A few months ago, Food and Wine issued me a fairly direct and obvious challenge. Oh, they might have published it for everyone, but let’s be clear here – this one was aimed directly between my eyes, and no one else’s. They were mocking me, in a way, for calling myself a devotee of artisanal pizza, when, of the 48 pizzerias on their list of the best pizzerias in the United States, I had only visited TWO: Pizzeria Mozza in LA and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. Food and Wine, I hereby accept your challenge.
The list, which I’ve reproduced in a Google spreadsheet if you want to play along at home, is quite seriously East Coast biased, with fully one third of the pizzerias located in New York City as well as one in its suburbs, while no other metropolitan area has more than five (San Francisco has four, with two more in Oakland and Larkspur). As it turns out, two of the restaurants on the list are located in Minneapolis/St. Paul, the mini-chain Punch Pizza, serving Neapolitan-style pizzas, and the slightly less traditional Pizzeria Lola, which diverges from the classic formulation in both crust and toppings. Both are strong, but even though I’m a traditionalist when it comes to pizza, Lola’s product is better.
Punch’s model is very simple – rather than offering table service, Punch has customers order at the counter and delivers the pizzas to the table in short order thanks to the quick cooking times. They offer a large number of red (with tomato sauce) and white (take a wild guess) varieties, and also allow you to build your own, as well as offering ways to customize by adding an extra drizzle of EVOO or swapping out regular mozzarella for buffalo-milk mozzarella (do this, you probably find dumber uses of $3 a dozen times every day). The centers of the pizzas are “wet,” which is traditional in Naples (Napoli, hence “Neapolitan”) but which I think most Americans find weird and offputting. You will probably eat the center of the pizza with a knife and fork, and even as a dedicated folder of pizza slices, I am okay with this.
Punch’s crust is very thin at the center, light and puffy at the edges, with a healthy char on the exterior but not underneath (which is correct). I went with the “Rugula,” with prosciutto crudo and arugula on the basic tomato/mozzarella pizza, and while the flavors were strong across the board, the fact that the prosciutto is added post-oven meant that the pizza cooled off very quickly after reaching the table, probably by the time I’d reached the second half of it. My friend Will went for a sausage and pepper variety that had a good kick to it from cracked red pepper, not enough to call it spicy but just enough for a little surprise as you eat it. I also noticed his stayed warm longer than mine did, so maybe giving the prosciutto 30 seconds in that hot oven would have solved the problem (plus it starts to render the fat just a little bit, which is awesome). I’d call this a 55.
Pizzeria Lola, on the other hand, is a solid 65 for me. Their crust is also thin, and is even thinner around the edges than at more traditional places like Punch or Bianco, so it’s not as high or as soft. But the balance of flavors was better, even on my oh-so-not-traditional Korean BBQ pizza, with mozzarella, short ribs, sesame seeds, a sweet soy glaze, and arugula. (I really like arugula.) These slices were strong enough in the center to hold them up and fold them – I assume they also use reduced-moisture mozzarella or they press some of the water out of the fresh stuff to avoid the wet centers. I would tell you how my friend Evon’s pepperoni and caramelized onion pizza was, but he is incredibly selfish and greedy and also reads this blog which is the best part of the whole story. The caramelized onions were legit, though, deep amber, sweet, and tasting strongly of the wine they used for deglazing them. They offer chocolate chip cookies for dessert, mostly cooked beforehand, then reheated until gooey at the edge of the pizza oven, and, if you want, you can get two of them with a goblet of their own vanilla soft-serve ice cream for $5 and I strongly recommend that you do this and get some extra napkins. I also tried a beer called a Surly Furious, which sounds like the name of a bad comedian from New Zealand, which was medium in color and had a strongly nutty flavor, a little like cashew brittle. Evon also took me to his favorite pub in the neighborhood, George and the Dragon, for more beer (although their menu looked like it’s worth trying), where I tried Steel Toe Dissent, a “dark American ale” that was as dark as a porter, with heavy coffee notes, but lighter in body than most porters and stouts.
I had one other meal while in Minneapolis, a return visit to Hell’s Kitchen, which I’d visited on my last visit to the Twin Cities back in 2006. I am pleased to report that the corn meal waffle is still on the menu and is still amazing, as is the house-made maple-bison sausage. They no longer serve loose-leaf teas in cast-iron pots, though. I know there are other breakfast places in Minneapolis but I could eat that waffle every morning for a year and not get tired of it. I also had an espresso from Dunn Brothers, which was a little sharp for me – not acidic or bitter, more like spicy, enough that I added a pinch of sugar, something I rarely do with the best espresso (Intelligentsia, Press, Superstition, etc.). I did want to try the People’s Organic Cafe’s coffee, but their downtown location is closed on the weekends.