The best seat in the house at Pizzeria Lola is the third stool from the oven, among those that line the bar. It offers a panoramic view of all the pizza-making activity, including a direct sight line into the copper-clad cooker's fiery mouth and a cozy proximity to the hot breath it exhales.
From any seat at the bar, it becomes apparent that working Lola's oven is a nuanced skill. Pizzas are fired, vegetables roasted, and crostini toasted with a few efficient motions. Before sliding an uncooked pie into the fire, the oven master gives the wooden peel a quick shimmy so any loose pieces of cheese will fall to the kitchen's floor instead of the oven's. He cracks a couple of raw eggs into a bowl, readying them to top a par-cooked pie. During the rare moments the oven isn't full, he sweeps out any char dust with a broom. And if the temperature needs to be boosted, he balances another log on a long cantilever and, with a flick of the wrist, tosses it onto the flaming woodpile. "This is fun," a woman at the bar exclaimed as the oven master fed the fire. One could spend hours watching the coals glow orange and the pizza cheese bubble.
The former Xerxes Market, located where the avenue intersects 56th Street in south Minneapolis, has been replaced with a quirky, contemporary interior that's worthy of a glossy architecture magazine. The cylindrical, copper-covered oven is the room's focal point, and track lighting with tomato-can fixtures radiate outward. The floor is stained concrete, and the wood-lined walls are as snug as a sauna. Vintage soda bottles—the Wisconsin-made Ting, its name lettered in a Jetsons-era font—double as flower vases. And old-fashioned cigarette tins from the likes of Lucky Strike and Rolled Gold ferry the check between cash register and table. Don't forget to memorialize your visit with a trip to the photo booth in back, near the restrooms.
Lola is the work of two first-time restaurateurs, Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur, who shed jobs in theater and finance, respectively, to open the pizzeria. Leifur is in charge of operations, while Kim focuses on food with the help of chef Chris Hinrichs, who most recently worked at Barrio St. Paul. Though the restaurant is named after Leifur and Kim's pizza-eating dog, Lola, Kim's face is the one most patrons will likely come to recognize, as the petite Asian woman can almost always be spotted topping pizza after pizza or circulating through the dining room to check on her customers.
Last year Kim trained at the International School of Pizza in San Francisco, the only United States affiliate of Italy's famous Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli, to become certified as a pizza maker. She says her pizza takes cues from both Neapolitan and East Coast styles, but it breaks with those traditions when it comes to toppings. She piles dough rounds with everything from almonds to potatoes, and soon hopes to leverage her Korean heritage to create a kimchee sausage pizza. Ingredients are spare but of good quality and carefully curated: This is pizza far too precious to feed to the family dog.
Lola is a good spot for families (the ambient din is loud enough to drown out an infant's cries), though a famished teen might easily ring up a $30 tab. The restaurant's mod ambiance and thoughtful wine and craft-beer lists make it attractive to parents looking for more polish than the area's pizza joints typically provide. (Aside from Parasole's new Mozza Mia, at 50th and France, the neighborhood's pizzerias tend to specialize in Midwestern-style thick-crust, cheese-heavy pies. Many don't serve alcohol, and if they do it's more than likely to be mass-market American lager.) The dining experience at Lola feels a touch more upscale—date-worthy, even—than at its competition in the local gourmet-pizza category, Punch, Black Sheep, and Pizza Nea. Lola is also more expensive. While the other Neapolitan-style and coal-oven-fired pizzas hover around $10 a pop, the majority of Lola's pizzas cost $14 or $15.
In a couple of cases, drab pizza toppings made those prices seem too steep. One pie nicely paired Iowa-made prosciutto from La Quercia with roasted garlic, but the arugula on top lacked its characteristic peppery bite—it was about as aggressive as iceberg lettuce. Another nightly special featured some sorely underseasoned meatballs that lacked the zip that chiles, fennel, or salt can lend.
But nearly everything else on Lola's menu exudes excellence. The straightforward pizzas at Lola are good—for example, a basic mushroom and cheese pizza is made with roasted specialty mushrooms and sprinkled with truffle salt—but the funkier the flavors, the better.
The Hawaii Pie-O revives a concept most of us tried once as kids and rejected. But by using Berkshire bacon—it's rich, salty, meaty, and nothing like the commonly used Canadian bacon that resembles soggy cold cuts—Lola nails the classic fruit-and-meat combo. The Sweet Italian makes a similar play by matching salty, fennel-loaded, house-made sausage with sweet, piquante peppers. Layered into a bed of melted mozzarella and provolone, it makes for a killer pairing.
Squash on a pizza might seem too starchy, but pats of the butternut and spaghetti squash on Lola's Seasonal Pie are moist and sweet, enriched by brown butter, Taleggio cheese, and crushed sage. If mom and dad don't want to fight the kids for slices, the bitterness of the sautéed rapini (also called broccoli rabe) on the Xerxes may turn off younger diners, yet it makes an assertive partner for tangy feta cheese and the briny meat of kalamata olives.
Some diners may get squeamish about the Sunnyside, a blend of cured pork cheek, sliced leeks, pecorino cheese, and cream that comes with two sunny-side-up eggs on top. It might be tempting to ask the cook to put the pie back in the oven for another minute or two, but the runny yolk adds extra richness to the nutty cheese and makes a terrific dipping sauce for the crust. But the crusts—bubbly, chewy, with just a hint of char—are also good enough to stand on their own.
Part of the key to Lola's crispy-tender crust is the restaurant's Le Panyol oven, the first in the Twin Cities. It's a French import with an igloo-shape dome built from blocks of special Terre Blanche, or white earth clay, known since the 19th century for its superior heat-retention properties. The other important factor is Kim's attention to her dough. After months of experimentation with every variable—ingredients, ratios, temperatures, mixing times—she settled on a simple recipe of finely ground Italian 00 flour, salt, yeast, and water. The dough is made with a starter like that of artisan breads and uses the fermentation process, plus the specks of char it picks up while baking, to boost its flavor.
To supplement the pizzas, Lola serves various vegetables, salads, and meaty morsels. Be sure to order at least one of them. The roasting process can transform a vegetable's flavor, and the beautifully browned Brussels sprouts and cauliflower at Lola could entice Americans to meet their five-a-day goal. Mixed greens with multicolored beets, tangy goat cheese, and hazelnuts balances several hearty flavors with delicate ones. And a ceramic boat of marinara-smothered house-ground meatballs will sail straight into your gullet.
Desserts are utterly simple and evocative of childhood. Choose between cookies and soft-serve. The chocolate chip rounds are on the cakey side and not overly sweet. They're fine, but the milk—thick and positively icy, it's rich enough to be a dessert by itself—was actually a more refreshing finish after indulging in so many carbs. The soft-serve is made at the restaurant with local milk and cream and tastes nothing like its fast-food brethren. The texture is far silkier and the flavor more pronounced, as the vanilla is flavored with the precious Madagascar-grown pods and the pistachio tastes of actual nuts, not the usual florescent-green, artificially flavored stuff.
The only trouble with Lola is that it's perhaps too popular. (Unsurprising considering that Minneapolis's neighborhoods south of Lake Harriet are essentially restaurant deserts, with the exception of Lola's neighbor, Cave Vin, and a few restaurants along Penn Avenue.) Lola doesn't take reservations, so plan on arriving before 6:30 or after 8 if you want to get a booth or a table—or sitting at the bar if you don't want to wait. Also, three times I tried to order the cherry-sweet soft drink Cheerwine and the poached tuna conserva with cannellini beans and both were unavailable. But at least the pizza production seems infinite. As fast as you can devour a slice, the dough-shaper has pulled another blob into a flat circle, placed it on a peel, and stretched it to the edges, ready for topping and a trip to the oven.