Hello Pizza is a slice of heaven

Many months before Hello Pizza opened its doors in Edina, owner Ann Kim, known as the duchess of dough behind Pizzeria Lola in Armatage (arguably the reigning champ of the local artisan pizza game), launched a simple and effective marketing campaign featuring the longing stare and soft-focus Jheri curl of Lionel Richie. In the empty windows of the former Franklin Bakery storefront, huge letters spelled out "HELLO," prompting passersby to finish the implied thought/parody song lyric: "Is it pizza you're looking for?" The answer is yes. Constantly. Luckily, we have a lot of good options locally, and that's not just our opinion. In the past year both Food & Wine magazine and Market Watch have praised the Twin Cities for our "quirky" pizza culture, specifically citing Punch Pizza and Kim's Pizzeria Lola as standouts. With the arrival of Hello, a high-volume, high-quality, by-the-slice, on-the-fly, family-friendly pizzeria, I predict that next year's various Top 10 lists will rank the Twin Cities a few notches higher, thanks in no small part to Kim's latest venture.

Aside from the blown-up image of Richie's face (which remains plastered on the kitchen door), the decor in this sunny and efficient space is spare, slick, and softly colored, articulating the classy cafeteria feel that Hello seems to be going for. Menu boards behind the counter show the handful of Italian-inspired combos available by the slice and the more creative daily specials, which have recently included a pie with artichokes, spinach, and piquillo peppers and a spicy number with chicken, smoky barbecue sauce, and jalapeños. (Follow Hello's delightful Instagram feed for tantalizing images of these specials and screen caps of scenes from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Glossy strips of photo-booth pics (tickets for the booth are $3 at the register) hang from picture wire strung against the back wall, archiving the good times had by many a pizza-eater and kids sugar-crazed from the soft-serve. Above the door frame on the way to the bathroom is a New York City subway placard from the 116th Street stop, a nod to Kim's alma mater, Columbia University. I'm not sure what her major was at college, but Kim's time in New York was obviously well spent, because she's producing Ivy League pizza. Along with Black Sheep, it's solidly top-tier in a world where, let's say, Pizza Nea is Carnegie Mellon, Pizza Lucé is any one of the Big Ten schools, Toppers is Arizona State, and Domino's is a junior college in Tampa. That's not to say Hello is snobby pizza (or that you can't get a perfectly good education in Florida), it just has good credentials: excellent portions on the toppings (most of which are organic, some local, and a few, like the fantastic fennel sausage, house-made), light but flavorful sauce, and most importantly, an A+ crust.

Now, a creative person in any field — music, fine art, food — will tell you that the minute you specify a style you're going for, whether you're a lyrical abstract painter or a guitar player in a Neoclassical dark-wave band, you open yourself up to a world of pedantic criticism. But people seem to be particularly harsh and haughty when it comes to pizza. So when it was revealed that Hello would serve New York-style pizza, by the slice, distinct from Pizzeria Lola's wood-fired artisan whole pies, you could practically hear the needlers warming up their wagging fingers and making it their mission to let everyone know that this is not "true New York-style pizza." Well, I am not one of those people.

Frankly, I don't really care whether Hello's pizza is the most accurate representation of New York-style pizza, which, for the record, is defined only by possessing a hand-tossed crust that is ideally chewy and crispy and by generally being served as a large, wide, foldable slice. Is Hello the Platonic ideal of the pepperoni slice you can get on Flatbush Avenue? Does it have the correct degree of verisimilitude to that one piece of pizza you had at that one cool hole-in-the-wall in Hell's Kitchen? I don't have any idea. I've had just as much mediocre pizza in NYC as I have anywhere else in America, and when I did have an outstanding slice I don't know that it was even "true" New York-style pizza; I just know I was in New York when I ate it and it was pizza and it was great. I understand that making outstanding pizza involves a lot of care, measurement, and exact science, but eating it does not. One bite into Hello's pizza and you'll be convinced of this. The crust — blistered, a little salty, and tender — has definite crispness. Not crackery crispness, but more of the baguette-like crusty quality that comes from good water, which apparently we have. As the crust breaks down and mingles with the light sauce, it reveals an inner chewiness and a slightly sweet flavor. Fold it, roll it, or be absurd and knife-and-fork it — this is lovely pizza through and through.

It's also miraculously and markedly ungreasy, save for the tiny pools contained in the crispy rounds of mini pepperoni, or, as one of my dining companions referred to it, "sleepover pepperoni." I loved the mild flavors of the Hello Rita, a basic margherita with garlic and oregano (which, along with the classic cheese, also comes as a whole pie and can be customized with over a dozen add-on ingredients); the Veggie Supremo, with its melange of greens, French feta, and ricotta cheese; and the Hello Trinity, which features crimini mushrooms, pepperoni, and fennel sausage, delivering all the straightforward Italian flavors you'd expect in a meaty pizza without being too heavy.

If you really just can't handle the "New York-style" moniker, then skip the pizza entirely and get some meatballs. There's the Old Skool Balls — a classic Italian meatball grinder with thick, sweet, cooked-all-day marinara sauce on a crusty roll that's not overly bready. And there's the Korean Cowboy. Just like at Lola, Kim finds ways to pay homage to her Korean heritage, even in a food environment not usually conducive to Asian flavors. This generous sandwich tucks sweet and spicy pork meatballs, pickled onions, shredded carrots, daikon radish, cilantro, fragrant Thai basil, and a finishing smear of garlicky mayo into a big chewy bun. The flavors and sheer substance of this thing will stick with you all day. Salads are sized to share and come in a small, serve-yourself mixing bowl. The respectable Caesar comes with cherry tomatoes and just a little too much of a nicely balanced, creamy dressing. The spritely and savory Tricolore salad has arugula, shaved fennel, and parmigiano-reggiano. And the mind-boggling Smoky Greens salad, which you would swear contains some sort of magical pork product, is in fact vegetarian. Its deep, layered flavor comes from the applewood-smoked onions, toasted and seasoned pumpkin seeds, and salty Moody Blue cheese. It's phenomenal.

Families flock here around the earlier dinner hours, and because of that the dining room can be a little chaotic, but the staff does a good job of keeping tables cleared and encouraging turnover without making customers feel like they need to eat and run. If you live in the area (or if you're just making a special trip for the Smoky Greens salad and Korean Cowboy sub, which I know I will be doing sooner rather than later), you can call ahead for to-go orders and have a beer (currently all local brews) or a glass of wine (nothing terribly fancy, but all fairly priced at $6.50) at the single-seater bar in the entryway while you're waiting for them to box up your pie.

Even without its Columbia credentials, if this pizza came in for a job interview I would offer it a warm handshake, welcome it to the team, and give it its own office with a view. Hello Pizza, it's so nice to meet you.