Punch Drunk Love

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

Pizza Nea was the first to do it. This offshoot of the best bagel shop in Roseville opened last winter across the street from Surdyk's. The second was Pizza Biga, which opened last spring as part of the Turtle Bread complex on 47th Street and Chicago Avenue South. Before I went to either of these, I had a revelation: You know how there's that place in Ohio that's a doorway to the ghost dimension? Maybe it's the same way for that original Punch in Highland Park, maybe that little strip of Cleveland Avenue is built over some kind of wormhole to Naples? To make sure this wasn't so, I packed my Conestoga wagon full of pemmican and good woolen blankets, and set out across the plains toward Eden Prairie. I mean, what if they couldn't even pull off the Punch magic at Punch Eden Prairie? That would prove something.

Woe to my rising sense of jealousy, they pulled it off in spades. Everything about the Eden Prairie Punch filled every desire one could have for a great pizza place. The salads are as homemade as ever, the pizzas as harmonic and well-knit as old songs played by people who were born to them, the wines as value-priced as ever, and while the room was definitely a little American wealthy generic (are we in Denver? San Diego? Eh?), it's not like I didn't know it was going to be that way. Moreover, the staff was such a friendly, gung ho, well-informed, well-coordinated bunch that all worries eased away, in that way that only a well-oiled restaurant can provide. (Each Punch pizza costs between $7 and $11, and serves one, with a slice or two as takeout for breakfast.)

Well then, then I really had the fire in me. I watered the horses and headed back across the plains. On to Pizza Nea! Eureka! When I visited the place last winter it was truly nothing special, but now they have managed to iron out the bugs, and it's a lovely feather in our collective Neapolitan pizza cap. Visit Pizza Nea now and you'll find that the crusts are unique and very likable: pure and plain, floury, airy, and crisp. The fior di latte mozzarella is beyond reproach, all fresh and mild. The quattro-stagione ($11.50) pizza, the one made with the ingredients in separate quadrants, is made just like it is in Italy, a smorgasbord wheel with good meaty salami, fresh roasted mushrooms with nice concentration, a thick, rich sort of prosciutto that cries out with rustic charm, and, shockingly, even great artichokes--not the kind that taste canned and pickled, but the kind that are deep green and taste roasted and fresh. The pizza cookers at Pizza Nea have figured out how to give the crust a touch of char while leaving the mozzarella fresh and light; they should all take a bow.

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

So should owner Mike Sherwood, who has put together a trim and tidy wine list that is pizza-destination ideal: It's full of all kinds of southern European varieties, most priced around $20 a bottle, or $5 or $6 a glass, and really each of the reds are big, high-acid, well-balanced country wines that go perfectly with pizza. I wish I could put a gold star on this list and pin it up on a blackboard for the rest of the class to admire.

Try the juicy Castel d'Oro Chianti ($5 a glass, $19 a bottle) for a great example of how the fruit of the vine and the fruit of San Marzano complement each other. (Okay, just this once, I'm going to give in to you beer types, so Achtung! At Pizza Nea, they also have loads of good pizza beers, namely, the sweeter ales and lawnmower beers that complement, instead of fight with, the sugar inherent in tomatoes and fresh cheese. Try the Bell's Amber, James Page Amber, Summit EPA, or even ye olde Grain Belt if you're wanting to test this thesis.)

The staff was sweet and attentive, and to tell you the truth I was so charmed by this current incarnation of Pizza Nea, off its training wheels and ready for life in long pants, that I even went back for a lunch to make sure I hadn't gone nuts. That's when I discovered the most miraculous thing, a totally new version of Minnesota's national dish, artichoke ramekin. This thing is called carciofo ($5.50), and it looks for all the world like a plate of hot whipped cream. It's not. It's a bowl of hot garlic, cheese, and artichoke lather that is so very frothy, foamy, spicy, rich, and compelling that at this moment I don't know whether I most want to eat another, or just race around showing people: Can you believe it? A new artichoke ramekin! A foam artichoke ramekin! It comes with lots of wood-fired oven flatbread and is certainly big enough for two--though if you've got some of those cheese-itarian youth at home, this might be your ideal takeout for them. In short, if you live in Northeast or University-world, I seriously recommend you give this little can-do spot another try.

I hope I'll be able to say the same about Pizza Biga one day, because as of this writing the place is pretty much a crapshoot of the good, the bad, and the ugly. I've visited the place three times lately and had pizzas so dried and cracked with kitchen abandonment that they looked like something in need of attention by furniture restoration experts. And I've also had pizzas that were so unexceptional they might as well have been frozen grocery store ones. And I've also had a lovely pie with a bit of fire to the crust and plush bubbles of fresh mozzarella up top.

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