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8 pizzerias in Ybor? That's a lot of cheese

There are even more if you count places that just dabble. The big question: Is there enough dough to go around?

By RON MATUS
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 5, 2002


YBOR CITY -- On Seventh Avenue, cigars are king. But there's a contender for the crown.

Pizza.

Quietly, pizza joints have become as defining a presence on Seventh as dance clubs, tattoo parlors and hand-rolled stogies.

Pizzerias now rival cigar stores in number.

The upstarts "think they'll get a piece of the pie," figures Johnny Redderson, owner of Johnny's, one of the older pizza joints.

Not his pie.

"We got the best," he asserts.

Of course, that's what they all say.

"The people say we have a better product," says a shrugging Alex Torozi, co-owner of La Pizzeria.

Pizza isn't unexpected in Ybor. Italian roots run deep here, right next to the ones from Cuba and Spain.

But this? Pizza madness.

Earlier this year, La Pizzeria and Francesco's Pizzeria Rustica opened, bringing to eight the total number of places where pizza is foremost on the menu. At least four other venues offer pizza as part of the mix.

Cheese and dough await visitors at every turn.

There's the simple window concession in front of the Italian Club building, where pizza man Oscar Gesses makes the choice easy: cheese or pepperoni?

There's Bernini, where those with discriminating taste buds can get, say, apple bacon pizza with "smoked tomato sauce and a duo of cheeses."

And there's plenty in between, including a Margarita pizza at Johnny's and a Mafia pizza at La Pizzeria.

At Demmi's, you get what owner Gino Iavarone calls "the original cheese."

At least six Ybor businesses offer pizza by the slice.

For many, business peaks between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., when clubs are cranking and partiers are scouting for food.

The masses need munchies.

"Pizza is good with beer," Iavarone says.

He encourages anyone overdoing it on the strip to sit in his place and eat while they sober up.

"Two dollars per slice," he says. "And mine's the biggest."

Pizza guys all say that, too.

Iavarone's grandfather opened nearby Carmine's in 1946. Demi's has been at its current spot since 1993.

Iavarone dismisses any notions about business being undercut by the competition.

"Maybe if your pizza isn't the best," he says.

More than 10,000 people flock to Seventh Avenue on a typical weekend, Ybor officials say.

Enough to support eight pizza places?

"Time will tell," says Annette DeLisle, president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.

Every joint has its hard-core faithful.

At Francesco's, chef and manager Maximas Fresa says he made his first pizza at his grandfather's side at age 6.

Marvin and Tonda Clark of Temple Terrace approve.

"We were going to Orlando for pizza," Tonda Clark says, tearing into a shimmering pepperoni-and-sausage pie.

Down the street, Mart Raag and his wife, Jill Fischerkeller, polish off a couple of slices at Demmi's.

"This is where you come," Raag says with a discerning sniff, "when you actually care about the pizza you eat."

Ybor and pizza may have Italian ties. But that's not to say Italians dominate the business.

Iavarone is Italian. So is Torozi.

But Redderson? German. "We're the best bakers," he says.

All the pizza guys say that.

Gesses is from Ethiopia.

"Anybody can make pizza," he says.

And in Ybor these days, everybody eats it.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

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