Friday, March 29, 2013

Divinely Inspired: Mazzaro's

Forgive this lengthy post, but Mazzaro's is the only place in the Tampa Bay area that gets me as fired up about food as my favorite stomping grounds in Atlanta. Could it be the hustle and bustle, the selection of imported wines, cheeses and meats, and the freshly prepared breads and pastries? Perhaps it's the handmade pasta or mozzarella cheese that's so fresh it's still warm when you put it into your basket. How about the old guy who serenades diners on the patio while strumming Italian tunes? Or the inexplicable church-sized statuary, pope photos and saint tributes adorning the display of tea? Look above the coffee bar and there's the Infant of Prague positioned next to a photo of the Mona Lisa. Oh yes, things definitely are out of this world at Mazzaro's!

It's all good at Mazzaro's.

I could kick myself for not checking out Mazzaro's sooner. My first trip to this colorful Italian market took place in November and I think I have made the 45-minute drive to St. Pete every week since. I'll be darned if I can figure out the joint, though. It must have been a church at some point, but I am having a hard time getting an answer to that question. A cashier told us that the owner simply designed it to look like a church. Really?

I am confounded further by the warehouse of statuary adjacent to the property (that in some way seems to be linked to Mazzaro's) and by the cute, hand-painted minicars in the vast parking lot, where on several occasions I have seen customers posing for photos.

I'd like a pig and some horns on my car.

This is one intriguing business -- and one popular attraction! It almost always has a crowd. As a lady remarked to me one Saturday as we waited for our sandwiches in a line of about 50 people, "This is not a place you want to go when you're in a cranky mood."

With that sage advice in mind, join me as I elbow my way past everyone at the deli counter to snag a number, which is essential for placing an order.

The sandwich counter - Put on your Big City panties and assert yourself!

The ordering process doesn't take long, so have an idea of what you want by surveying the menu boards hanging high on the wall behind the deli cases. Keep your number handy because now you simply wait for them to holler when your food is ready. This can take several minutes. Remember, kids, patience is a virtue!

Once you have your precious meal in hand, a few sit-down options present themselves: You can head to the breezy, covered patio; perch yourself on a stool at the coffee bar if you're lucky enough to land a seat; or picnic on the grounds at one of several outside tables. A few drink fridges positioned throughout the store provide ample choices of soft drinks, beer or a million other beverages to accompany your meal. Feel like a little vino? Stop in the wine room and an expert will suggest a bottle from an impressive, fairly priced selection.

Patio dining - Pay at the outside register before taking a seat.

Statuary abounds.

Choose from an assortment of salads at the deli counter and from knock-your-socks-off cookies, homemade gelato, cakes and pastries at the bakery counter.

Bakery counter - Get the Kalamata Olive Bread if they have it.
(They only make it three times a week.) 

Believe me, though, if you're getting a sandwich you won't need much else. Portions here also fall into the other-worldly category.

Oh boy! A Hot Italian - Hard for this red-blooded American girl to resist.

High on my list of favorite sandwiches are the Hot Italian, the Muffuletta and the Reuben. The Hot Italian was recommended to me by an elderly patron as I sat at the coffee bar savoring a pumpkin napoleon last fall. A grilled Italian sub roll stuffed with charred ham, salami, pepperoni, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion and banana peppers, the Hot Italian is doused with a spicy Italian dressing, and it is one hot mess. The bread gets soaked, but the roll has enough structure to withstand the deluge of sauce. I have never had anything like this 10-napkin extravaganza. Warning: Do not try eating this while driving!

The Muffuletta features the same terrific cold cuts but with the addition of mortadella, onion and the traditional layer of olive salad. Roasted red peppers are thrown in for good measure. All components are exceptional and deliciously salty.

Beautifully grilled, the Reuben contains the usual suspects: sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, corned beef and thousand island dressing. They stack it to the gills, enough so that when I ordered, the lady at the counter asked if I was splitting it with someone. Ha! They'd have to fight me for it! Reubens can be too dry or too wet, too full of dressing or too greasy, too salty or too fatty, but not this one. This Reuben fires on all cylinders.

The Food and Loathing family also has sampled the Meatball Sub and Italian Sausage and Peppers Sub.

Meatball - Have your Tide stain stick handy.

Hubmeister consumed what had to have been an entire pound of ground meat, but it was more like smashed meatballs because nothing in that sub resembled a sphere. The sandwich was topped with melted provolone. Through a big, saucy smile, he said it was awesome.

I would have liked some of that red sauce on my Sausage and Peppers Sub because it was rather lackluster.

Sausage and Peppers - Needs sauced.

The sausage was tasty but the sub needed some sauce to help fuse together all of the sandwich elements. Without that gravy, it's just peppers, onions, sausage, cheese and bread. It needs some juice. From my home cooking experience, I assure you that Mazzaro's hot sausage goes well with red sauce and makes one heck of a lasagna ingredient.

The Hubster has also demolished the Chicken Parmesan Sub, which proved more manageable than its meatball sibling.

Chicken Parm - So "parmed" good.

The moist chicken breast was breaded and fried, topped with red sauce and provolone and served on a soft hoagie roll.

You might think that food of this quality would put a dent in your wallet, but you'd be wrong. Most sandwiches hover around $5.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about distinctive places I'd miss if I moved from Tampa. Mazzaro's, you're numero uno!

Note: Open Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday is a madhouse and hours are 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. On Sunday, Mass is being said over by the tea, so the store is closed. Just kidding! But the store is closed Sunday.

Verdict: A godsend.

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