Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Pizza Margherita from Punch Pizza | Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Pizza Margherita from Punch Pizza
There is no such thing as bad sex or bad pizza.
True enough. I grew up in New York, the home of some of the world's best pizza, which takes its cultural culinary cues from Naples, Italy. While the New York City "slice" pizza may be the most popular, traditionally sized and oversized versions of Verace (or Vera) Pizza Napoletana rule the roost when it comes to pizza greatness. And some of the best VPN pizza in America is being cooked here in the Twin Cities.
Naples, Italy, was the birthplace of pizza. It was there that early pizzaioli first started topping dough with tomatoes and cheese and hand-firing it. Tomatoes arrived in Italy in the late 1500s via Peru, but most Europeans thought them poisonous, until 18th-century Neapolitans began to use the fruit on their famous flatbreads. Italian immigration brought pizza to America, where it has been fetishized to the point of irrational reverence. I count myself among the most guilty.
Pizza history is important. Gennaro Lombardi created the New York-style pie at hi grocery store on Spring Street in 1905, selling Neapolitan pizza to great Italian deep-dish pie in Chicago in the 1940s (that's not really pizza, but it's nice to toss the Windy City a bone). Minnesota's Rose Totino ushered in the age of frozen pizza when she and her family patented the dough they created with the Pillsbury folks in 1979.
In the early '80s, handfuls of committed food geeks, some of them famous chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Ed LaDou, began channeling VPN-style pizza in California. Hundreds of other chefs and restaurants followed suit, including Chris Bianco, whose eponymous Arizona eatery had been a mecca for pizza lovers for more than two decades. Amongst the smitten was a young John Soranno, who lived in Milan as a kid, fell in love with the pizza, learned the pizzaioli's craft in Nice, France, and came back to Highland in St. Paul, where he opened Punch Pizza in 1996.
VPN-style pizza requires specific ingredients with bespoke pedigrees for official designation, but its roots are rather simple. A fresh hand-pulled dough made with "00" high-gluten flour and a small amount of "0" flour, crushed San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella di bufala cheese, and a stunning olive oil are all that's required. The addition of basil makes it an honest pizza margherita. The construction of the pie is intentionally small by necessity since the combination of ingredients, the paper-thin crust, and the 900-degree wood-burning oven in which they are cooked for 90 seconds or so result in a wet-centered pie, making larger formats impossible.
Soranno is a card-carrying member of the VPN brotherhood and is obsessed with honesty and authenticity. The combination means the dough is stunningly charred, crusty, and deliriously chewy at the same time. The acidity in the tomatoes stands up to the milky serenity the cheese deposits on the plate every time you pull the slices off of it. Soranno resisted expansion for years until he felt comfy training in a new generation of pizzaioli, but the story is bigger than that. Punch Pizza has elevated the food scene in the Twin Cities by pursuing excellence, accepting nothing less, and attracting national attention to our town for an incongruous success. Who would have thought Minnesota would be home to some of the best pizza in America? Recognizing the high standard set, and inspired to compete for our Neapolitan hunger, other pizza joints have popped up on the landscape, making us truly rich in the ways of Naples.
As you read above, Punch's John Sorrano set the bar locally for Neapolitan pies. It's simply the best. Nine metro locations, including 704 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul, 651-696-1066, punchpizza.com
Up in Elk River (which is on the Northstar LRT line, by the way) sits a small pizza shop that probably has the best white pies in the state. The perfectly charred and chewy Neapolitan crusts are topped with a rich creme fraiche sauce in place of red tomato base. Along with fresh mozzarella and parmigiano, the toppings run traditional, such as ground pistachios and rosemary, or creative as with garlic salami and avocados. Either way, these personal pies feel luxe and bring an unexpected lift to your pizza routine. 315 Jackson Ave., Elk River, 763-633-1222, pompeiipizzeria.net
Tucked into a slip of a space in Nordeast, Pizza Nea has quietly been making high-quality Neapolitan pies for 12 years. You know how all the fancy shops now put an egg on pizza and expect you to flip your lid? Hey kids, it's called Pizza Bianco Con Uovo, and Nea's been doing it since 2002. With one of the biggest menus of local Neapolitan shops, it’s hard not to find your perfect pie: The earthy Puttanesca with anchovies and no cheese or the Rucola with its smoked mozzarella and pile of fresh arugula and prosciutto are two for the ages. 306 Hennepin Ave. E., Mpls., 612-331-9298, pizzanea.com
Brick’s Neapolitan Pizza can be elegant, as proven by the ones served up at Brick’s in Hudson. Brick’s is proudly VPN-certified, and as a full-service eatery, it treats pizza as a real and true meal, not just something to be slammed around a box and snarfed on a couch. Pies here are traditional, so don’t expect Buffalo chicken. Do expect housemade sausage and mozzarella di bufala imported right from the old country. 407 2nd St., Hudson, 715-377-7670, eatbricks.com