Registry Tampa Bay

My favorite pizza is and always will be New York-style, but over the years I’ve come to like other types, with the notable exception of Detroit-style, which emphasizes the pie in pizza pie — by which I mean thick — and is most often served in rectangular pieces.

Along the way, I’ve come to appreciate pizza baked in a wood-fired oven. As it happens, I found two restaurants that use that cooking method a few doors down from each other on the north side of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg’s Edge District.

Bavaro’s Pizza Napoletana and Pastaria proudly serves authentic Neapolitan pizza, while the Pizza Box makes no such claim, but says on its website, “we cook with oak and smoke with cherry wood.” Same kind of oven, two different concepts.

BAVARO’S

It was a dark and stormy afternoon — that turned into a barely raining night. We arrived at Bavaro’s on Tuesday at 6:30, with the allegedly perilous storm system behind us.

Despite the weather, the place was moderately busy, but — unlike a lot of the converted industrial spaces in downtown St. Pete — it was not oppressively loud. In the back corner, a young man hustled pizzas in and out of the oven. I could see the flames within.

To go with my 12-inch Margherita ($16), I ordered the Italian Chopped Salad ($16) and a ginger ale ($3.50) with not too much ice, because I like to actually taste my soft drinks in restaurants.

Appearance

The soda had an elegantly arranged double layer of cubes. I wondered if our server, and effervescent woman whose name I didn’t get, had placed them in the glass by kid-gloved hand.

The salad was essentially an Italian Cobb, with rows of meats, cheeses and veggies over romaine lettuce. Solid, nothing fancy.

Likewise, the Margherita had the requisite earthy look, with the crust burnt in places and hefty dollops of mozzarella cheese blotting the pooled red sauce.

Texture and Taste

Like other Neapolitan pies I’ve had, this one was very crust-forward, more so than I prefer. I most enjoyed the first bites of each slice — the sweet, velvety tomato sauce mingling with the cheese and thin crust that was chewy, not crispy. The basil leaves added the occasional hint of sharpness, a welcome flavor dimension. On minor complaint: The pizza could’ve been hotter.

I ate a few bites of the bread-only crust from each slice, but soon moved on to the next. Everyone else in our party ate every last scrap of their pizza, while my plate contained a pile of end crusts.

The salad was solid, like it looked. The salami, strong and appropriately chewy, made the biggest taste imprint. The chicken, while gently seasoned, was chalky. My compliments to the house Italian dressing, which accented but did not overpower the (mostly) good stuff beneath it.

PIZZA BOX

Within 30 seconds I knew we were in for a vastly different experience than the one we had at Bavaro’s. The oven sat just inside the door, to the left of the long narrow space. The fire emitted a homey smell that I soon found out came from burning cherry wood.

The owners — Adam and Kelley, a couple — introduced themselves shortly after we entered. On Thursday at 4:30, and we were the only sit-down customers. I ambled over to the oven, where Adam explained some of the finer points, then grabbed a thermometer and thrust it into the oven, close to the fire. It read 706 degrees.

Kelly took our order and chatted with us. “We’re the ultimate mom ‘n’ pop,” she said with a cheery smile. Pizza Box had a bohemian, family vibe. We felt right at home.

We ordered a Large Margherita (14-inch, $21) and a Large Seasonal Salad ($14), and I got a can of Dr. Brown’s Root Beer ($2.50).

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Pizza Box was playing the weirdest music I ever recall hearing in a restaurant. Kelly showed me her phone — it was a psychedelic rock playlist on Spotify. I dug it, man.

Appearance

An extremely no-frills presentation. Paper plates, plastic utensils and cups. Because our table was small, Kelly placed the pizza tin on an empty sauce can. The salad was covered with “crushed crouton dust,” which I’d not seen before.

The pizza had a less voluminous crust than the Neapolitan pie at Bavaro’s, and it lacked the pronounced mozzarella rounds. There were way more basil leaves, too.

The pizza’s crust was about as thin as a saltine, and while it had a hint of crispiness, it was not crunchy. That’s a good thing, because pizza crust should not eat like a cracker. The blend of house-made tomato sauce, bolder than the competition’s, and mozzarella was well-congealed and sat firmly on the crust. Nothing slid onto the plate.

The slices were some of the thinnest I’ve ever had. The end crusts were airy and easy to chew, but I still left a pile of discards on my plate — which, by the way, was surprisingly free of grease spots.

Although I admired the salad’s creativity, especially the blend of greens (including kale) and generous portion of red onions, the house-made Caesar dressing was too heavy with anchovy for my liking. I couldn’t get past the saltiness.

And the Winner of the War of the Wood-Fired Pizzas Places (On the Same Block) Is …

Pizza Box.

This is actually a split decision of sorts. The pizzas, while considerably different, were a very close call, with the edge going to Pizza Box. Bavaro’s easily took salad honors.

I really liked the atmosphere in both places, but Pizza Box’s blend of quirkiness, conviviality and its DIY air won me over.

Ultimately the War of the Wood-Fired Pizzas set tradition against creativity. Both succeeded. I happened to prefer the artisan approach of Pizza Box. But I would gladly return to each of these places — and probably will. Just not in the same week. No customary takeout pizza for the Sniders tonight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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