Mozza Mia Pizzeria gets fresh

The Grande Tasting of cheeses
Emily Utne

During my first visit to Edina's new Mozza Mia, I scanned the restaurant's brief paper menu and then, out of instinct or habit, flipped the sheet over.

It was blank. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

But this was a Parasole restaurant, part of an ever-expanding empire built on a something-for-everyone mentality. A Parasole meal was supposed to begin by turning several pages, perusing multiple sections, and ruling out dozens of other options before settling on your order. Would two salads, three bruschetta, six cheeses, two pastas, and 10 pizzas really suffice?

Lately, Parasole has been testing out an approach tailored to those who feel like their lives are spinning headlong from the Information Age into the Overwhelming Era. In 2009, the restaurant group opened Burger Jones, a tightly focused concept that has done so well in Uptown that it's being replicated in Bloomington. Parasole's Il Gatto, which opened a little over a year ago, was relaunched this fall with a scaled back, more intentional strategy.

Pizza is the core of Mozza Mia's business, and it isn't something downtown Edina necessarily lacked. The restaurant's home, which was formerly inhabited by Tejas, is ringed by three pizza options: D'Amico & Sons to the west, Carbone's to the east, Arezzo to the south. But Mozza Mia's concept offers something slightly different. It's modeled after chef-driven, pizza-and-house-made-mozzarella joints such as Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix and Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, which have drawn national accolades—and diners willing to endure four-hour waits. The Mozza Mia concept was developed by Vittorio Renda, who has been a Parasole associate since the days of Pronto Ristorante (Oceanaire's predecessor in the Hyatt) and who spent many years opening hundreds of Buca restaurants across the country. Renda works closely with executive chef Heather Brinker, who oversees the daily production of dough and mozzarella under the watchful guidance of a tiny figure above the oven: San Gennaro, Italy's patron saint of food and wine.

Dough made with Italian Caputo 00 flour, a quick-fermenting biga starter, and fresh yeast is tossed into ultra-thin rounds that pick up a fair amount of char on the bottom from the 1,000-degree oven. Mozza Mia's crusts are sturdy for their size and tend to be heartily topped. There are a few common pizza types, such as the Margherita, as well as more unexpected ones, including the fig and prosciutto, which pairs those lovely, sweet-salty flavors with blue cheese and caramelized onions. Prices for the 10-inch pies run $12 to $15, at the high end, but still in the ballpark, for most local gourmet pizzerias.

The Salumi is among the wettest of Mozza Mia's pies. It's slapped with enough San Marzano tomato sauce to soften the crust, so that picking up a slice causes the pointed tip to flop forward and dump its toppings. (Better to eat that one with a knife and fork.) But it's an excellent umami fix, between the fennel salami and aged provolone, piqued by tart peperoncini. The Calabrese will leave you with lips stinging from the hot bite of chiles but loving the way the Swiss chard (here's how you trick the kids into eating their vegetables!) melts into the crust.

The Quattro Stagioni looks like it belongs in a math textbook, illustrating a lesson on fractions. Its toppings are split in four quadrants (its name means "four seasons") of artichokes, onions, mushrooms, and slices of Cotto ham. It's a fun aesthetic, especially with its sunny-side-up egg in the middle, but assuming the pizza is being shared, not eaten a libretto (folded into thirds, wrapped into parchment, and eaten out of hand), an even distribution would make more practical sense.

Like our other gourmet pizza shops, Mozza Mia solidly executes its concept. Preferences between its pies and those of, say, Punch, Nea, Black Sheep, and Lola are likely to come down to personal taste. The most noteworthy differences at Mozza Mia involve everything else the restaurant offers. Two pastas, for starters, though a nightly special of cannelloni stuffed with ground chicken wasn't as impressive as the daily maccheroni Bolognese. The Sicilian salad, which combines arugula with fennel, orange, and pine nuts, is good, if overdressed. It would be nice to have another option besides the panzanella salad, which is mostly bread. There are also bruschetta, including tuna with cannellini beans enlivened by a delicate prick of lemon juice, but Mozza Mia's fresh cheeses are the real star.

If you're dining with a few others, try the Grande Tasting for $24. The platter offers samples of the restaurant's house-made, cow's milk mozzarella—plain or rolled with either prosciutto or smoked salmon—along with house-made ricotta. The selection is rounded out with a couple of imports: smoked water-buffalo-milk mozzarella from Italy and a glob of luscious, tangy, domestically produced burrata. The cheese is flush with snappy companions, such as marinated bean salad or pickled vegetable giardiniera.

The house-made mozzarella is quite good, though the average diner won't likely distinguish it much from any high-quality product from a specialty cheese shop or upscale grocery. The ricotta isn't as fluffy as commercial varieties, but it has a thicker, more buttery texture. Compared to the fresh mozzarella sold at Surdyk's, Mozza Mia's has a more buttery flavor and a slightly smoother, denser, more uniform texture, something like that of a cheese curd. Fresh cheese is a tricky business, so kudos to Mozza Mia for tackling it. As any adventurous home cook knows, one false move can turn a gallon of milk into a racquetball.

Mozza Mia is unique among its gourmet pizza competitors in its full liquor license, so dad can spiff up his usual Scotch on the rocks with one that's infused with black tea, cut with Coke, and garnished with a fresh vanilla bean swizzle stick. The drink tastes great, but it's a little light on the alcohol and heavy on the ice for its $9.50 price. Oddly, the neighborhood beverage, Fulton Brewing's Sweet Child of Vine, costs $8 a pint when other area restaurants sell it for $5. Mozza Mia is perhaps a better place to drink wine, with its reasonably priced glass-and-a-half pours.

The restaurant's short list of sweets isn't really worth much notice. The chocolate torte is the best option, but more noteworthy for its surprisingly mainstream portion size than its deliciousness. (Parasole's steakhouse, Manny's, famously serves a brownie that seems about the size of a car battery!)

The best dessert at Mozza Mia is a liquid one: the house-made limoncello, whose perfection Renda attributes to his use of Everclear. "When you want to do the right thing, you don't substitute," he says, with a thick Italian accent. "If I'm going to do it with vodka, I don't do it." Have the golden liqueur straight—it comes in these adorable little tempting-to-swipe glass bottles—or in slushy form. The latter, which is known as Sgroppino, is a flute of blended lemon gelato, limoncello, citrus vodka, and cream. It tastes like a spritely update on the retro ice-cream drink.

Parasole CEO Phil Roberts makes a point of keeping the ambiance at all of his eateries relaxed and unintimidating. When Mozza Mia was being built, he described its ambiance as "blue-collar chic," "uncool," and even "a little on the dorky side." He said the concept was designed so "folks from Edina can feel like they're kind of slumming."

Last time I checked, blue collar and geek were both chic, and Mozza Mia's stripped-down, black-walled, red-accented aesthetic seems more plain than—pardon the pun—cheesy. ("Uncool" would more aptly apply to the tackily furnished Bucas that Parasole founded. Were that restaurant a home, the resident teenager would be too embarrassed to have friends over.) At Mozza Mia, Parasole downplays its signature attitude—has the group finally grown out of its penchant for cheeky innuendo?—to the point that the pizzeria is almost lacking in personality.

While the central kitchen offers a fun view of workers slicing dough balls off a giant, mother blob, its harsh fluorescent lights cast a wide glare into the dining room. And when you compare Mozza Mia's utilitarian, double-mouthed oven to Punch's mosaic-tile-covered beauties or Lola's copper-covered gem, the first has all the visual appeal of a fast-food restaurant's floor. The pies look as if they're being pulled from jail-cell food slots.

Perhaps, in this neighborhood, decorating with tomato cans and pasta boxes is all it takes to be considered out of vogue. Slumming for Edina is what, then? The horrors of public transit, coach airline seats, and general admission?

Mozza Mia offers a casual, family-friendly dining option to a neighborhood that's been gentrifying at an even faster pace since its lone budget-priced holdout, the old Arby's, was demolished. Five roast beef sandwiches for $5? Now that was how Edinans used to lower their standards.

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Mozza Mia

3910 50th St. W.
Edina, MN 55424


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