Minneapolis's Prized Patrons of Pizza

Pizza Lucé
119 N. Fourth St., Mpls.; 333-7359.

You should see the tempest that ensues when we pick Editor's Choice for best pizza in the "Best of the Twin Cities" issue: Ordinarily articulate cultural thinkers start sputtering and turning red; astute, lucid news-hounds holding multiple degrees metamorphose into glowering adolescents slumped back in their chairs, growling "whatever"; bulldozed cub reporters vow to light out for cities more deserving of their gifts; a buzz of "sauce," "crust," "no sauce," and "ambience does so matter" zings around the room like desperate October wasps.

In the end, the best pizza gets picked by a passionate blend of quorum, charisma, stubbornness, and seniority. While I've yet to actually write a "best pizza" blurb--that's for bigger writers than me, the journalistic equivalent of a corner office--I was part of last year's quorum to hand the glittering tiara to Pizza Lucé (pronounced Loo-chay).

Pizza Lucé's merits are legion: a homemade red sauce that's spicy, piquant, flecked with fresh bits of basil and oregano, and free of any canned sauce's citric-acid bite; a homemade crust that's crisp outside and airy and tender within; 35 (35!) toppings that are thoroughly thought through, including three sorts of olives (Calamata, marinated green, and traditional California sliced); veggies both traditional (green peppers and mushrooms), high-brow (sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts), and inspired (scallions and oven-roasted eggplant); not to mention labor-intensive goodies more commonly found in white-tablecloth restaurants than in pizza places, like homemade Italian pork sausage, freshly grilled chicken breasts, and fresh daily pesto. If wafer-thin New York pizzas are like dancers flying over turnstiles and casserole-thick Chicago pizzas are like linebackers smashing the opposition through sheer heft, then Pizza Lucé's rather sophisticated, evenly weighted, thoroughly substantial pizzas have something particularly Minnesotan about them. I've come to think of them as the well-read, gainfully employed arts patrons of pizzas.

On any given night you can find a bunch of real arts patrons in the comfy chairs and unpretentious tables that spread out behind the front counter. Clown-haired punks share $6.50 pitchers of Grain Belt Premium and sup on hot slices of some of the four or more varieties of pizza that are always available--slices are $2.25-$3, and range from always-available standards like pepperoni to once-in-a-while weirdos like the sauerkraut, pineapple, and banana pepper on barbecue sauce that was recently offered. Aspiring vegan artists have $3.50 glasses of Villa Sandi Cabernet Sauvignon and split soy-cheese-topped pizzas. Weight-watching book groups meet over a bottle of fruity Campanile Pinot Grigio ($23.50) and share cheese-free dinners of light, fresh salads--there's a decent Caesar for $4.50, a very nice homey garden salad for $2.95, and a super Greek salad for $4.20--followed by a cheeseless pizza, since Pizza Lucé's sauce is so good that it stands alone quite nicely. (My favorite is the Greek pizza without mozzarella, since the scattered spinach, artichoke hearts, Calamata olives, squares of feta cheese, fresh tomatoes, and fresh oregano leaves make the mozzarella purely redundant.)

Appetizers, like the garlic-packed artichoke dip, or the light and fabulous Focaccia Katerina ($5.25), a loaf of focaccia grilled and simply topped with pesto, tomatoes, and provolone, are large enough for two or three people, and add to the general ease and conviviality here. Service is generally cafeteria-style, but table service is available roughly from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and it's practical and friendly, if not frilly. In addition to a crowd- and budget-pleasing menu, Pizza Lucé has night-owl-pleasing hours--it's open 'til 2 a.m. weekdays, 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and serves liquor until 1.

If you're lucky enough to live in Lucé's limited delivery area you probably already know about the joys therein--not only do they deliver their fab pizzas reasonably quickly, they're also the geniuses that will deliver Buddy's grape or orange soda for $1.25 a bottle, and pints of Ben and Jerry's for $2.95 a pop. Now that's a TV party. (10-inch pizzas are $6, and an extra $1.15 per additional topping; large 16-inch pizzas start at $10.05/$1.80 per topping.)

My only real complaint with Pizza Lucé is about the sandwiches. My feeling is that hoagies are only as good as the bread they're hoagied into, and Lucé's breads are lacking: The white bread is a too-sweet, too-soft loaf that collapses under the pressure of any sort of filling; conversely, the focaccia is so dense that it turns anything into a leaden brick. Until they can get a real light and crusty semolina bread, I'll stick to the pizzas and salads. Of course, one of the great open secrets of "best of" issues is that the awards depend on familiarity--that is, a tiny place in Hastings could never win the readers' poll because it couldn't build a base of support. But Pizza Lucé co-owner Todd Staberg says that the Lucé folk are shopping around for a second location, and if that happens I bet our fateful annual meeting will get a lot quieter.

 
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