It's the Fourth of July weekend and the air inside Sven & Ole's Grand Marais pizzeria is as hot and stuffy as the cab of an F-150 with a busted air conditioner. Extended families occupy every seat in the place, and there's a line at the counter for takeout service. Another line forms outside of a screened in window for pizza by the slice.
The cartoonish portrait of a couple of guys named Sven & Ole is about as synonymous with the northern Minnesota town of Grand Marais as seagulls and sailboats. Two cherubs with Scandinavian names eye-slice each other in a manner that could almost be interpreted as conspiratorial. These two dudes have the whole town and all of its tourists duped.
According to their website, Sven & Ole's Pizza began as a humble snack shack catering to Fisherman's Picnic, an annual Grand Marais and Cook County street festival. Brothers Sid and Terry Backlund sold popcorn, nachos, hot dogs, pop, their mom's brownies, and a few other items. We wish they would have stopped at that. They didn't. To date, they've been in business over 35 years.
It's taken me 15 years of traveling to the area to finally bow to the mild temptation of trying what is dubiously billed as Scandinavian pizza. The combination of those two words should put off any thinking person, so the blame is really on us. Though if we hadn't ordered out, we could have bought a pizza at almost any nearby retail establishment, as coolers packing frozen pies are ubiquitous in the area. Signage like the Scandinavian accented "Yew Heven't Bin Tew Grand Marais Til Yew've Bin Tew Sven & Ole's Pizza" looms over the town. The notion to give Sven & Ole's a whirl gets under your skin like the northern chill.
Anyway, after settling on a Margherita pizza and a Caesar salad, we paid our $26 and waited the 40 minutes it would take to produce the pie. What arrived was something roughly the consistency of frozen breadsticks, covered in cheap imitation Parmesan cheese, wan tomatoes, and flecks of basil that may or may not have been fresh at one time. We wondered: Is this the pizza, or the box it came in?
By no means were we expecting a model version of the classic, but nor were we expecting to be disabused of our longheld notion that pizza is good even when it's bad.
We buried what we could of it in the sand and later felt a twinge of guilt for the poor gulls who would find it.
Of course, it's no matter that Sven & Ole's might technically be the worst pizza we've ever tasted. Congregations blithely and happily put down thousands of these pies every year. Clever marketing, a prime location, and something that sort of resembles pizza make Sven & Ole's the most recognizable restaurant on the North Shore. (Though this week's cover story has a suggestion for where to go instead if you're in Grand Marais.)
Proving you can sell anything to anyone under the right circumstances, two Scandinavians opened a pizzeria, and the tourists found that the boxes make great bonfire kindling.
Sven & Ole's
9 West Wisconsin St., Grand Marais