Pizza is unpretentious. In its simplest form, a doughy crust is layered with seasoned tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese and baked in an oven at a high temperature. It is perfectly comfortable on a paper plate and can be washed down with anything from water to wine. But when you dress it up with fancy toppings or cheese, perhaps playing with the thickness and composition of the crust while you’re at it, pizza takes on a posh new life.
Recently, some of Sarasota’s best restaurants have been creating their own upscale variations of the popular treat. Pizza no longer needs to be ordered over glass-topped counters in unassuming little eateries or delivered in a cardboard container to your doorstep; now you can have it served on a silver platter as part of a gourmet dining experience.
Ever abreast of culinary trends—and ever-eager to get our fair share of new treats—we cooked up a contest to find the best gourmet pizza in Sarasota. We decided to concentrate on restaurants known for consistency and quality, where patrons spend time enjoying their meal; and after polling a number of passionate foodies, we settled on five places whose pizzas are making a name for themselves and asked them to prepare their signature pie for our panel of judges. Then we blocked out three hours one balmy afternoon and, with the help of Longboat Limousine (top-drawer pizza deserves top-drawer transportation, after all), descended upon each restaurant, where our panelists had 30 minutes to eat and render their verdict.
Each judge was eminently qualified to do just that. John Bancroft, our food and wine editor, is a longtime restaurant critic who used to choose the prestigious Golden Spoon winners for the former Arizona Trend magazine; now he writes our food and wine reviews, dining anonymously around town. His wife, Colette, book editor of the St. Petersburg Times, is also a former restaurant critic. Mark Famiglio is best known as CEO of Sarasota-based Copytalk and for his philanthropic support of all sorts of local causes, but he’s also a lifelong pizza expert—his Roman grandmother taught him to make his first one when he was four years old. His wife, Jennie, an attorney and soon-to-be mother of twin girls, insists “there’s no such thing as bad pizza,” but proved adept at separating the good from the great. Chef Judi Gallagher, Sarasota’s contributing food and wine editor, has owned restaurants, consults for local and national restaurateurs, and blogs about the best in local food and drink for her “Foodie’s Notebook” at sarasotamagazine.com. And as the magazine’s copy editor and the writer of this story, I was an enthusiastic taster but refrained from scoring any of the entries.
We began the tasting at 5-One-6 Burns. Each judge looked appropriately excited and hungry as we gathered around the cozy bar, pens poised over scorecards. Owner Max Burke-Phillips greeted everyone, passing out menus and pouring glasses of water, while pizza chef Anna Norman swiftly prepared the first pie of the afternoon and tended the wood-burning oven in the background. “She’s like a painter,” Judi remarked, as Anna arranged the toppings—tomato sauce, mozzarella, capicollo ham, roasted peppers, onion and arugula pesto—on the canvas of homemade dough.
Before long, we were biting into our first pizza of the afternoon. John Bancroft loved the thin, crispy crust, proclaiming deep-dish pizza “a wretched thing.” His wife, Colette, enjoyed the woody taste that the oven gave the dough and the complexity of the flavors, but Mark Famiglio thought that the pizza was “a little bland” and needed a bit of garlic to fully round out the flavors.
We could have spent the rest of the afternoon in that intimate, friendly atmosphere, but we pulled ourselves off the bar stools and headed to our second tasting, at Caragiulo’s on Palm Avenue. When we arrived, a table—complete with trays of colorful peppers, cheese and olives—had already been set, and the judges (except mother-to-be-Jennie) happily accepted the wine that the server poured, toasting to the slices to come.
Soon after, the pie—a “glorified bianca,” according to co-owner Mark Caragiulo—arrived, and chatter turned to blissful silence as we dug in. Jennie thought the pizza, which was topped with house-made mozzarella, pancetta, garlicky ricotta cheese, cherry tomatoes and a leafy bed of arugula with Parmesan cheese, was “delicious, savory and hearty.” Judi declared it outstanding. “It conjures up memories of a New York-style pizza joint,” she enthused. “This is a damn good pizza.” John, however, deemed the pizza “way too salty” and thought that the arugula looked nice, but added little to the overall flavor of the pizza. “It gilded the lily pad,” he said. But everybody agreed that the glasses of limoncello that followed the pizza made for a fabulous finale.
The next tasting was at Mediterraneo on upper Main Street. Even after two slices of pizza and the appetizers and drinks at Caragiulo’s, we still had plenty of spring in our step as we bounded out of the limo and into the bar, where we watched Bruno Argiolas, a third-generation pizza chef from Sardinia, Italy, create our next meal. The wood-burning oven bathed the bar in a warm glow as Mediterraneo’s general manger, Ernesto De Oliveira, listed the toppings: red tomato sauce; mozzarella cheese; bresaola, an air-dried Italian beef similar to filet mignon; and arugula. Just before the pizza was pulled from the oven, Bruno asked the judges whether they preferred a crispy or regular crust. “How about one of each?” Jennie asked, and Bruno obliged with a big smile.
“This is real Italian flour that has been treated respectfully by real Italians,” Mark declared after just one bite. Colette loved the air-dried beef, adding that the understated sauce let the other ingredients shine; and Judi agreed with her assessment of the sauce. She also appreciated that her slice folded nicely. “I love pizza out of a wood-burning oven,” she said. “Cornmeal doesn’t need to be used to dust the dough, so the pizza’s integrity is maintained.”
Next it was off to Zoria, where we sank into red leather couches in the lobby. While glasses of red wine were poured, we engaged in idle pizza talk. As Mark described the merits of the ubiquitous dish, he became almost euphoric. “I would name my children after pizza!” he exclaimed. Jennie looked a little alarmed, but the other judges laughed, suggesting names like “Arugula” or “Mozzarella” for his twin girls. “The carbs are getting to you!” Judi teased.
Zoria’s approach to pizza is to bake toppings on a flatbread crust rather than the traditional yeasty dough. We tasted a “classico” topped with tomato, basil and mozzarella. Colette applauded the creamy, pure flavor of the cheese. “This [pizza] is not a new idea, but it’s beautifully executed,” she said. John echoed those sentiments, calling the dough “thin, crisp and flavorful. You can’t go wrong with this minimalist approach.” Judi noted that the cheeses had “great balance”—none of them overpowered the others—but, unlike John, she didn’t like the chewy dough. And Jennie loved the overall taste and texture and the “wonderful sweetness” of the mozzarella cheese.
It was hard to peel ourselves off those comfortable couches, but we still had still one stop left: Cosimo’s Brick Oven in the Westfield Southgate mall. Owners John and Susie Ganley seated us around a long table and regaled us with facts about the number of pizzas Cosimo’s sold last year: “Fifteen thousand margheritas, 3,500 quattro formaggis and 4,500 spinach and bacon pizzas,” John boasted. We tasted the quattro formaggi—a white pizza with mozzarella, fontina, Parmigiano and gorgonzola cheeses topped with diced tomato—and the rich, salty flavor evoked moans of delight almost immediately. “The flavors of all four cheeses are distinct, but they blend together beautifully,” Jennie said. “The ingredients are fresh and flavorful.”
Colette noted that the pizza was rich but not overdone. “Sumptuous. Rich. Wonderful,” were the only words her happy husband could manage; and Mark declared the crust “perfect,” the cheese “just right,” and the pizza as a whole “charismatic and loyal to its roots.” After finishing our slices, we lingered around the table for a few minutes before heading back to the waiting limo—but not before Mark and Jennie bought everyone ice cream from Big Olaf Creamery, conveniently located directly across from Cosimo’s. “You have to end the evening with something sweet!” Jennie said.
And the winner of our pizza competition? After three hours, five restaurants, five superb slices, two glasses of wine, a limoncello and a big scoop of ice cream, the judges’ decision was made: Cosimo’s quattro formaggi is the king of Sarasota pizza, followed closely by Mediterraneo and Zoria. However, everyone agreed that each pizza was delicious, that the ultimate decision was tough, and that Sarasota pizza lovers are the real winners because of all the fantastic options we have. Bravo!
Do you have a favorite Sarasota gourmet pizza that was not included in our judging? Please go to this story at sarasotamagazine.com and post your nominations for the People’s Choice gourmet pizza.
Bits and Pizzas
All about the pie.
–The food commonly known as pizza was born in Naples, Italy, after poor Neapolitan citizens began adding tomatoes to their yeast-based flatbread. By the mid-18th century, however, the snack had gained popularity and was sold in open-air stands by street vendors.
–The first Italian pizzeria is believed to be Pizzeria Da Michele, founded in 1870. Lombardi’s—generally touted as the first American pizzeria—opened its doors in Manhattan in 1905. The original Lombardi’s closed in 1984, but was reopened in 1994 by founder Genero Lombardi’s grandson.
–Many pizza chefs prefer wood-burning ovens over gas ones, because wood adds flavor to the dough as it bakes. John Ganley, who owns Cosimo’s Brick Oven with his wife, Susie, extols the virtue of the restaurant’s wood-burning brick oven. “We’ve used it since the day we opened in 1988,” he says. “Instead of cooking with an odorless flavorless material like gas, you’re using wood, which adds flavor. That’s important.”
–When it comes pairing appetizers and wine with antipasto, Rob Caragiulo, co-owner of Caragiulo’s, says you have all sorts of choices. “It really depends on the pizza,” he says. “A clean, white wine would pair well with a white pizza, for example, which would pick up on the wine’s lighter notes.” And as far as appetizers, or antipasti, his rule is simple: “You want to light up all the senses” in preparation for the pizza to come.