Seven unanswered phone calls, one illegal parking space, and a 30-minute wait for takeout in an empty restaurant, and we finally had Big River pizza pies in our hot little hands. And you know? It's good pizza. They call it "Minneapolitan" and that's a fitting term — the wood-fired pie is not exactly Neapolitan as the crust is too thick for that, but it still has good char at the bottom, a bit of flop, good crisp-chew, ultra-premium ingredients, and the knee-buckling aroma of yeast and high-quality wheat.
They've been roving with their wood-fired pizza oven for five years, serving high-quality, hand-tossed pies at farmers markets, events, and private catered affairs, so they've got the product down pretty solid. Now it's time for them to learn the restaurant game, and it seems they're still working out a few kinks.
In a nearly empty restaurant we waited twice as long as the promised 15 minutes for two pies and two salads, not egregious, but also not an unshort amount of time for pizza, which should cook at the high temps of wood fire in only a few minutes, and it made us worry for the moment when Saints crowds streamed out of the stadium and followed the yeasty aromas into the space. (The new digs are situated only a block from the stadium.) Would they be able to keep up? We were glad we wouldn't have to be there to find out.
The space is modern, inviting, and handsome, with clean lines, floor-to-ceiling windows for plenty of natural light, and big stacks of wood to prove they're doing it right. But why no music? The place was morgue-quiet, and one diner even sat with his earbuds tucked in. But service was kind and accommodating, and maybe all the weirdness is nothing but new-restaurant jitters.
The pies are big and substantial, and more "of the people" than a Neopolitan 'za. By that I mean cheesier, meatier, more Midwestern. Like if the plebeian Pizza Luce pie and the worldly Neoplitan got soused on sangria, climbed into bed together, made sweet, saucy love, and created a big, pretty baby with chubby cheeks. We liked it.
The salads, not so much. A $7 Caesar salad was only some dry Romaine tossed with a few croutons — if you wanted anchovies, an inherent part of any Caesar worth its name, it was a $2 upcharge, and there wasn't much more than the faintest whisper of fresh Parmesan. The mixed greens, again $7, were only that with a couple marinated veg and a boring Balsamic vin. We want more from your salads, Big River! It should be noted that this pizzeria is unafraid to ply its pies with the best that the farmers market has to offer, things like interesting mushrooms and not just buttons, leeks, even Brussels sprouts. Let your vegetables fly onto salad forks, too, Big River!
The Proud Mary, their version of a margarita, had big, oozy dollops of high-quality buffalo mozz, and beautiful whole fresh basil leaves. The St. Vincent was smoky with portly lardons of bacon, lots of fragrant garlic and red sauce, and ample spice.
They also serve a small but nice list of beer and wine and Sweet Science ice cream to significantly sweeten the deal.
While Lowertown is becoming a gorgeous, booming little downtown enclave thanks to the stadium and all that's cropped up around it, the parking situation is enough to turn the most Zenlike Buddha into a frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic. How this will affect a pizzeria, where takeout is a crucial aspect of business, is unknown. Maybe they can finagle a deal for short-term parking out front (I should have asked the pair of St. Paul's finest, who were luxuriating at a table and enjoying their illegal parking while we frantically dashed back and forth to the window keeping vigil on ours).
Is a good pizza worth a parking ticket? That decision is yours alone.
280 Fifth St. E., St. Paul