Zamboni's Pizza catering to the Xcel crowd
Rubbernecking around groups of guys dressed in head-to-toe weatherproof camouflage, we struggle to find any viable parking spot off West Seventh Street and finally realize we're not in the midst of some sort of hunting convention, but at the post-action epicenter of the Red Bull Crashed Ice event, an extreme-skating version of the Olympics that drew almost 90,000 people to St. Paul over a single weekend. "Well, it was great for business," says Zamboni's Pizza co-owner Kyle Walker, "but crazy. Take your regular weekend drinking crowd and mix it up with a bunch of people all jacked up on Red Bull and you get a bouillabaisse of shenanigans."
Spoken like a true downtown restaurateur. But as much as Walker may talk like an industry vet, he is actually a relative newcomer to the business, having recently returned from a long stint out west as an outdoor adventure guide. His partner, Greg Awada, whose family owns Awada's on Plato, grew up in the industry, doing everything from washing dishes to creating menus, and eventually managing Forepaugh's, the fine-dining establishment as famous for its ghosts as for its $50 filet. In their partnership, Awada handles the dough slinging, while Walker handles, well, the dough slinging. Of course in Walker's case the dough refers to the finances, but it's a marriage that's producing some very tasty results.
The duo met when they were students at Henry Sibley and recently decided to go into business for themselves. "We found the place we knew we wanted to buy," says Walker. "I'm a pizza snob, and the place was already fitted with these deck ovens. We went in to what was then 7th Street Pizzeria for lunch, and I knew that I would learn everything I needed to know from ordering a slice of cheese pizza," Walker reminisces. "We would have to start from scratch." They set out on that mission by first creating textbook crispy thin crusts, including a gluten-free version, and their own well-balanced and rich, but not too thick, pizza sauce. "The gluten-free crust is a particularly tricky thing, since we really pride ourselves on our dough. Greg made his own, but it was a really time-consuming process." Zamboni's ultimately decided to use Udi's, a well-respected purveyor of gluten-free products.
In a town verging on being overrun by wood-fired and coal-fired and artisan everything, Zamboni's pizzas offer a refreshing change of pace, taking a more straightforward approach. This is not to say Zamboni's isn't offering anything interesting—it absolutely is. Its whole-wheat crust doesn't sacrifice texture for health benefits, and the roasted vegetable pizza, laden with house-made savory sausage and a mix of sweet roasted vegetables, was named as the favorite pizza by both owners. While our party very much enjoyed that signature pie, we got the biggest reaction from Rosemary, the Italian Blonde—a playful and flavorful white pizza that offers the option of a creamy bechamel sauce or an herbed olive oil in place of the usual tomato base, the same house-made sausage, and a generous sprinkling of fresh rosemary. Similarly, Zamboni's wings were a fantastic surprise, fried to a golden crisp before being bathed in a piquant but not overly spicy buffalo sauce by an employee who sang along to every word from the kitchen radio, but only when it was playing Led Zeppelin.
Zamboni's, aptly named for its close proximity to the hockey rink at Xcel Center, plays somewhat of a culinary David to the Goliath of its across-the-street neighbor, Cosetta. That decades-old establishment recently received funding for a massive expansion, but Walker remains unfazed. "They are the institution to end all institutions," Walker admits, "and we would never say we are trying to compete with a place that does catering and butchering and has those little anise candies that I love. They have the kind of following that's like, 'Thursday means we are going to Cosetta's,' but I think if customers came and did a non-partisan taste test, on the pizza at least, ours would win out. We have a really good product."
While some of Zamboni's nonpizza items—so-so hoagies with softly toasted buns but unremarkable deli meat, salads that were notable only for the house-made croutons, decent but dry ribs, and an inventive pizza burger that was flavorful, if a little overcooked—were generally pass-up-able, the pizza was undeniably good, especially when ordered and eaten in-house. We were somewhat less impressed with the home-delivered incarnation, which had cooled considerably and lost its bubbly cheese and crackly crust qualities. Still, the little details did not go unnoticed, like the lemongrass-infused carrot vinaigrette atop the rough-cut scallions on the Thai chicken pizza, or the inclusion of feta cheese in the sauce of the Greek pizza, which came with artichokes, fresh spinach, olives, and gyro meat. The meat, by the way, is roasted on the spit at Zamboni's (Walker says one of the former owners did a lot of Mediterranean food and left the spit for them in the basement). "We wanted to create our own restaurant," says Walker, "but that doesn't mean we couldn't resurrect some of the flavors from the former owners." The space, cozied up next to Eagle Street bar, has been around for over 150 years and has operated as some type of restaurant for at least the past three periods of ownership. "Getting the liquor license was one of the only real bumps in the road," Walker confesses, "but once we did we thought we should really get some local beers on tap."
That was a smart move, because now Zamboni's is a well-kept secret for getting a quick pre-game beer. They keep in the spirit of local pride by offering everything from Hamm's and Grain Belt's Nordeast to newer brewers like Fulton and, of course, Summit. When asked where they are setting their sights next, Walker is thoughtful and humble in communicating their ambitions. "Right now, we just really like being a downtown business. We like to be part of the community that we serve. Our goal is for people in our neighborhood to rethink that call to Domino's or Papa John's, not just for the service but for the quality of product that they'll get. Maybe they'll end up spending an extra dollar or two to support local business, but they'll be getting so much more in the pizza."
With plenty of options for gluten-free and vegetarian diners, and with quick, cheap eats for downtown pedestrians, Zamboni's seems to have a good thing going. So far, they haven't had to do much hustling. "It helps that we still have the same phone number from when it was 7th Street Pizzeria," Walker laughs. "Hungry people calling us up? That was just about the easiest marketing anyone could ask for."
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