Pizza Is Like Mother's Milk
Punch Woodfire Pizza
704 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul; 696-1066
Lake Harriet Pizza
5009 Penn Ave. S., Mpls.; 920-7717
212 E. Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 623-7999
I was flipping through the New York Times a few weeks ago when, as is so common, and so very annoying, I came upon an article about John Updike. I just don't get the whole Updike thing. His work strikes me as about as boring as a condominium-sized stack of typing paper, and twice as long.
Long ago I read the three Rabbit books consecutively and didn't find anything that spoke to me, anywhere, so I resolved to just file Updike with all the other things I simply don't understand: People who want to climb Mount Everest. People who drink wine coolers. Subscribers to Cat Fancier. Stock-car racers. I'm perfectly happy to let vast segments of the population just keep on keepin' on, without the extra burden of my sniping, because I am a virtual Zen master of live and let live. Let me be like the lilies of the field, or at least those waterbirds, the puffins of Scotland.
It's not like those Scottish puffins spend all their time wondering why the loons of Minnesota must be so perverse and spend their time in freshwater lakes when they ought to be enjoying nice cold herring in the clearly, clearly superior North Sea. I mean, if the loons are as nothing to the puffins, why would I worry about John Updike?
It was sheer inertia, I assure you, not actual interest, that got me a few sentences into the Times story, whereupon I learned that the "yeasty source" of Updike's work is eastern Pennsylvania, and also that "he once wrote of Shillington, the farm town 30 miles southwest of here where he spent his early years, 'I love Shillington not as one loves Capri or New York, because they are special, but as one loves one's own body and consciousness, because they are synonymous with being.'"
Eureka! I thought, yeastily. The day has finally come when John Updike and I have something in common: He feels about eastern Pennsylvania the same way I feel about pizza, which contains actual yeast. So I immediately threw the newspaper out the window and proceeded to Punch Woodfire Grill. For don't we all feel that way about pizza nowadays? Pizza is like mother's milk, except that you remember it. It enters into consciousness as the treat you get when your parents take a leave from monitoring your vegetable intake. It's a staple of grade-school lunchrooms. It's there at high-school parties. When we are drunk in college. When we are pinching pennies in Europe. When we are bored in trendy restaurants. But it's best at Punch Woodfire Pizza, where the tender dough sizzles in a stone oven and absorbs the breath of smoke into its feathery heart.
Punch's is just a perfect crust, paper-crisp on the very cusp of the outside, springy and chewy inside, strong enough to support any sort of topping, yielding enough to inhale. Punch's tomato sauce is just what it should be, moderately apportioned but ripe and big-tasting, made with San Marzano tomatoes--long, thin, sweet fruit from the region in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius (near Naples) widely thought to be the best sauce tomatoes. Mozzarella at Punch is the fresh, sweet kind with the delicate texture you've probably seen in the form of small balls floating in whey or water in the deli case.
Pair this light crust, big sauce, and ethereal cheese with zesty toppings like prosciutto, spinach, capers, artichoke hearts, and several olives, including calamata, picholine, and saracene and you've got as much variation, and harmony, as you could wish for on a plate. Some of the pizzas I've tried, like the Vesuvio ($9.50)--cayenne-spiced salami, pepperoncini, calamata olives, cracked red pepper, and fresh basil--are fiercely heavenly, the spicy variety up top providing ideal counterpoint to the earthy crust below. Others, like the Quattro Formaggi ($8.50)--fresh mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, fontina, and ricotta--show the sweet and delicate side of pizza. Punch pizzas all cost between $5.50 and $9.95, and I could eat there every night. So if I refer back to Updike's tidy little knot of a sentence, I could say this pizza isn't merely familiar, it's special and great and familiar. Yeah, what about that? What if you're from Capri? Huh, Rabbit? What then?
Punch's wine list is commendable too. 1995 was a very good year for Chianti, and Punch features two at modest prices, San Leonino Chianti Classico for $18, and Selvapiana Chianti Rufina for $17. Drinking a big, round chianti with my pizza, I was so happy I thought I was from Capri. (Punch's wines cost between $15 and $26; glasses start at $3.75. The beer list features a number of pizza-perfect red and amber choices, like Moretti Larossa, $2.95.) My only complaints about Punch are that they are unforgivably not located on my block, and that they need to get bigger, fast: Crowds pile up on the weekends, and waits for tables often top an hour.
In my pursuit of the perfect pizza, I also descended upon Lake Harriet Pizza. I found a standard American pizza with a fine, thin crust topped with a nicely balanced sauce. Notable options include a kicky pesto and sweetly tender sausage crumbles. Lake Harriet Pizza is one of those believers in checkerboard-sliced pizzas, so the middle pieces are all cheese and the outer ones are sometimes all crust, and while the crust starts out all crisp and toasty, it's got that pizza half-life problem whereby every five minutes out of the oven means a noticeable loss in tastiness. In short, this is the sort of joint you would be happy to find on your block, but you wouldn't really sell your house to move into its delivery zone. What? You say you don't base your real estate transactions on pizza places anyway? Strange. You and the wine-cooler people, I guess.
If pizza is as familiar as your face in the mirror, then Eat This! is the worry-lines that send you scurrying for a brighter lipstick. (This made me particularly sad because I consider pizza by the slice an important concept that should be encouraged at every turn.) Eat This! doesn't sell run-of-the-mill round pies and triangular slices; their idea of pizza is a sweet, doughy, focaccia-like crust topped with vegetarian gourmet doodads (like artichoke hearts, caramelized onions, roasted garlic, cremini and portobello mushrooms) and completed with fancy cheeses like Edam, cheddar, Parmesan, Gorgonzola, and fontina. Pizzas are assembled and fully cooked, then removed from the oven and set on a hot-plate-like warming tray. There your choice of half a dozen pizzas waits patiently for you to indicate how much of them you want, at which point the nice person behind the counter snips off a slice, weighs it, and gives it to you to eat. (The average meal-sized slice costs around $3; a pound is $8.)
The problem at Eat This! is primarily a technical one. If you've ever kept food in a 200-degree oven for a while you know what happens: It goes geological on you and separates into layers, mostly because the oil works its way out of whatever it was in. The result? Warm, dense, greasy pizza often featuring a hard, overcooked cheese lid.
As a measure of how much I wanted Eat This! to be good, consider that I went three times--just like I gave Updike three books before I gave up. Sadly, I finally had to conclude that the salad, a mix of greens with your choice of add-ins like mushrooms and your choice of dressings, was the way to go. (Salad is $5 a pound; a bowl costs around $2.) Please note, too, that on one visit I got a slice of pizza that was fresh from the oven and it was good, light and flavorful. But even on that visit, the three other varieties I tried were too dense. If you see them taking one out of the oven, go for it; otherwise, salad. I don't know, you serve icky pizza once, it's a mistake, twice, it's a problem, but three times?
Now you've moved from familiarity to coldly evaluating contempt: To paraphrase John Updike, you hate something not because it is especially bad, but in the way you hate your own hair-covered body and unrelenting consciousness, because they are synonymous with being annoyed. Right, Rabbit?
PIPE IT IN: You've got your cop bars, your grip bars, your frat bars, and even your lifeguard bars. But did you know about your local neighborhood bagpipe bar? I didn't, until Bill Burdock, proprietor of brew pub Sherlock's Home, explained that one day about 10 years ago, some employees and loyal patrons went into the cask room to carry out the Winter Warmer Olde Ale, and suddenly they were surrounded by the piping of, well, bagpipes. "I couldn't even recall the details," muses Burdock with the singular air of a man surrounded by patrons with epic breath control.
"I think some of the pipers were simply here. They must have been here. Well, you know, we just often have an awful lot of bagpipers about the place..."
You say you can't hardly believe it? Then make sure you're at Sherlock's this Friday, November 27 at 3 p.m., when the first wooden cask of Winter Warmer is "piped in." Why all the hullabaloo? Because Winter Warmer, a dark and malty drink that tastes something between a strong stout and a muscular barley wine, is a rarely seen, labor-intensive seasonal specialty Sherlock's sells only from the day after Thanksgiving until it runs out sometime in the beginning of January. Do me a favor--if you come across a harpsichord bar in your travels, won't you drop me a line?
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