Punch Drunk Love
704 Cleveland Ave. S., St Paul, 651.696.1066
8353 Crystal View Rd. (off Prairie Center Drive), Eden Prairie, 952.943.9557
306 E. Hennepin, Minneapolis, 612.331.9298
1702 Lexington Ave. N., Roseville, 651.488.1700
4756 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.823.7555
If I were to say to you, Now, behind that door you are guaranteed to find either diamonds, pratfalls, or pizza, you would be helpless to resist that door, wouldn't you? Oh, don't lie. You'd have to. And that, that is the problem with pizza, the main problem really, and it's the same one that pratfalls and diamonds have: Even lackluster examples remain intriguing.
Which brings us, of course, to the biggest mystery of dining in the Twin Cities these last several years: Why aren't there just untold hundreds of Punch Neapolitan Pizzas, on your block and my block and on every block all the way from the airport to that big ball of twine and back again?
Now, if you don't know what a Punch Neapolitan Pizza is, I don't really know whether to regard you with envy or scorn. See, Punch, which was born in a little storefront in Highland Park in 1996, is the place that has pioneered, championed, and generally perfected official Neapolitan pizzas in Minnesota--pizzas made like they would have been in Naples in the days before television. That means they have to be made in a real wood-fired oven, with real, just-made mozzarella, on a crust that's as simple as can be (and has no weird dough-softeners or other chemical additives), and, if it's got tomatoes, those tomatoes will be real San Marzano tomatoes, canned tomatoes grown in a very hot and sunny part of Italy on volcanic soils which quickly drain any rain away from the plants, resulting in a very concentrated flavor.
It sounds simple, right? But this simple formula makes, in the hands of Punch, the best pizza in town--and, for my money, some of the best pizza in the country. The biscuity, smoke-blessed crust, the sweet acid bright of the tomatoes mellowed by the rich green notes of good olive oil and broadened by the lilting cream and salt of the fresh cheese. I get to thinking about it and it's all I can do not to climb atop the state Capitol and start yodeling the "William Tell Overture." Yes, that's how good they are.
The toppings are as exciting as could be: top-flight prosciutto, red peppers roasted in their wood oven, fantastic little saracene olives, and too many more to list. Salads before the meal include things like a Caesar with plenty of garlic, real Parmesan, and chubby, golden croutons. The wine list is a model of focus and excellence: There's always a nice array of Italian wines priced under $25 a bottle, and they tend to buy big in good vintages, so you're drinking better than you've any right to. Dessert is Sonny's ice cream, and they even do their Lavazza espresso quite well. Sigh. See? If you've never been there, I feel scorn for you.
Or, like I said, envy. You know that Robert Browning quote about how man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for? Well, every time I come out of Punch I feel that kind of singular crabbiness that I most closely identify with being seven, on the day after your birthday, when you look darkly around the world and think, People are not trying quite as hard to please me as they might.
Of course with all this less-is-most excellence, there's always a line out the door at Punch. (Please note that the no-reservations policy does allow you to call ahead and get your name on the list, or, if you have a group of six or more, you can make reservations on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays.) And so, like I said, the mystery, the misery has long been: Why aren't there more of them? They could be carting money away in dump trucks. Why? Why?
Why? For spite, obviously. I mean, why else?
Okay, yes, a Punch opened in Eden Prairie last year, but: whoop de doo. Eden Prairie is even farther from Minneapolis than Highland Park. Goodie goodie for Edina, now they've got the Restoration Hardware and a Punch within striking distance. Now all they need is that one guy to get around to raking and the whole suburb can float up to heaven on a gossamer breeze. And yes, a Punch, a quick-serve, lesser Punch is supposed to open in Calhoun Village in Minneapolis sometime before Christmas. What are we, second-class citizens? If you prick us, do we not pay outrageous amounts of money for country Italian? Hey, just look at Figlio--Minneapolitans are the very suckers that started this whole thing!
Harrumph. It was in just such a spirit of high-keyed emotionalism that I set out to survey the current Minneapolis Neapolitan pizza scene, to visit Pizza Biga and Pizza Nea, separate, independently owned places that hie to all the Neapolitan pizza traditions, places that freely admitted, when I talked to the owners in the various restaurants' planning stages, that they were modeling themselves after Punch. Hey, if Punch wouldn't bring more Punches to the people, someone had to.
Pizza Nea was the first to do it. This offshoot of the best bagel shop in Roseville opened last winter across the street from Surdyk's. The second was Pizza Biga, which opened last spring as part of the Turtle Bread complex on 47th Street and Chicago Avenue South. Before I went to either of these, I had a revelation: You know how there's that place in Ohio that's a doorway to the ghost dimension? Maybe it's the same way for that original Punch in Highland Park, maybe that little strip of Cleveland Avenue is built over some kind of wormhole to Naples? To make sure this wasn't so, I packed my Conestoga wagon full of pemmican and good woolen blankets, and set out across the plains toward Eden Prairie. I mean, what if they couldn't even pull off the Punch magic at Punch Eden Prairie? That would prove something.
Woe to my rising sense of jealousy, they pulled it off in spades. Everything about the Eden Prairie Punch filled every desire one could have for a great pizza place. The salads are as homemade as ever, the pizzas as harmonic and well-knit as old songs played by people who were born to them, the wines as value-priced as ever, and while the room was definitely a little American wealthy generic (are we in Denver? San Diego? Eh?), it's not like I didn't know it was going to be that way. Moreover, the staff was such a friendly, gung ho, well-informed, well-coordinated bunch that all worries eased away, in that way that only a well-oiled restaurant can provide. (Each Punch pizza costs between $7 and $11, and serves one, with a slice or two as takeout for breakfast.)
Well then, then I really had the fire in me. I watered the horses and headed back across the plains. On to Pizza Nea! Eureka! When I visited the place last winter it was truly nothing special, but now they have managed to iron out the bugs, and it's a lovely feather in our collective Neapolitan pizza cap. Visit Pizza Nea now and you'll find that the crusts are unique and very likable: pure and plain, floury, airy, and crisp. The fior di latte mozzarella is beyond reproach, all fresh and mild. The quattro-stagione ($11.50) pizza, the one made with the ingredients in separate quadrants, is made just like it is in Italy, a smorgasbord wheel with good meaty salami, fresh roasted mushrooms with nice concentration, a thick, rich sort of prosciutto that cries out with rustic charm, and, shockingly, even great artichokes--not the kind that taste canned and pickled, but the kind that are deep green and taste roasted and fresh. The pizza cookers at Pizza Nea have figured out how to give the crust a touch of char while leaving the mozzarella fresh and light; they should all take a bow.
So should owner Mike Sherwood, who has put together a trim and tidy wine list that is pizza-destination ideal: It's full of all kinds of southern European varieties, most priced around $20 a bottle, or $5 or $6 a glass, and really each of the reds are big, high-acid, well-balanced country wines that go perfectly with pizza. I wish I could put a gold star on this list and pin it up on a blackboard for the rest of the class to admire.
Try the juicy Castel d'Oro Chianti ($5 a glass, $19 a bottle) for a great example of how the fruit of the vine and the fruit of San Marzano complement each other. (Okay, just this once, I'm going to give in to you beer types, so Achtung! At Pizza Nea, they also have loads of good pizza beers, namely, the sweeter ales and lawnmower beers that complement, instead of fight with, the sugar inherent in tomatoes and fresh cheese. Try the Bell's Amber, James Page Amber, Summit EPA, or even ye olde Grain Belt if you're wanting to test this thesis.)
The staff was sweet and attentive, and to tell you the truth I was so charmed by this current incarnation of Pizza Nea, off its training wheels and ready for life in long pants, that I even went back for a lunch to make sure I hadn't gone nuts. That's when I discovered the most miraculous thing, a totally new version of Minnesota's national dish, artichoke ramekin. This thing is called carciofo ($5.50), and it looks for all the world like a plate of hot whipped cream. It's not. It's a bowl of hot garlic, cheese, and artichoke lather that is so very frothy, foamy, spicy, rich, and compelling that at this moment I don't know whether I most want to eat another, or just race around showing people: Can you believe it? A new artichoke ramekin! A foam artichoke ramekin! It comes with lots of wood-fired oven flatbread and is certainly big enough for two--though if you've got some of those cheese-itarian youth at home, this might be your ideal takeout for them. In short, if you live in Northeast or University-world, I seriously recommend you give this little can-do spot another try.
I hope I'll be able to say the same about Pizza Biga one day, because as of this writing the place is pretty much a crapshoot of the good, the bad, and the ugly. I've visited the place three times lately and had pizzas so dried and cracked with kitchen abandonment that they looked like something in need of attention by furniture restoration experts. And I've also had pizzas that were so unexceptional they might as well have been frozen grocery store ones. And I've also had a lovely pie with a bit of fire to the crust and plush bubbles of fresh mozzarella up top.
How can you, gentle reader, get the good ones? Beats me. If you went to high school with one of the servers it might help. Otherwise, the staff is so preposterously unfamiliar with the art of service that they will tend to do things like drop the check with the appetizers (perhaps out of disbelief that grown-ups might want both appetizers and entrées?), walk away in the very middle of the sentence in which you're giving your order, answer questions about the menu with, "I dunno, it's just weird here," and, you know, argue with you about perfectly ridiculous things, like whether the white wine they want to serve is the red wine you ordered.
(Speaking of which, the place currently has the worst wine program imaginable for a restaurant of its type. As of my last two visits, you can order from either the preposterously overpriced, pizza-irrelevant wine list from sister four-star, fancy-pants restaurant Levain, or one of three singularly inappropriate house wines--Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. In a universe where budget Italian varietals are falling from the sky, it's hard to make sense of this. Perhaps it's just weird here?)
Oh well, like all great periods of suffering, my Pizza Biga visit taught me what I never would have suspected: There is a point when service can become so destructive and off-putting that it can ruin even wood-fired pizza. But what I really learned is a lesson more valuable than rubies: The reason it took Pizza Nea half a year to find its legs, the reason there isn't a Punch on every corner is that this art of Neapolitan pizza is obviously a darn mite trickier than it seems from the receiving end. I mean, what I really learned this week is that comedy may be hard, but diamonds, pratfalls, and making Neapolitan pizza is harder.
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