Punch and Duty

Punch Woodfire

704 S. Cleveland Ave., St. Paul


          I'VE NEVER BEEN invited to join the "if you're going to do something, do it right" club, which is undoubtedly clogged with pizza and barbeque sauce perfectionists. Those people would never be able to sit through a meal of frozen pizza and Fudgy the Whale ice cream cake without thinking bitter thoughts. Sometimes it seems that you trade something in (like your soul) for being too stringent. Punch Woodfire Pizza take heed, for you are near perfection.

          Punch Woodfire is a relatively new cafe slavishly devoted to making authentic Neapolitan pizza (that's thin crust to you). All this is explained in the laminated information cards perched on every tabletop. We learn that Punch is the English translation of Pulcinella, a Neapolitan clown-like character from Italy's Commedia Dell Arte. In Naples this Punch character is used as a seal of approval by the Associazione vera pizza Napoletana, an association dedicated to the preservation of authentic Neapolitan pizza. The Associazione vera pizza Napoletana dictates exactly how Neapolitan pizza must be made, and when it comes to the ingredients, recipes, and methods used in the process, Punch Woodfire follows these dictations to the letter. After reading on and on about Punch's wood-burning oven (which replicates those used in Naples for over 100 years), the tomatoes imported from farms near Naples, the fiordi-latte mozzarella made fresh and stored in brine, the flour specially formulated to duplicate flour available only in Italy, and the imported toppings, we began to panic. Where are the guidelines instructing one in the authentic "vera pizza Napoletana" chewing tradition?

          Fortunately, there is a fantastic list of (mostly) Italian wines to nip any such worries in the bud. Although wine is available by the glass at Punch's, our chatty waitress recommended a bottle of Guicciardini Chianti (1994; $14), which could be corked and taken home if not consumed. What better way to begin dinner than with your fist wrapped around a juice glass of earthy, red wine? It certainly took the edge off of being told that I couldn't have what I had been lusting over, pomodoro Mediterraneo ($5.50), a dish of sliced tomatoes, feta, calamata olives, and capers bound with a red wine vinaigrette. But tomato salads are unavailable this time of year, tomatoes being out of season, flavor, and favor.

          Oh well, there are other salads and antipasti in the sea. The olivada, a spread of chopped Saracene olives and garlic covered with a bit of parmesan and a blade of chive, was excellent on top of the accompanying focaccia, chewy and fragrant with fresh rosemary ($3.50). My cousin, never one to mince words or search for vague adjectives, gave it his highest accolade: This is good. The small salad we ordered was anything but, a garden of romaine, calamata olives, feta, and an odd peperoncini and cucumber, tossed with oregano in a red wine vinaigrette.

          The menu is made up of, you guessed it, pizza in all its obsessively prepared glory, though a few pannini di napoli show up (them be sandwiches, cousin). We passed on these (for up to $8 a sandwich, I hope that they're filled with lots of delicious things) and went right for a pizza. "I could eat a whole one myself when I'm really hungry" said our trim and pert waitress, pivoting herself around so that we could take her size and appetite into account when ordering. We erred on the side of caution, and choose to share the quattro Stagioni ($8.95). Sounded like a porn star and tasted delicious. The crust was crisp and delicate, full of pockets of air yet robust enough to do justice to the heap of toppings--calamata olives, roasted red pepper, mushrooms, and artichokes--all artfully arranged in sections and spiked with basil. I don't think that there is a pizza on the list that you'd be disappointed in, and it's great fun to watch the chefs slide them in and out of the brick wood-burning oven.

          The desserts sound promising, if a bit on the heavy side. On our visit the kitchen offered a pumpkin cheese cake, a three-layer chocolate torte, and a rum-raisin bread pudding ($3.50). We skipped those and capped dinner off with espresso ($1.25), served in coffee mugs just in case you were worried that you wouldn't get enough.

          This only thing we could have wished for was more chaos. The pizza is right on, but who wants to feel like they're eating it in a museum? Everything is so quiet here; where's the music, warmth, and mess? All we could see for "fun" was a sculpture of what I suppose was a naked woman made out of burnished aluminum, a few well-placed chaffs of wheat, and an authentic Italian street sign. Maybe it's the saffron-colored walls that makes everything seem dour; someone turn those lights down. Otherwise, Punch's is a welcome sight for eyes long assaulted by fast food signs and cardboard pizza boxes, and taste buds that don't mind an intimate dinner of pizza and wine that strives for perfection.


          IS THIS TABLE GETTIN' SMALLER OR AM I GETTIN' FATTER?: Do you find yourself out of humor as the year draws to an end? Restore your lust for life by visiting Pronto (1300 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 333-4414), which features the food and wines of Sicilia this month. Sicilia, previously known as the granary of the Roman Empire, is a melting pot of culinary influences and traditions. Oh, what a stuffing you'll be in for as the chefs work wonders with lobster medallions, rack of lamb, risotto, and pasta, among other things. Next month's featured region: Lazio. To tide you over, here's a featured Sicilian recipe for Braciole di Tonno Ripieno:

* 4 oz. fresh tuna,
diced to 1/4 inch

* 1/2 onion, finely chopped

* 1/2 c. olive oil

* 1 Tbsp. fresh basil, chopped

* 1/2 tsp. thyme

* 1 Tbsp. brandy

* 1 Tbsp. soft bread crumbs

* 2 eight oz. pieces of fresh tuna cut one inch thick

* 2 thin slices Cacciocavallo cheese

          Procedure: Heat the olive oil and saute the diced tuna and onions over medium heat until the onions are tender. As soon as the onions begin to brown, add herbs and brandy. When the brandy has evaporated, add bread crumbs and remove from heat. Cut a pocket in each tuna piece by making an incision in the side, cutting almost all the way through. This will allow the fish to be stuffed. Place a slice of Cacciocavallo cheese and one half of the stuffing inside each piece of fish. Grill each piece of stuffed tuna for five minutes on each side. Serve with fresh lemon wedges.

          HUNTING SEASON: In celebration of the holiday season, Napa Valley Grille (located in the Mall of America, Bloomington) will present a Wild Game Festival, featuring the tastes of seasonal meats offered in a sumptuous four-course meal. Running through the end of the year, Executive Chef Eric Scherwinski promises guests a menu of festive seasonal fare. The menu varies through the festival, but let your imagination simmer over the following array of goodies: a first course of pan-seared venison dumplings, presented in a sweet and sour cabbage salad with a spicy soy-ginger glaze, followed by an organic greens salad with pheasant confit and served with maytag blue cheese, pumpernickel croutons and port wine vinaigrette. Then you have a choice of two entrees: grilled ostrich filet or Macadamia grilled blue marlin steak. And for dessert? Dried cranberry-apricot tart. The cost of this pre fixe menu is $49.95; $59.95 if you want the wines recommended per course and coffee with your dessert. Call 858-9934 for reservations.

          JITTER ME PINK: Coffee snobs and softees shouldn't miss Calhoun Square's Sixth Annual Coffee Festival on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 3001 Hennepin Ave., in the heart of Uptown. Come and taste the wares from legions of coffee houses, roasters, and bakeries including Crema Cafe, Illy Espresso, Sebastian Joe's, Figlio, and Barbara Jo's Biscotti. The event costs $5 per person, and if you are one of the first 1,000 people to arrive, you'll go home with a lovely 1996 commemorative Coffee Tasting mug.


          IT'S SPRING INSIDE: At least, in the hearts of Beaujolais Nouveau lovers everywhere. Cognac McCarthy's Grill is setting aside the Irish to honor the French tradition of celebrating the release of the first vintage of Beaujolais wine. Thursday through Sunday enjoy the wines of Joseph Drouhin along with some French countryside cuisine. Among the items will be cassoulet with lamb and duck, butternut and acorn squash, roasted garlic soup, rack of lamb with carmelized shallot and thyme crust, and roasted duckling with a thyme and dried cherry compote. Of course, all guests receive a complimentary glass of Beaujolais Nouveau, so you should have no cause to be a grouch and forget to bring an unwrapped holiday gift as a donation for Toys for Tots. Cognac McCarthy's is located at 162 N. Dale St., St. Paul; call 224-4617 for reservations.

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