Element Wood Fire Pizza opens in northeast Minneapolis
Is Northeast the new Naples? The neighborhood that is already home to Pizza Nea and perennial favorite Punch—with Black Sheep right across the river—recently welcomed Element Wood Fire Pizza as its newest resident. With so many options in a relatively small area, it may seem like the market is already saturated, but when it comes to artisan pizza, can that ever really be true? Sure, they apply the same cooking techniques (firing at extremely high temperatures in specially made ovens), and in the same Italian tradition (Neapolitan), but each of the aforementioned pizzerias has a strong individual brand and following. As the new kid on the block, Element has to differentiate itself from the pack, not with kitsch or gimmick but with truly outstanding pizza. So let's get right to the particulars of sauce, crust, and cheese.
Sauce can be a divisive subject with pizza fans, but Element's version, made of crushed tomatoes and little else, has such clean and simple flavors it would be hard for anyone to object to it. In the event they do, pizzas can be ordered without red sauce, a.k.a. bianco. Keeping heat and heavy seasoning out of the sauce allows the flavor combinations in Element's specialty pizzas to really stand out. Since the sauce is also light, the bottom of the crust, the part most exposed to the brick and flames in the oven, retains its crispness.
And speaking of that crispness, the mottled underbellies and airy edges on Element's crust are noteworthy. It's elastic, chewy, and substantial enough to keep its shape even to the very tip of the slice. The only real problem with the crust is that it's lacking salt. I like to save my "pizza bones" for sopping up garlic oil, bits of crumbly cheeses, or heck, even ranch dressing from my plate, but they also have to stand on their own as a flavorful piece of bread. When Element serves the crust as a flatbread alongside salads and dips (we'll get to those in a second), they add piney rosemary and crunchy, coarse sea salt. The pizza crust could use a similar treatment.
Then there's the cheese. Ah cheese, the lifetime-achievement award of milk. Fresh mozzarella comes standard on Element's pizzas, but the shop also makes liberal use of feta, Gorgonzola, and Parmesan, as with its Farmers pizza, a sharp take on a quattro fromaggi. Element takes an easy-does-it approach with the amount of cheese—just enough to cushion the beautifully roasted eggplant and sun-dried tomatoes on the pizzeria's namesake pie.
Cheese is also the star player in the appetizer section as the base of a dreamy artichoke and spinach dip. A mixture of feta, mozzarella, and Parmesan takes a short turn in the wood-fire oven and comes out toasted and bubbly but without the oily top layer that needs to be stirred in before you can enjoy it. The appetizer sampler platter, while beautifully presented, included hummus that was just plain bad, especially considering that co-owners Ismail and Sue Karagoez used to run Istanbul Bistro in Wayzata. When the dominant flavor can only be described as "bean" and the texture as "paste," you know you aren't in the presence of chickpea greatness. But the tangy, spicy feta dip, similar to but not quite as buttery as the addictive tyro dip from Gardens of Salonica, saves the platter.
The menu focuses on the pizza, as it should, but it includes a handful of green salads too. The options are mostly the standards: a Caesar, the Aegean (like a Greek salad), house (with just onion, cucumber, and tomato). The Harvest salad, topped with a hot and sour pepperoncini on mixed greens with cubed mozzarella, shreds of prosciutto, kalamata olives, and house vinaigrette, is a more interesting selection, and the large size easily serves a few people.
Pizzas came out perfectly timed, as though someone was spying on when the last forkful of salad was eaten or final spoonful of artichoke dip was greedily scraped from the bowl. We started with the Fire, dotted with spicy sausage, strips of roasted red pepper, chèvre, and a sprinkling of basil. Despite the name, the heat level was by no means labor-inducing; it was more piquant than anything else. The Wind, against all logic, was the saltiest of the four element-themed pizzas. With a generous sheet of prosciutto and sweet hints of basil that balanced out the ever-so-slightly wilted arugula, this pizza is a milder version of Punch's Toto. The Water pizza, with anchovies, red onion, and basil, came in a close second in the salt category. Anchovies should impart some sort of nutty umami flavor, but these were so aggressively fishy they overpowered everything, including the pizza sitting next to them. The Terra, a lean Canadian bacon and brackish green olive combo, was uncomplicated and a surprise hit, but the overall best bet is the Old World, with its deep, diverse flavors of earthy spinach, salty feta and kalamata olives, sweet sun-dried tomato, red onion, and bitter oregano. If you're looking for somewhere to take the whole soccer team for a victory dinner, this might not be the place, but it would be great for a casual date or a family dinner. Located in a former dentist's office, Element is humble in size, with only a few tables for small groups and some two-tops along the V-shaped perimeter. They have done an admirable job in renovating, and the interior is like a pine haven, with very literal decor based on each of the four elements. Menu boards hang above a beautiful open kitchen, announcing daily pizza specials (one memorable offering was a spicy Cajun pizza with chicken and jalapeños). Even though it's a counter-service place and much of Element's business is takeout, the staff is warm, attentive, and more than deserving of a few dollars in the tip jar.
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