Not so very long ago here in the upper Midwest, pizza meant only a few things. It meant cheesy square-cut pies, cheesy triangle-cut pies, and cheesy frozen pies. And pizza being like sex in that it's good even when it's bad, we didn't mind! It's pizza, and some pizza is better than no pizza.
Now, in relatively no time at all, we're living in an upper Midwest where we speak in terms of crumb, gluten percentages, fermentation time, and wood-fire. We think nothing of how far we've come.
But we've come very far. And Steve Lott and his pizzeria, Big River Pizza, may be the embodiment of a quintessential pizza crossroads, of Minnesota and Italy and beyond.
Lott calls his pies "Minneapolitan," a coming together of Neapolitan and Minnesotan. A quick primer on Neapolitan-style pizza: It's delicate and crisp on the outside, tender and elastic within, cooked at a very high temperature in a wood-fired oven, sparingly topped, and considered by many the world over to be the ultimate pizza.
It's also a pizza most of us hadn't encountered even a decade ago unless we'd travelled to Naples, where it's a "protected designation of origin" (DOP) product. Meaning you can be heavily fined if you try to bastardize the real McCoy.
At first glance, Big River seems to serve Neapolitan-style pizza. But Lott came by pizza the same way as many of us: as a Midwestern kid going to neighborhood pizzerias, the kind with jukeboxes and pitchers of beer and most definitely not overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Like you and me, some of his favorite local pies are from Dulono's and from Savoy, those cheesy, square-cut pepperoni and sausage pizzas made with relatively heavy dough.
"I mean, if a guy can't make a decent pepperoni pizza, we might as well break up right now," says Lott, cuttingly funny and deadpan. "There's no point going forward with the relationship."
The relationship he tries to have with his clientele is to be their "Pizza Spirit God." How does one go about living up to the role of almighty Pizza Spirit God?
Lott tries to hang out in the front and get a read on folks. Did they come in because they heard about Big River's specialty pies, like the Chet, with a chili oil base, pork jowl, arugula, and lemon? Or, did they come in because they're hungry? "There's a difference," says Lott.
He asks where they like to eat their pizza (besides Big River, of course). If they're a Dulono's or Savoy kind of eater, he might hip them to the fact that he's happy to make them a Hawaiian pizza with the pineapple, or a Classic Supreme with everything including the kitchen sink, even though those kinds of pies aren't advertised on the menu.
Of course, the beauty of this is that you can choose your own pizza adventure, where one night you might want a Neapolitan Margherita, all fresh basil, pink slick of tomato, and little else; and the next, a gargantuan Supreme, heavy on the mozz. Either way, Big River has got you.
Lott is using an impressive, Italian-imported Valoriani pizza oven, a handmade beauty designed for five generations to produce gold-standard DOP Neapolitan pizzas. It churns out a world-class crust with the crisp-chew lovers of Neapolitan pies crave (Lott calls it almost a "shell" that yields into the pillow beneath) and respectable char.
But that's not where he first started his pizza journey. He was coming from Chicago, where the neighborhood pies are heavier and cheesier and the dough is a little bit chewier.
In Naples, if you use anything other than the finely ground flour that the recipe demands, you're bastardizing the name of Neapolitan pie. But here, where there are no rules, Lott hybridizes his product by using the flour of a more Midwestern-style pizza (think heavier, wetter, chewier). With this hybrid he arrives at his proprietary "Minneapolitan" pizza — a little bit Naples, a little bit Minnesota. A lot delicious.
Admittedly, the geekiness of flours and doughs and how they differ can become a quagmire.
"It can get really fun, and it can also get really confusing," says Lott.
That's why we're so lucky to have the Pizza Spirit God in our midst, to keep the fun on our side and the confusion on his.
Some of the most fun to be had at Big River includes the Bacon Jam Slam, a relatively straightforward pie with crushed tomato, shredded mozz, white onion, and sausage. But then, your taste buds get an awakening jolt with bacon jam, a caramelized concoction that's pretty much what it sounds like — ultra sweet, smoky, and bewitching enough that you'll think of slathering it on breakfast toast.
We also love the textbook-perfect Proud Mary, their version of a Margherita, again with crushed tomato, fresh Italian mozzarella, and basil. The cheese melts into a gooey pool like liquid marshmallow. The center droop of the crust progresses into crisp-chew until you reach the outer edges, which graduate into aggressive char. The whole thing is an experience that you no longer need to travel to Naples for.
Lott started Big River as a roving pizza wagon at the farmers market, and he hasn't forgotten those roots. Watch closely as the pizzas change with the seasons. It's easy really, with Big River's proximity to the St. Paul Farmers' Market, visible from the massive dining room windows. He may be an old-school pizza guy, but Lott has a major soft spot for the likes of spring asparagus, ramps, and morels. Find all of them on his pies right about now.
From Chicago to the St. Paul Farmers' Market, and with the age-old influence of Neapolitan pizza tradition, the most important part of Lott's pizza journey is that now he's one of ours. A Minnesotan making Minneapolitan pizza. You won't find it anywhere else.
Pro tips: Big River is in the midst of adding charcuterie plates, starting an in-house sausage-making program, adding live music on weekends, and growing the dessert offerings. Keep an eye on them. They're always up to something big.
Big River Pizza
280 Fifth St. E., St. Paul
menu items: $7-$25