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Red Wagon Pizza Is Americana at Its Finest

The eponymous Red Wagon Pizza

The eponymous Red Wagon Pizza

We don't talk so much about fate anymore. As Americans we like the idea that if a guy pulls himself up by his bootstraps and works hard for a long time, he'll get what's coming to him.

But when you meet Pete Campbell and spend even the shortest time chatting with him about his new pizzeria Red Wagon, it's difficult to imagine him as anything other than a pizza slinger (though he spent the first part of his working life in corporate America and he also did a lot of the above — work hard a long time, boot straps, etc.).

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Seems way back in the day, after WWII, Campbell's grandpa Wilbur "Pop-Pop" Hunt came back from a tour of duty with a yen for Italian-style pizza pie. And because this was 60 years ago, and there wasn't a wood-fired, coal-fired, thin crust, Neapolitan-style, whateverkindapieyoulike pizzeria on every corner in every town, grandpa was forced to take matters into his own hands.

So each Friday without fail, he made pizza, inspired by Italy but of course putting an American spin on it (they lived in New Jersey at the time). The dining room at Red Wagon is anchored by a stunning old black-and-white photo of Pop-Pop enjoying a pie with his young family in a sweet 1950s wood-paneled basement rumpus room.

Campbell likes to say he made his first pizza when he was two years old, when each kid in the house got a quarter of a dough ball and could have his way with it. It always drove him crazy — you can't make a round pie out of a triangulated quarter — so his pieces turned into pepperoni rolls instead. What a happy mistake indeed, because now they're featured at the top of the Red Wagon menu, and are one of the most inspired pizzeria menu items, well, anywhere probably. Think of a crisp, fine slice of pepperoni pizza, twisted inward on itself like a jelly roll, then crisped up some more, with a side of marinara for dunkin'. It's proletariat, American, and ingenious in the way only a kid could figure things out. A mistake is only a mistake if you think of it as such.

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Red Wagon is on its face a neighborhood pizzeria, but it's also a pretty serious restaurant. Campbell has as his chef-de-cuisine Sean Little, whose résumé includes Tilia and Travail, and you can taste it. Naturally, folks are interested in the pizza — the signature Red Wagon pie is brilliant, best-in-class stuff: red sauce, cheese, Columbus Sopressata sliced into ribbons and then placed on their sides for maximum caramelization, banana peppers for salty brine, house-made sausage, chili flakes for fire, and fig balsamic for sweetness. It's one of those things that took years to get perfect — first at family functions, then school fundraisers, then in the pizza wagon, and now, here it is, perfection for you. It's naturally their biggest seller.

But aside from that one, Campbell and crew are taking big chances with their pies. Campbell's quick to point out that 'za is an ancient dish, originating in the 16th century, when your pizza crust was quite literally your plate. And if a crust is merely a plate, there should be no limit as to what gets served on top. A Reuben pie has a rye crust for its base, with house-cured corned beef, and all the typical Reuben fixings piled atop, including kraut and "One Million Island" dressing. Or how about a banh mi pie with soy-glazed pork, pickled carrots, and spicy aioli? The Drunken Pear takes advantage of natural bedfellows Gorgonzola, pears marinated in Grand Marnier, and walnuts, to make for a somehow meaty, meatless pie. The Detroit is built upside-down, with sauce on top.

A word on pizza crust: It's like an author's prose, his signature, his stamp on how he looks not just at gastronomy, but in some cases the world. Campbell, inspired by his grandpa, wanted a deeply American pie. He was thinking about the war, Detroit, the passing of knowledge between generations, Navy ships, and school lunches — school lunches because in 2011 the USDA was trying to pass off tomato sauce on pizza as a vegetable, and as deeply fixated as he was on pizza, Campbell thought that "was fucking nuts." A dad with two kids in school, he got to thinking about how pizza could be something good. Really good. Not just good-tasting, but wholesome, too.

So he got on the horn and started calling around. He wanted heritage wheat, something akin to what they would have been using back in Italy, and even America, lo those many years ago, back when Pop-Pop fell in love.

"Most pizzerias are using this bleached 'OO' flour," says Campbell (OO refers to the finest, most refined, talcum-powder soft flour available). "It's delicious, but it's delicious like Wonder Bread."

Not wanting to feed his kids the pizzeria equivalent of Wonder Bread, he went on a quest and found locally milled Sunrise Flour, made from heritage wheat, with the germ still intact. The end result is that it's nutritious — he doesn't want to make health claims but says that people with gluten intolerance don't have a problem with it — and delicious, too, so much so that he doesn't have to do a two-day fermentation, a pretty much de rigueur practice in the serious pizza crust business, though they do use a biga for complexity. This flour doesn't "play nice" like a big, stretchy dough ball, so they've got to work a little harder with it, but the end result is killer: thin, but not too thin, something like a cross between a Minnesota cracker crust and the crisp-chew of a Neapolitan wood-fired style. The best of both worlds.

Carry your attention to the not-pizza side of the menu and find the "skillets," comforting, composed plates disguised to be more casual than they really are within the confines of a cast-iron pan. If Campbell got his chops from gramps, then Little gives a shout out to his grams with Gram's Country Chicken, a dish he wasn't comfortable tinkering with until he had access to wood fire. He says she still cooks this one for him every time he goes to visit "except she doesn't confit her potatoes in duck fat." She probably also doesn't take chicken skins, crisp them, and then crumble them on her chicken in place of bread crumbs for a deceptive, mightily decadent garnish.

Originally, like all new and hip eating places, they thought to do a charcuterie board, but recognizing that often charcuterie boards offer too many flavors that don't always come together, they instead created one signature sausage and built a dish around it. Boy oh boy, is it a stunner: The Sausage Espagnole has golden raisins, roasted red peppers, and chevre for a richly complex bite, and when it's laid upon a bed of bitter collards, with mouth-puckering pickled Fresno chilis offset by the nuttiness of toasted sunflower seeds, the whole comes off as composed as a Mozart work. If anything in the world is begging to be turned into a pizza pie, it's this, and indeed they've been doing just that for the occasional nightly special.

In the new America, we know that where you come from and what you inherit (or don't) is as important as, or perhaps more important than, bootstraps. Campbell was one of the lucky ones whose bloodline brought him not just work ethic, but passion, cooking chops, and a taste for la belle vie, via the substrate of cheese on dough. You can taste the pedigree, the destiny, and the American dream in every bite.

Red Wagon Pizza 5416 Penn Ave. S., Minneapolis 612-259-7147

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