By Jerome R. Stockfisch | Tribune Staff

Pie Five is planning to open 20 restaurants in the Tampa Bay area. Pie Five’s artisan pizzas are created and served in under five minutes. Provided by Pie Five.

Russo’s New York Pizzeria has more than 30 restaurants with a huge presence in Texas. This one is in Spring, Texas. Provided by Anthony Russo.

Anthony Russo displays one of his pizzas. His Russo’s New York Pizzeria has signed a five-unit developmental deal for locations across Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Photo provided by Anthony Russo

TAMPA – We don’t have a Little Italy, and this area doesn’t merit mention in the great New York-Chicago Pizza Debate.

Nonetheless, a trio of pizza makers have set their sights on major expansions in the Tampa Bay area. Bavaro’s Pizza Napoletana & Pastaria, Russo’s New York Pizzaria and Pie Five Pizza Co. have all recently announced plans for new restaurants here this year.

“I think the culinary scene has changed a lot since we opened the restaurant,” said Dan Bavaro, who launched his flagship at the corner of Franklin and Twiggs streets in downtown Tampa in 2009.

“We opened and nobody knew the Neapolitan style. We were getting yelled at for the first 60 days: ‘What is this? I can’t get a slice? I have to buy a whole pie?’ It was a horror show,” Bavaro said. “I told my wife, ‘This is kind of scary.’ But then the patrons just started to adapt to it, and now that more pizza concepts and foodie concepts in general have opened over the last seven years, it’s like the palate has changed. We have a big following.”

Big enough to have opened a second restaurant in Winter Springs near Orlando last summer, with a third to come in April in downtown St. Petersburg. Another Tampa site is planned for May, a Bavaro’s opens in Tampa International Airport in August, a second will come to the Orlando area in September and sites are under consideration in Ocala.

Before he opened the first restaurant, Bavaro traveled to Italy to learn the art of the Neapolitan from third-generation family bakers. The restaurants feature wood-fired brick ovens imported from Naples.

“I wanted to do something original, but something that had tradition to it,” he said. “So we dialed back to 1830, and we’re creating the pizza the same way they did then.”

A pair of Texas-based chains are also getting in on the Tampa Bay pizza action.

Pie Five Pizza Co., a leading brand in the rapidly growing fast-casual pizza space, has signed a development deal to bring up to 20 new restaurants to the Bay area.

“I’d say that in the last five to eight years, Tampa looks like it is experiencing the type of growth that would lend itself to our type of venture,” said Jeffrey Parker, franchise development partner with DP5 Investments. “You’ve got good demographics, places that are going through what I’d call urban renewal, suburban areas really showing significant growth.”

Pie Five offers individual artisan pizzas that take less than five minutes from order to first bite. Customers choose combinations of toppings, and there are also handmade salads.

“I think that as this technology has developed, especially with Pie Five and the faster ovens, people like the idea of getting an individual pizza,” Parker said. “Before, you’d have to get several people to agree what the pizza’s going to taste like, order, and then wait 15 minutes. I’m an anchovy lover. You can’t get a pizza with half anchovies. It spills across the center line. This way, I can get what I want, the kids can get what they want, and everybody’s happy.”

First introduced in the Dallas area in 2011, Pie Five now has more than 80 locations in 24 states and the District of Columbia. It has more than 400 franchised and company-owned units under contract, including 28 in South Florida.

When discussing the Tampa Bay market, Anthony Russo, founder of Russo’s New York Pizzeria, gets downright boastful.

“We need good-tasting New York-style pizza in that market,” the New Jersey native said. “We need real pizza. The real deal! Our stuff is made from scratch. It’s all family recipes. It’s true Italian New York-style pizza, and the Florida market really needs it.”

Russo called the demographic profile of the Tampa Bay area “perfect,” especially due to former East Coast residents settling here.

“There’s a lot of people that live in that market who miss the good food you get in New York, they miss that little mom-and-pop place where you can get pizza and pasta in one place,” he said.

Russo opened the first New York Pizzeria in Houston in 1992. Today, he has more than 30 locations from Hawaii to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with most in Texas. He signed a five-unit development deal for locations in SoHo in Tampa, downtown St. Petersburg and the Clearwater Mall, with two more sites to be determined.

Is there room for all this dough, sauce and toppings in the same market? Russo said he’s not concerned about competition, especially from all the new growth. Pie Five, Bavaro’s and his own mom-and-pop upscale Italian are targeting different audiences.

Pie Five’s Parker concurs.

“We see a lot of other corporations – not necessarily food-related – that are expanding into that market, as well,” he said. “We’re going to go where the people are going.”

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