Pan Handle Pizza

Pizza Today visits the Florida panhandle for a fun-in-the-sun tour of pizzerias

JOEY’S ON THE BEACH

In March, thousands of college students and families alike flee colder climes to enjoy Spring Break on the Florida panhandle. We decided to do the same and check out the pizza scene in Panama City Beach and nearby Destin. This is what we found…

We started our quest at Joey’s on the Beach. This is your typical, unassuming pizzeria that fills the need of hungry locals with pale-crusted, foldable slices and pastas. With a New York ambiance inside and a large-yet-simple menu, Joey’s 14- and 18-inch pizzas are characteristic of what you’d find in owner Joey Di Meglio’s
native borough — Bronx, New York.

SWEET BASIL’S

Sweet Basil’s has been an area staple for more than two decades. It has maintained its status amongst locals since opening in 1988 by offering Italian comfort foods in a value-conscious family setting.

The menu here covers both northern and southern Italian favorites, ranging from seafood dishes (Shrimp and Scallop Alfredo, Blackened Talapia) to baked ziti and lasagna. The pizza is no-frills and traditional, a common theme that we quickly discovered runs throughout the entire panhandle. It’s offered in 10- and 14-inch sizes, which encourages add-on sales in the form of salads and appetizers.

One Yelp! reviewer summarized his thoughts on Sweet Basil’s like this:
“Excellent choice for fast, tasty Italian fare at the beach at a price all can afford.” The reviewer went on to describe the restaurant as “kid friendly” and claimed the pizza to be “first rate.”
Another said his “kids will always remember it as one of their favorite Italian restaurants.”
Reviews like that are what help keep a business open for 24 years!

SALVATORE’S PIZZA & WINGS

A native of Buffalo, New York, Ken Siters knows a thing or two about pizza and wings. That’s why he doesn’t take shortcuts at his eatery, Salvatore’s, which is quietly tucked away in a strip center just off of Panama City Beach’s main oceanfront drag. From house-made sauces and dressings to wings that are never frozen, Siters takes his fare seriously. And customers notice.

“A huge chunk of our business comes over Spring Break. Those few weeks in March are just crazy,” Siters says. “We’re grateful for the business, but glad by the end of March when things slow down. All the drunk customers start to wear you down a little bit!”

All joking aside, Salvatore’s gets its fair share of tourists due to the beach proximity. But when we where there half the dining room was stocked with lunching locals — and that was a sign to us that this place does pizza the right way.

FAT CLEMENZA’S

We soon discovered that the owners and managers at Fat Clemenza’s were avid Pizza Today fans. It didn’t take long for us to love them right back!

Co-owner Dom Damiano says one of the things he most enjoys about running his parlor is the fact “that everyone thinks this is just a pizza place until they get here.”

Far more than pizza, Fat Clemenza’s is an artisan spot that showcases influences from the cuisines of Naples, Chicago and New Orleans. The wood-burning oven takes center stage and produces the ethereal, crunchy-yet-pillowy crust that made Neapolitan pizza legendary the world over. While the olive oils, tomatoes, sheet pasta and flour are imported from Italy, Fat Clemenza’s gets its sausage delivered from Chicago twice a week. The nod to New Orleans, explains Damiano, is less about ingredients and more about cooking technique.

The menu at Fat Clemenza’s features a mixture of antipasti, salads, sandwiches, pasta, calzones and dessert. But the pizza steals the show, and it’s nicely complemented with an array of Italian wines in various price ranges.

Then there’s “The Blackboard.” A salute to many great Chicago restaurants, the blackboard essentially features daily chef’s picks and specials — an ever-evolving extension of the core menu that keeps regulars (not to mention the kitchen crew!) from getting bored.

ISLAND PIZZA

Island Pizza takes what we call the “Subway Approach.” A bevy of ingredients await customers who want to build their own pizza. Simply walk down the line and take your pick. Or there’s a deep selection of pre-arranged pizza recipes from which to choose, each one artfully blending non-traditional and more pedestrian ingredients. A focus on freshness, invidual pizza sizes and attractive prices make this an ideal spot for nearby office professionals and Spring Breakers alike. The concept is designed to move customers in and out quickly without making them feel like they’re in a fast food restaurant — and it works. “Awesome stuff,” says Jeff Snelling, a University of Arkansas student we ran into while visiting Island Pizza. It was Snelling’s first Spring Break trip to Panama City Beach, but his second visit to the pizzeria in as many days. “I had the Fowl Play (a chicken pizza) yesterday and it was great, so I wanted to come back and try something different today. They’re 2-for-2 in my book. I might come back again tomorrow!”vis