Crust Clobbers Snobbery
700 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis; (612) 375-2430
Hours: Pizzas available Monday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sunday noon-5:30 p.m.
St. Paul Bagelry and
1702 Lexington Ave., Roseville; (651) 488-1700
Hours: Monday-Thursday 6:30 a.m.-8:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 6:30 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Sunday 7:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Sat down last week in a hipster coffee shop, got one of those hipster cups of coffee in the form of slurry. No, mastic. Wait, even better, minestrone. Decided that that coffee's to blame for the resurgence of the mohawk. (Darlings: Fauxhawks.) Picked up a newspaper, leafed, paged, snooted through it, discovered an interview with the chef and owner of a couple of local big-ticket Italian restaurants. The interviewer asked what he had in his refrigerator. Chef said two slices of pizza from a gas station, for his children. From a gas station? For his children? An Italian chef? Whipped out my cell phone and asked for Minnesota's Department of Culinary Standards and Child Seizures. Waited. But used my time productively; harvested a bushel of "Die, yuppie cell-phone scum" looks.
Sparked a thought: Wouldn't it be lovely if we had a sort of Fort Snelling Olde Tyme historical village, but for punk rock circa 1981? Fill up the empty bits of the Shubert Theater block with a good old Moby Dick's. Next door you'd enter the Black Flagorium to find a sooty-eyed Guthrie intern with exaggerated enunciation, pretending to find a good vein through her ripped fishnets and improvising patter on Ronald Reagan and the joy of really knowing which side was which. On the way out, buy some Tylenol with faux cyanide in it, a movie or a book explaining why some celebrity really wants you to shoot a public figure, or maybe just a candy apple. Well, why not? I think this would go over big, very big. I think tourists would flock to it, hemorrhaging hard cash.
I knew I was hemorrhaging something--and it seemed to be brilliant ideas. Why, what had snobbery ever gotten me except a lot of important friends and highly coveted invitations? If the operator was correct in reporting that Minnesota sponsors neither a Department of Culinary Standards and Child Seizures, nor a Division for the Spray-Painting of Big X's on Novelty Sweaters, then wasn't it high time I renounced my snobbish ways? I took a moment to consider that perhaps there was some really great gas-station pizza around. And perhaps there was great pizza everywhere--in the basements and the bagel shops--if only you went to look for it.
I immediately went home and donned some rough clothes, in the style of peasants, and proceeded to that which I charmingly call Dayton's. (I was born with the horrifying name Moskowitz, and you don't see me going and changing it to Marshall Field's. Dance with the one that brung you, you You-be-loyal-to-us, we'll-be-loyal-to-Chicago corporate faddists.) Renounce snobbery and you will receive miracles! Why, one department store concourse and a bagel shop later, I have found two versions of pizza that could pretty much hold their own with any of the best in town. (Curious? My rough list for pizza champs looks something like this right now: Broders' Cucina Italiana, Cossetta's, D'Amico & Sons, Fat Lorenzo's, Golooney's, Pizza Lucé, Punch Neapolitan Pizza, Sidney's Pizza Cafe, and maybe a couple of places that are so much more restaurant than pizza they hardly count, like the California Café, Figlio, The Loring Bar and Café, Pazzaluna Urban Trattoria & Bar, and Zelo.)
And now--the department store basement pizza shocker! You know how on one end of the basement level of the downtown Minneapolis Dayton's there's candy, and on the other side Leann Chin? Well, right next to Leann Chin is the retail face of the Franklin Street Bakery, where since last winter they've been selling individual pizzas for $2.95 and $3.95. These pizzas are baked fresh all the time. The crusts are bubbly, savory, and light, the toppings good quality, they're pretty darn big, and the prices remain, even at the end of this hype-filled sentence, $2.95 and $3.95!
Three bucks gets you the cheese pizza, made with three kinds of cheese: mozzarella, Monterey jack, and cheddar. A dollar more buys pepperoni; or a very nice Mediterranean vegetable pizza made with artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, and strips of roasted red peppers; or a daily special like sausage and mushroom, which when I tried it was made with lots of tasty fennel-specked crumbles of black-peppery sweet sausage.
The higher price also gets you a barbecue chicken pizza to be reckoned with. Now, Franklin Street Bakery is part of the Bar Abilene/Tejas/Goodfellow's family, helmed by Southwestern-expert chef Mark Haugen, so I guess they would do this well. But before my anti-snobbery resolution, I hated crap like barbecue chicken pizzas. I mean, then why not beef bourguignon pizzas? And yet this thing tastes in some family way like upscale nachos, and why not? It's your lunch. Pieces of chicken rest on a silky barbecue-sauce bed, surrounded by slices of roasted jalapeño peppers, onions, and fresh cilantro, all covered with a generous blanket of Monterey jack and cheddar cheese. It's more like a little taste of what you'd get at Bar Abilene or Tejas. Except that if you got it there, it would cost at least twice as much, and this is definitely one of those things where the pricing makes the enthusiasm; if these pizzas cost twice as much, I'd start complaining about the slightly strange sweet-and-buttery quality of the crust. But for $4? I call it a gift to downtown. (Of course, I also know they intentionally make their crust sweet, and I'm guessing that fans of Pizzeria Uno, the Green Mill, and others who like a pizza crust richer, rather than plainer, will call this heavenly.)
Next stop? A Roseville bagel shop, which has got to stand as the least likely looking spot you'll ever find a really good Neapolitan-style pizza. As of this writing, the place is just a peach- and sage-colored bagel shop with a cooler of cream cheeses up front, a soda cooler toward the back, and a handful of Formica-topped booths and tables. Get in line at the cash register and you can order a peanut butter bagel and juice, or a pizza siciliana ($9.95) with imported hand-pitted gaeta olives and fresh American fiori di latte mozzarella and a bottle of Tommasi Valpolicella ($23). Then you go sit down and owner Mike Sherwood makes you a pizza and brings it out to your booth on a real plate with real silverware. It's that simple.
And that good. I tried half a dozen of the St. Paul Bagelry's 12-inch pizzas, and every one had a light crust that was pure and simple in the best way, putting forth that taste of toasty wheat that a great pizza crust will. The mozzarella on the Margherita ($7.50) was white and fresh as could be. The salami on the spicy Vesuvio ($9.95, with pepperoncini, gaeta olives, red pepper, and basil) was thick, pepper-crusted, and perfect. The bits of melted Gorgonzola on the quattro formaggi ($8.95) were potent and of good quality. And with pizza, that's pretty much it: Good ingredients on a good crust? You won. Game over.
Sherwood opened his bagel shop five years ago, and has long counted himself a fan of Neapolitan pizza like they serve at St. Paul stronghold Punch Neapolitan Pizza. So last spring he took out a loan against his house, bought some pizza ovens, dishes, pizza peels, a couple hundred pounds of flour, and got to experimenting. (I too have long counted myself a fan of Punch, but I just lie around moaning about the Saturday night waits. Go figure.) He says it took him 200 pounds of flour to get the crust right, and a lot of research to find the right importer for all those pricey ingredients, and ever since then he's just sort of waited for bagel regulars to order more pizzas.
"I think once people find me, word will spread," he says hopefully. Then he notes that since he started he's sold perhaps four of my absolute favorite of his creations, the beguiling pizza bianca ($6.95). It's his simplest: Just the Sherwood crust brushed with imported olive oil and topped with grated Romano and Parmesan cheeses, then decorated before serving with a few fresh basil leaves. It's salty, boasts some intense cheese flavor without being at all gooey, and the basil gives a bit of licorice contrast. Marvelous. I'm sure all four of us who've had it completely agree. Perhaps we'll meet sometime and form a band. I think we'll call ourselves Nobody Knows the Pizzas We've Seen, Nobody Knows But That One Guy There.
The Bagelry's new wine list is brief (eight bottles), a little pricey, and not particularly pizza-oriented, but, you know, it's the bagel shop's wine list. (What was it Samuel Johnson said about dancing dogs and women writers? It's not that we do it well, but that we do it at all?) If you've ever wished you could go somewhere and spread out your newspaper and have a jelly bagel and glass of white zinfandel, I say act now, before Sherwood enacts improvements, for he is a bagel shop owner with big plans. A new coat of paint to make the place look less like a bagel shop and more like a restaurant; a bigger sign on the roof so somebody besides a few food critics might know he's there; maybe table service; maybe framed art on the walls.
Maybe then people will start making his place a pizza destination. If he sold one pizza bianca a week, it would literally be a 1000 percent increase in pizza bianca business. "Nobody expects to find good food in Roseville," laments Sherwood. "But maybe word of mouth will spread."
What? Nobody expects to find good pizza in a strip-mall bagel shop? I'm shocked at the knee-jerk close-mindedness and snobbery you find around here. It's just terrible.
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