Pizza Is Like Mother's Milk

Punch Woodfire Pizza
704 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul; 696-1066

Lake Harriet Pizza
5009 Penn Ave. S., Mpls.; 920-7717

Eat This!
212 E. Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 623-7999

I was flipping through the New York Times a few weeks ago when, as is so common, and so very annoying, I came upon an article about John Updike. I just don't get the whole Updike thing. His work strikes me as about as boring as a condominium-sized stack of typing paper, and twice as long.

Long ago I read the three Rabbit books consecutively and didn't find anything that spoke to me, anywhere, so I resolved to just file Updike with all the other things I simply don't understand: People who want to climb Mount Everest. People who drink wine coolers. Subscribers to Cat Fancier. Stock-car racers. I'm perfectly happy to let vast segments of the population just keep on keepin' on, without the extra burden of my sniping, because I am a virtual Zen master of live and let live. Let me be like the lilies of the field, or at least those waterbirds, the puffins of Scotland.

It's not like those Scottish puffins spend all their time wondering why the loons of Minnesota must be so perverse and spend their time in freshwater lakes when they ought to be enjoying nice cold herring in the clearly, clearly superior North Sea. I mean, if the loons are as nothing to the puffins, why would I worry about John Updike?

It was sheer inertia, I assure you, not actual interest, that got me a few sentences into the Times story, whereupon I learned that the "yeasty source" of Updike's work is eastern Pennsylvania, and also that "he once wrote of Shillington, the farm town 30 miles southwest of here where he spent his early years, 'I love Shillington not as one loves Capri or New York, because they are special, but as one loves one's own body and consciousness, because they are synonymous with being.'"

Eureka!I thought, yeastily. The day has finally come when John Updike and I have something in common: He feels about eastern Pennsylvania the same way I feel about pizza, which contains actual yeast. So I immediately threw the newspaper out the window and proceeded to Punch Woodfire Grill. For don't we all feel that way about pizza nowadays? Pizza is like mother's milk, except that you remember it. It enters into consciousness as the treat you get when your parents take a leave from monitoring your vegetable intake. It's a staple of grade-school lunchrooms. It's there at high-school parties. When we are drunk in college. When we are pinching pennies in Europe. When we are bored in trendy restaurants. But it's best at Punch Woodfire Pizza, where the tender dough sizzles in a stone oven and absorbs the breath of smoke into its feathery heart.

Punch's is just a perfect crust, paper-crisp on the very cusp of the outside, springy and chewy inside, strong enough to support any sort of topping, yielding enough to inhale. Punch's tomato sauce is just what it should be, moderately apportioned but ripe and big-tasting, made with San Marzano tomatoes--long, thin, sweet fruit from the region in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius (near Naples) widely thought to be the best sauce tomatoes. Mozzarella at Punch is the fresh, sweet kind with the delicate texture you've probably seen in the form of small balls floating in whey or water in the deli case.

Pair this light crust, big sauce, and ethereal cheese with zesty toppings like prosciutto, spinach, capers, artichoke hearts, and several olives, including calamata, picholine, and saracene and you've got as much variation, and harmony, as you could wish for on a plate. Some of the pizzas I've tried, like the Vesuvio ($9.50)--cayenne-spiced salami, pepperoncini, calamata olives, cracked red pepper, and fresh basil--are fiercely heavenly, the spicy variety up top providing ideal counterpoint to the earthy crust below. Others, like the Quattro Formaggi ($8.50)--fresh mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, fontina, and ricotta--show the sweet and delicate side of pizza. Punch pizzas all cost between $5.50 and $9.95, and I could eat there every night. So if I refer back to Updike's tidy little knot of a sentence, I could say this pizza isn't merely familiar, it's special and great and familiar. Yeah, what about that? What if you're from Capri? Huh, Rabbit? What then?

Punch's wine list is commendable too. 1995 was a very good year for Chianti, and Punch features two at modest prices, San Leonino Chianti Classico for $18, and Selvapiana Chianti Rufina for $17. Drinking a big, round chianti with my pizza, I was so happy I thought I was from Capri. (Punch's wines cost between $15 and $26; glasses start at $3.75. The beer list features a number of pizza-perfect red and amber choices, like Moretti Larossa, $2.95.) My only complaints about Punch are that they are unforgivably not located on my block, and that they need to get bigger, fast: Crowds pile up on the weekends, and waits for tables often top an hour.

In my pursuit of the perfect pizza, I also descended upon Lake Harriet Pizza. I found a standard American pizza with a fine, thin crust topped with a nicely balanced sauce. Notable options include a kicky pesto and sweetly tender sausage crumbles. Lake Harriet Pizza is one of those believers in checkerboard-sliced pizzas, so the middle pieces are all cheese and the outer ones are sometimes all crust, and while the crust starts out all crisp and toasty, it's got that pizza half-life problem whereby every five minutes out of the oven means a noticeable loss in tastiness. In short, this is the sort of joint you would be happy to find on your block, but you wouldn't really sell your house to move into its delivery zone. What? You say you don't base your real estate transactions on pizza places anyway? Strange. You and the wine-cooler people, I guess.

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