Pizza’s one of those things with a culture around it. You know the fans––they’re typically the ones who have favorite pizzerias and swear there’s no better pizza anywhere. Pizza actually began as a lowly food in the 1700s in Naples, Italy. It was a quick, inexpensive option for the working poor, according to Carol Helstosky, associate professor of history and author of Pizza: A Global History. Now, it’s all about authenticity and how close a restaurant’s pizza comes to the original pies.
So, I checked out five pizzerias, some more known than others, to see what kind of pizza they’re serving up. The chosen five are locally owned and just a piece of the Ocala pie of pizzerias, but you’ll see that somehow these restaurants all offer a unique spin on what really is just dough, sauce and cheese. And maybe a few toppings.
Thin crust, hand tossed and cooked on a stone. That’s how the Yard’s pizza is made every time. It has a crispy outer edge, a soft inner layer and, ultimately, you won’t find yourself covered in crumbs at the end of your meal.
“Pizza to me is very personal,” says owner Tim Thomas. “Not all pizza is the same.”
He makes real Brooklyn-style pizza, though he’s not from Brooklyn. Tim grew up in Pennsylvania. His parents were in the fast-food business, and after college, Tim worked in chain restaurants. He left the restaurant world so he could support his wife and children, but he and Janice always had the dream of opening their own place when the kids were grown.
Six years ago, that time came. Tim and Janice bought out Brooklyn’s Original Pizzeria & Restaurant on NE 14th Street before moving to their current location.
“It was a good buy. We just needed to tweak it to make it our own,” Tim says.
Right in front of me sit four slices of fresh pizza. Although I would consider myself a pizza enthusiast, I wouldn’t say I’m a guru, because as Tim tells me more about the types of pizza staring me in the face, I realize a true aficionado would order the classic cheese pizza.
“To get the true flavor of a pizza, I believe you should eat cheese pizza. That’s the way to eat pizza,” Tim says, and apparently that’s what the connoisseurs do.
The thing is the truffle shuffle pizza puts a unique set of flavors together––grilled chicken, spinach, mushrooms, goat cheese, white truffle oil and garlic aioli––and then pulls it off in an extraordinary way. Janice dances out from the bar when we talk about this slice, saying, “We have a dance for it, too.” The truffle shuffle. Too bad it’s a joke––this pizza is worth celebrating.
The best part of Brooklyn’s pizza has to be the crust and the solid ratio of sauce to cheese. Tim kept the former restaurant’s pizza recipe, and he actually made the pizza for the first three years the restaurant was open. Why’s it so good?
“I only know one way [to make pizza], and that’s this way,” he says. “Our dough’s fresh. It’s consistent.”
Plus, they have a good pizza guy. And by pizza guy, I mean chef. Matt Hunter has been the man behind the pizza at Brooklyn’s for three and a half years.
“The first time I put my hands in the dough, I realized I didn’t want to do anything else,” he says. “You can’t put a price on doing something you love.”
Matt makes the dough fresh from scratch every day. He’ll make the first batch of dough around 9:15am and roll each ball. Then at 2pm, he’ll make a second batch. He makes all the pizza, flatbreads, strombolis and calzones, too. Now, Tim just fills in when needed.
2019 E Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala
Mike’s Italian Pizzeria and Ristorante
Maria and Lucia Mazza make Brooklyn-style pizza from their family’s recipe. Parents Mike and Lina grew up with the real deal in Italy, learning from their parents and taking it with them to Brooklyn.
“However they cooked at home, that’s what they brought here,” Lucia says. “We grew up in it––helped out with everything.”
If one thing is certain, it’s that these two women can cook. Lucia makes all the pizza, and Maria makes everything else. Sometimes their parents come in to help, but it all started as a pizzeria. They grew up in their parents’ first two restaurants: Valentino’s in Brooklyn and then Mike’s Pizzeria in Ocala where Amrit Palace is currently located. Then, Mike and Lina retired, so Maria, Lucia and their third sister, Angela, opened Mike’s Italian where Lakis Greek Restaurant stands today. Angela moved away to Boston after getting married, and Maria and Lucia moved the restaurant over to Peppertree Plaza on Baseline before finally settling in their current spot in the plaza at the corner of SE 36th Avenue and Maricamp Road.
In Brooklyn, the pizza served was thin-crust pizza with sauce and cheese, varying only slightly by the different family recipes at each pizzeria. To Maria and Lucia, that’s pizza. At Mike’s Italian, they do offer a five-topping pizza, though, and it’s been their most popular pizza lately. But they wouldn’t consider that their signature pizza.
“To me, the signature pizza is just the cheese pizza,” Maria laughs.
“You want to taste the dough, the sauce and the cheese,” Lucia adds.
Order a cheese pizza here, and you’ll get one of the best Brooklyn-style pizzas out there because that’s what they do. That’s what they’ve always done. Like them, their father believed in making everything fresh with quality ingredients. Their secret to this authentic pizza?
“Of course there is a little secret,” Lucia smiles. “But it’s a secret.”
They were one of the original pizza places in Ocala, and they’ve built a loyal customer base that’s loved the pizzeria for the 30 years it’s been around. If you’re a delivery pizza junkie like me, you’ll want to get in on theirs. They start taking delivery orders at 5pm.
Mike’s Italian Pizzeria and Ristorante
3535 SE Maricamp Rd., Ocala
Blue Highway, a pizzeria
Frank Ruffino has been in the restaurant business since the 1970s. He’s owned restaurants, worked for corporate restaurant companies, partnered with a restaurant in Miami, developed recipes, spent years as an executive chef and won awards. Put simply, he knows how to put ingredients together and run a restaurant.
After the dust of the corporate world and restaurant partnership settled, Frank and his wife, Winny, came back to Gainesville, where they had previously lived.
“We saw this little dumpy bar on 441,” Frank chuckles. “We thought, you know, it’s perfect.”
They ran the Micanopy bar for three months before renovating it and opening it as Blue Highway Pizza in April 2004. Frank says people kept telling him the place wouldn’t make it, but we all know that didn’t turn out to be the case. After five years, the Micanopy location was doing well serving pizza, sandwiches and salads, and Frank and Winny opened a second one in Tioga, just outside of Gainesville. Eventually, the Tioga location led to opening a third Blue Highway, the one here in Ocala.
“We were getting a lot of people from Ocala driving through to games,” Frank says.
The menu is the same here as the one in Tioga, and the atmosphere centers around family and friends. Frank comes from an Italian family, and he says whether good or bad, memories are made over food, and food is what brings family and friends together.
The margherita pizza sitting in front of me is a lunch-size pizza, and it’s the famous thin-crust pizza that originated in Italy––the red tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella balls and basil are the colors of the Italian flag. The dough is made with two different types of flours, water, sea salt, yeast and olive oil. It’s baked at high heat typically in a wood-burning oven. Blue Highway uses a deck oven instead, and that’s why Frank calls their pizza Neapolitan-style pizza. Their food truck, the Federal, does have a wood-burning oven for these pizzas, though.
“All our dough is hand-tossed. All our ingredients are fresh,” Frank says. “A little work goes a long way.”
Making the dough is a two-day process here. Once it’s made, it’s allowed to rest for 24 hours to let the yeast develop flavor. When I taste the pizza, what sticks out the most is the flavor of the crispy crust complemented by the basil. The time and effort taken to create this pizza truly pays off in flavor, and it’s one of their best sellers along with the Carne Combo meat pizza and the Abruzzese pizza with homemade meatballs.
Blue Highway, a pizzeria
2130 E Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala
#1 New York Pizza
About 17 miles from Ocala’s downtown in a Marion Oaks plaza, there’s a small pizza joint with a sign that reads #1 New York Pizza. Several tables fit in the small, open area in front of the walk-up counter, and digital menu boards hang from the ceiling, displaying all kinds of pizza, Italian cuisine, gyros, calzones, subs and more. Back in the kitchen behind the counter, owner Orlando Sinning yells a cheerful, “Hey there!” to customers, and a girl behind the counter takes orders.
Orlando is originally from Columbia, but he lived in Queens, New York, for 17 years. That’s where pizza began for him.
“I learned from Italian people, from the best,” he says.
From pizzeria to pizzeria he went, until he made the move to Ocala in 2004 without plans to open one of his own. Orlando kept noticing the then-empty space in the plaza where his pizzeria is currently located. He and his present partner got together and filled that empty space in 2005.
“I love it. This is my passion,” Orlando says, and from his energy and excitement, you can tell he loves what he does. “We are like a family in this community.”
He speaks to a couple who has been coming to his pizzeria for 11 years. This couple recommends the pepperoni pizza, and Orlando’s favorite is the meat lovers pizza. But the most popular pizza here? The cheese pizza.
Orlando makes most of the pizza here, too. He’s the only one in the kitchen that day, and he has pans of pizza dough stacked and ready to go. He bounces from one ingredient to another, bringing out bread and opening the freezer to show the high-quality Bacio cheese he uses.
“Everything is from New York,” he says. “Everything is homemade, even the pizza sauce.”
Orlando makes thin and regular crust New York-style pizza. He believes the pizza in New York is so good because of higher quality water there. He uses spring water here, and, whatever he may be lacking in water quality, he makes up for in the way he makes his pizza.
“When I make something, I try to give you my best,” Orlando says. “The secret is love and patience.”
One slice of pepperoni pizza is huge here––you know, the kind you need to fold in half to eat. The crust is thin and crispy throughout, so it cracks a bit when the slice is folded. There’s just enough sauce and cheese, and seven round pepperonis across the top. A bite of this pizza lends something delicious in the aftertaste. It’s almost sweet.
Orlando offers all kinds of pizza––white, supreme, Mexican, Mediterranean, meat lovers, Hawaiian and more––but I’m sure it doesn’t get much better than that slice of pepperoni.
#1 New York Pizza
184 Marion Oaks Blvd., Unit H, Ocala
Behind this delicious and successful pizzeria is a 32 year old who’s been making pizza since he was 15. John Landolfi’s restaurant career began as a dishwasher at Big Apple Pizza in Port St. Lucie. He was 14 years old then, but it wasn’t long before he was learning to make pizza.
“I love making pizza. Pizza’s very easy for me,” John says.
And 11 years ago, John’s mom told him that the pizza in this area really wasn’t that good. (Thanks?) So, she asked him if he would move up here and open a pizzeria with her. He did, and their first Pavarotti’s location opened in Dunnellon. After a few years, John opened a second Pavarotti’s in Canopy Oaks Plaza near On Top Of The World. He’s been the sole owner there for seven years now, serving huge slices of New York-style pizza to an expanding crowd.
John grew up in New Jersey before moving to South Florida and later to Ocala, and he describes the pizza in New York as sometimes so crisp that it’s almost burnt on the bottom. His pizzas aren’t burnt, though, and the crispness of the crust really depends on the cooking and cooling.
What makes his pizza so good?
“It all depends on the flour and cheese you use,” he says. “We make our own dough every morning.”
And he uses his own pizza recipe, too. Sure, he learned to make pizza from different pizzerias in the past, but he made the pizza at Pavarotti’s his own. He uses fresh, quality ingredients and orders top-of-the-line Grande cheese––he says it’s “the Ferrari of cheese.” The sauce is handmade, and the pizzas are cooked in a brick oven and come out with a thin, crispy crust. Each slice is so big you might be tempted to use a fork and knife, but John laughs and says his grandmother always found that unacceptable when it came to pizza.
He places one of these huge slices in front of me. It’s a cheese pizza, slightly crispy on the outside and a bit softer on the inside. There’s a thick cheese layer and a thinner sauce layer below. What’s nice about this pizza is that there’s no grease left behind on my hands. John doesn’t put sugar in the dough or the sauce, but you wouldn’t sense anything was missing. Instead, you might wonder what the secret ingredient is.
Next out is a slice of pepperoni pizza.
“A little crispier so it’s a little better, right?” he asks when I’m almost done with it, and I think I agree.
There’s a nice crunch with eat bite. It’s larger in size and crispy enough to fold with just a small crack appearing at the back. Although there’s Create-Your-Own, Veggie, Meat Lovers, the Works and more types of pizza listed on the menu, John says the pepperoni is his favorite. And I’m starting to catch on to this whole pizza-culture thing. The flavor of the pizza I just ate would have been disguised by several toppings.
8075 SW Hwy 200, Suite 101, Ocala