops adjust every ingredient along the way.

Bavaro imported wood from Estonia for six months before finding a steady, quality source of oak in Florida with just the right 7 percent moisture content for his oven.

Wood must burn hot, but also create the right flame to crisp the toppings. Still, the temperature can vary between 800 and 900 degrees, and the pizza maker must adjust accordingly.

It can take years to learn how to perfectly stretch the dough — not too thin — and measure the doneness of pizzas by eyeball. Not to mention how to pace the flow of new wood into the oven based on how many pizzas are coming out.

Even the strain of yeast, the variety of flour, the type of salt, and the mineral makeup of water make a difference.

“You can take a guy who’s been making pizza 20 years, and you put him in front of one of these ovens, and he won’t be able to do it,” said Anthony Bruno, founder of Pompano Beach-based Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza.

“Every day, the oven is different, different temperatures. You need someone who knows how to clean it, load it, work the pizza, everything.”

Bruno recruited longtime friend and former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino as a business partner for what is now an operation with 33 locations. Marino may be famous for losing weight through the Nutrisystem program, but he’s a big gourmet pizza fan, too.

“These are a much crisper base pizza,” Marino said Tuesday at the opening of the South Tampa Anthony’s. “We do sell a lot of salads here, and they’re in the Nutrisystem. But some days, you need a pizza.”

Master pizza maker Peter Taylor of Wood Fired Pizza in Tampa so thoroughly dedicated himself to making pizza, it became an all-consuming obsession.

After several years in operation in New Tampa, he is the only one who he trusts to handle the oven, and only this year did he open another location — in downtown St. Petersburg.

YourPie is trying an approach that blends the flavor of artisan pizza with the simplicity of Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Customers walk past a large menu, pick their dough type, pick a pizza or calzone, and then talk with a pizza maker to add toppings. By the time customers pay at the register and pick up a self-serve drink, the pizzas are cooked and brought to the table.

That’s within an overall pizza market with a $30 billion annual revenue that’s basically flat, Tristano said, with major operators either slashing prices to maintain growth, adding chicken wings and chocolate chip cookies to offer more options, or creating their own artisanal pizzas.

“On one hand, you have people who say they can sit in front of their monster plasma screen and order a pizza for delivery,” Tristano said.

“But for a growing part of the market, that’s just not going to be the same as getting a really good pizza.” © Copyright 2012 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC. A Media General company.

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