Punch Drunk Love

The Twin Cities' original neapolitan pizza purveyor is almost as hard to top as one of its top-flight pies

Punch Neapolitan Pizza
704 Cleveland Ave. S., St Paul, 651.696.1066
8353 Crystal View Rd. (off Prairie Center Drive), Eden Prairie, 952.943.9557

Pizza Nea
306 E. Hennepin, Minneapolis, 612.331.9298
1702 Lexington Ave. N., Roseville, 651.488.1700

Pizza Biga
4756 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.823.7555

Pie oh my: Neapolitan newcomer Pizza Nea rises to the challenge
Kathy Easthagen
Pie oh my: Neapolitan newcomer Pizza Nea rises to the challenge

Location Info

Map

Punch Neapolitan Pizza

704 Cleveland Ave. S.
St. Paul, MN 55116

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: Highland Park

Pizza Nea

306 E. Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55414

Category: Restaurant > Health

Region: University

Pizza Biga

4762 Chicago Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55407

Category: Restaurant > Bakery

Region: Powderhorn

If I were to say to you, Now, behind that door you are guaranteed to find either diamonds, pratfalls, or pizza, you would be helpless to resist that door, wouldn't you? Oh, don't lie. You'd have to. And that, that is the problem with pizza, the main problem really, and it's the same one that pratfalls and diamonds have: Even lackluster examples remain intriguing.

Which brings us, of course, to the biggest mystery of dining in the Twin Cities these last several years: Why aren't there just untold hundreds of Punch Neapolitan Pizzas, on your block and my block and on every block all the way from the airport to that big ball of twine and back again?

Now, if you don't know what a Punch Neapolitan Pizza is, I don't really know whether to regard you with envy or scorn. See, Punch, which was born in a little storefront in Highland Park in 1996, is the place that has pioneered, championed, and generally perfected official Neapolitan pizzas in Minnesota--pizzas made like they would have been in Naples in the days before television. That means they have to be made in a real wood-fired oven, with real, just-made mozzarella, on a crust that's as simple as can be (and has no weird dough-softeners or other chemical additives), and, if it's got tomatoes, those tomatoes will be real San Marzano tomatoes, canned tomatoes grown in a very hot and sunny part of Italy on volcanic soils which quickly drain any rain away from the plants, resulting in a very concentrated flavor.

It sounds simple, right? But this simple formula makes, in the hands of Punch, the best pizza in town--and, for my money, some of the best pizza in the country. The biscuity, smoke-blessed crust, the sweet acid bright of the tomatoes mellowed by the rich green notes of good olive oil and broadened by the lilting cream and salt of the fresh cheese. I get to thinking about it and it's all I can do not to climb atop the state Capitol and start yodeling the "William Tell Overture." Yes, that's how good they are.

The toppings are as exciting as could be: top-flight prosciutto, red peppers roasted in their wood oven, fantastic little saracene olives, and too many more to list. Salads before the meal include things like a Caesar with plenty of garlic, real Parmesan, and chubby, golden croutons. The wine list is a model of focus and excellence: There's always a nice array of Italian wines priced under $25 a bottle, and they tend to buy big in good vintages, so you're drinking better than you've any right to. Dessert is Sonny's ice cream, and they even do their Lavazza espresso quite well. Sigh. See? If you've never been there, I feel scorn for you.

Or, like I said, envy. You know that Robert Browning quote about how man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for? Well, every time I come out of Punch I feel that kind of singular crabbiness that I most closely identify with being seven, on the day after your birthday, when you look darkly around the world and think, People are not trying quite as hard to please me as they might.

Of course with all this less-is-most excellence, there's always a line out the door at Punch. (Please note that the no-reservations policy does allow you to call ahead and get your name on the list, or, if you have a group of six or more, you can make reservations on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays.) And so, like I said, the mystery, the misery has long been: Why aren't there more of them? They could be carting money away in dump trucks. Why? Why?

Why? For spite, obviously. I mean, why else?

Okay, yes, a Punch opened in Eden Prairie last year, but: whoop de doo. Eden Prairie is even farther from Minneapolis than Highland Park. Goodie goodie for Edina, now they've got the Restoration Hardware and a Punch within striking distance. Now all they need is that one guy to get around to raking and the whole suburb can float up to heaven on a gossamer breeze. And yes, a Punch, a quick-serve, lesser Punch is supposed to open in Calhoun Village in Minneapolis sometime before Christmas. What are we, second-class citizens? If you prick us, do we not pay outrageous amounts of money for country Italian? Hey, just look at Figlio--Minneapolitans are the very suckers that started this whole thing!

Harrumph. It was in just such a spirit of high-keyed emotionalism that I set out to survey the current Minneapolis Neapolitan pizza scene, to visit Pizza Biga and Pizza Nea, separate, independently owned places that hie to all the Neapolitan pizza traditions, places that freely admitted, when I talked to the owners in the various restaurants' planning stages, that they were modeling themselves after Punch. Hey, if Punch wouldn't bring more Punches to the people, someone had to.

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