"Ehhh ... nuggets!" says our server in a singsong voice, vrooming by our communal table at the bustling Pig Ate My Pizza in Robbinsdale. As he disappears into what looks like a piece from the set of Fraggle Rock (but is actually a huge fur-covered booth), we realize that in the midst of the hubbub, he's delivered the salt and pepper nugs — thin pieces of pork tenderloin dusted with cornstarch, flash-fried, dabbed in a soy reduction, and hit with scallions and lots of salt and pepper. Tender and intense, they tasted like a stir-fry dish from a truly fantastic Chinese restaurant. More Asian influence arrived in the form of steamed buns with crunchy veggies and big hunks of pork belly tucked inside, as well as ribs served in a pool of gingery, tomato-based sauce. They're priced individually at $3 a pop and have a lovely crust on the outside that gives way to sweet, smoky meat you have to gnaw off the bone.
Though we began our experience by ordering dishes made with the flavors of the Far East, Pig Ate My Pizza is totally Midwest, and that means pork is everywhere. It's in the piggy tchotchkes that line the walls; it's in the cheeky names of dishes like hog tots (amazing little softly fried croquettes of ham, cheese, and potato with creamy whole grain mustard for dipping); and, most important, it's in the food. Here pork is not the other white meat, it's the only meat.
PAMP is the first part of a three-pronged plan by the crew from Travail to take over Robbinsdale and then the world. The old Travail shut down for the summer, and PAMP was created in its former space. In a few months they plan to open the Rookery, which Travail co-owner Mike Brown has described as a sandwich shop with microplates and cocktails. After the dust settles, Travail will re-open and start making amuse bouches right on top of your hand again, but this time in a new, smaller space.
Like Travail, PAMP is entirely chef-driven, so everyone who works in the kitchen also works on the floor, and there are huge advantages to that setup. First, they know everything there is to know about the food — no need to check with the kitchen about what exactly is in the charmoula. They probably made it themselves hours before. Second, they move fast and move constantly, which would make you feel frantic in a quieter, more formal setting, but here it's completely in keeping with the pace of things, meaning you don't have to wait long before you're actually tasting that smoky thing you smell. Finally, it reflects the democratized approach this team takes to fine-dining food. It's serious business, but they don't take it — or themselves — too seriously. As cooks in the open kitchen fling dough, trap smoke, mist stuff, and use oversized tweezers to put the final, precise touches on these precious pizzas, they're also singing along to every word of Tragic Kingdom blasting from someone's iPod. It's like eating dinner in a wacky scientist's lab where someone happened to be hosting a '90s dance party.
There's a definite flair for the dramatic to this food and yet, it's pizza, and you're eating at a picnic table with strangers. So all the tricks and trappings don't mean a thing if the crust isn't good. PAMP has three crusts (four if you count the gluten-free version of the Neapolitan). There's one cracker crust — crispy, but more like a flatbread with just a hint of sweetness and a little bit of char on the bottom — that they keep simple with cheese, tomato fresca, and a bit of cheese foam from a charged dispenser. On the other end of the spectrum is PAMP's version of deep dish, which is actually not super-deep but is super-rich. It's a brioche dough covered in housemade charcuterie — prosciutto, thin pepperoni, draped slices of pork belly — and a few velvety leaves of fresh sage. It's as buttery and crisp at the edges as a Ritz cracker but thick and sort of soft in the center like a piece of well-aerated sandwich bread. It's worth ordering if you have a few people to share it with, but because it's so rich you can really only eat a slice or two. If the cracker crust isn't quite substantial enough and the brioche is heavy for you, then PAMP's version of Neapolitan crust is just right, but true to form, it's a little different from other Neapolitan crusts. Since they're dressed with oils before they go in a traditional oven, instead of the coal or wood-fire methods that some of the other local Neapolitan-style pizzerias favor, the result is a little more greasy. The bottom is impressively thin but still sturdy, with chewy edges that spring back just a little when you bite in.
PAMP isn't trying to cover up a sub-par crust with fanciful toppings the way some do, but it's hard for the meat-and-produce part of the pizza not to take center stage here. There's one with a duo of seared scallop and scallop tartare, bacon, and earthy fiddlehead ferns, all rolled up like a chameleon's tail. The sour cream and onion pizza had plops of creamy salad made with minuscule cubes of potato and dill, biting ramp sausage, and homemade potato chips covered in sriracha foam. It's like the Pizza Lucé baked-potato pizza for the 21st century. The Raphael came highly recommended by employees, and with good reason. Where a few of the others skirted the sodium line, mostly because of heaps of bacon — which one can't complain about too much — the Raphael had piles of shredded chicken doused in mole sauce, dollops of super-smooth guacamole, strips of fried tortilla chips, supremes of lime, and an intensely citrusy mist of lime essence. Did you think taco pizza could never be classy? You were wrong.
Lest you hunger for even a moment between courses, the kitchen sends over bacon caramel corn for you to munch on before dessert arrives, and the performance art that is your meal at PAMP draws to a show-stopping close. The options are few and sound simple — just banana cream pie or strawberry shortcake (on our visits) — but with all the finishing touches applied tableside, they're far from ordinary. The shortcake gets drowned in creme anglaise from a squeeze bottle held at above-head height and then frozen right in front of you with liquid nitrogen, in case you didn't already have the urge to Instragram it. The flan-like banana cream pie resembles the kind Mom made only in the loosest sense and gets drizzled with incredible dulce de leche (which our server referred to as "the awesome sauce").
And so a few parting words of advice about PAMP. Be prepared to wait for a table, but know you'll have plenty to entertain you while you do (including fairly well-priced wines by the glass and local beers). You may be tempted to load up on charcuterie in the beginning (the platters included everything from bologna to belly to pate to pork rinds), but since you can get most of that on the pizzas, save room for dessert instead. And finally, save your pizza bones, because every so often a voice will rise above the din asking anyone who wants some free marinara to just raise their hand. Fear not, they won't spoon the sauce right in your little hoof ... unless you ask.