Pie in the Sky

You embark on a quest for the perfect pizza. What you find is the meaning of life.

Any pursuit of pizza perfection is, like the cheese-stuffed crust, a concept that’s ultimately doomed. There are as many opinions on pizza as there are toppings. And nothing is as untrustworthy as the voice of someone who purports to have discovered the little slice of heaven. Not that writers haven’t tried. The esteemed food critic Jeffrey Steingarten got very specific about his idea of the perfect pie in his book It Must’ve Been Something I Ate: “14–18 inches in diameter, rimmed with a wide, puffy, charred circumferential border; heavier, thinner, crisper, and chewier than the Neapolitan original; made with high-protein bread flour; and topped with lavish quantities of cooked tomato sauce, thick slabs of fresh cow’s milk mozzarella, olive oil, and most often—36 percent of the time—pepperoni.”

Circumferential border? Is there any other kind on a pizza? Suffice it to say that, while I’ve declared my favorites here, I didn’t spend a week eating my way through nearly a dozen Twin Cities pizzerias with the goal of detailed culinary analysis. Rather, I pulled back for the big picture, because, as my editor convincingly argued, pizza is a larger story than deep-dish versus thin-crust. Pizza is, in his words, “what makes America run. Without pizza, the economy would collapse.” So much depends upon a red-sauced pizza glazed with grease…. We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Pizza…. And on the seventh day, God kicked back and ordered a Meat Lover’s with Crazy Bread.

What follows is the proof of pizza’s importance, or something just as cheesy.

 

That’s Amore!

A little ’za history. As ubiquitous as pizza seems today, it hasn’t been clogging arteries and abetting teenage courtship rituals for long, at least in America. The world’s first pizzeria is generally believed to be Port’Alba, which opened in Naples, Italy, in 1830; the pies were supposedly cooked in an oven lined with lava from Mount Vesuvius, and the place is still in business today. Americans, however, were already munching hamburgers at drive-ins by the time the pizza boom oozed onto our shores. Though the first U.S. pizzeria is said to have opened in 1905 in New York, it was only after World War II, when returning soldiers raved about this Eye-talian cheese-and-tamaytoh thing, that we fell head-over-heels in amore with pizza pies. The first Pizza Hut opened in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas, and as of last year, there were 68,694 pizzerias of every kind in the United States, according to the trade journal Pizza Marketing Quarterly. Minnesota claims 1,291 of them.

“There’s a pizza place near where I live that sells only slices,” comedian Steven Wright once joked. “In the back, you can see a guy tossing a triangle in the air.” For me, that place is Golooney’s, which purveys pizza “triangles” from a small space at 24th Street and Hennepin Avenue in Uptown Minneapolis. The independent shop, owned by a native New Yorker, has a handful of stools up front and a half-dozen tables in back, and just about every day you can see Jay Woosley, manager/head tosser/headbanger throwing dough inside the picture window. The pale pancake soars, falls, and rises again as Woosley moves to the heavy rock spilling out of the stereo, his pony tail swooshing across a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt. “We’re New York–style,” he explains, “meaning we’re thin crust and we make each slice the way people want it. That and we’re really mean.”

He’s joking about the latter. “The sauce is the main thing that makes one pizza different from another,” he asserts, and points out the herbs and spices Golooney’s uses: basil, oregano—a homemade concoction as opposed to straight-from-the-can. In fact, making pizza has understandably made Woosley something of a pizza snob. “I can’t order it anywhere else—it pisses me off,” he says. Mimicking less worldly competitors, he whines, “What’s a Margherita pizza? You want tequila on it?” Maybe he wasn’t kidding about the New York thing.

I order a slice of plain cheese, so thin and soft I could roll it up like a cigar and smoke the grease. (You can ask for a crisper crust and Woosley will bake it on a pizza stone.) As it is, the pizza leaves a mildly damp triangle on the paper plate it came on, a remembrance of delicious pizza past, the kind I imagine they grab in Manhattan at 3 a.m.

The next place I visit is on a tip from a dead guy: comedian Mitch Hedberg, the St. Paul native who had become one of David Letterman’s favorite guests prior to his death, earlier this year, at age 37. Every comedian has a joke about pizza, and Hedberg was no exception. “I think Pizza Hut is the cockiest pizza chain on the planet, because Pizza Hut will accept all competitors’ coupons,” he’d say. “That makes me wish I had my own pizza place. Mitch’s Pizzeria. This week’s coupon: unlimited free pizza. Special note: coupon not good at any Mitch’s Pizza location. Free pizza oven with purchase of a small Coke. Two-for Tuesday: buy one pizza, get one franchise free.”

Hedberg never opened his own pizzeria, but he did once state that his favorite pizza could be found at Red’s Savoy Inn. Red’s is just off 35-E, northeast of St. Paul’s Lowertown, and the establishment—no windows, vinyl booths, 1970s-style globe lights—epitomizes the kind of tavern that, for decades, formed the bedrock of social life in neighborhoods from East St. Paul to northeast Minneapolis. Families crowd the seat-yourself dining room, and sports fans whoop it up in the bar, where an electronic sports ticker relays scores and a fish tank burbles away. The place is darker than the inside of a mushroom.

You can’t help but wonder what effect the metro area’s recently enacted smoking bans will have on restaurants like this. The Ramsey County ban doesn’t sit well with Red, the Savoy Inn’s owner (a.k.a. Earl Schoenheider), who told the Star Tribune, “Next thing you know, they’ll be outlawing pizza.”

Let’s hope not. When my pie arrives and I dig into the cracker-crisp crust and pleasantly browned cheese, I understand why comedians are so fond of pizza. Sure, there are differences—this sauce seems heavy on the oregano, and the pepperoni is so thin it’s barely noticeable beneath the cheese—but with a certain kind of pizza, simple and smart, cut square as if to reinforce its strait-laced nature, there are few surprises. And that can be good, very good. Comics never know what they’ll get in an audience, but they do know what they’ll get in a pizza. No matter what happens onstage, whether you bomb or kill, this familiar kind of pizza melts it all away. Hedberg, Chris Farley, John Belushi—you know these guys never eschewed a pizza. They’re also, I’m reminded, all dead. Fat is the drug of choice for most people; too bad that isn’t always true for comedians.

 

“Hey, Five-O!”

I’m determined to learn why pizza makes people feel so good, so I call Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor who’s known for his studies on why we eat what we eat. “Everybody loves sugar and fat,” he says, “and change in the mouth—pizza’s got a lot of texture. You’ve got the melted cheese and the crispy crust. You could argue that it’s set up to be widely enjoyed around the world.”

“But what do we know about why people crave certain foods?” I ask. And he responds as though I’ve inquired about the location of the Holy Grail. “The answer is, ‘very little.’ I would not encourage you to go around asking many people.”

Nevertheless, Rozin explains that foods like pizza and chocolate do seem to inspire the same quality of longing that the term “craving” means in the context of drug withdrawal: an acute desire. It could be hormonal, biochemical—no one knows. However, unlike with drugs, satisfaction of this desire does not appear to hinge on anything pharmacological; rather, it is the act of eating the food itself that quells the longing.

“What people crave seems not to be the effect of pizza but the actual experience of eating it,” says Rozin.

What is this experience? For starters, pizza is party food—no one calls Domino’s to cater a wake. It’s also after-party food. For a true Twin Cities pizza experience, I head for the legendary “drunk line” at Pizza Lucé in downtown Minneapolis. After bar-closing time on Friday and Saturday nights, revelers pile into the restaurant/bar’s Warehouse District location to sop up the evening’s excesses with some of the heaviest pizza in town. Under ordinary circumstances, pizzas like the Bear (a meaty combo of Italian sausage, pepperoni, marinated chicken, ground beef, and Canadian bacon) or the Baked Potato Pizza (no explanation required) leave me feeling like I’m eating hotdish. But after hitting the bars, this pizza hits the spot, and Lucé is so popular that the hungry must wait for others to leave. Thus, the drunk line, weaving its way outside the building. Recently, to discourage non-eaters who simply want to hang out inside, Pizza Lucé began requiring everyone to buy a $3 coupon. If you’re eating, it’s a down payment on your pizza; if not, it may be the first-ever pizzeria cover charge. When I arrive at 2 a.m. on a Saturday, the line is already 16 people long.

Two cops, leaning against their squad outside Lucé’s door, flirt with some blondes, who are munching pizza between giggles. A large, twentysomething black man, who happens to be sucking a pacifier, stalks down the street alone and gets in line. “F—k it! F—king sh-t! F—k!” shouts someone who appears to have lost his friend at some point in the evening. “It’s all about being drunk,” a young woman tells me.

There is more cleavage here than at the Grand Canyon. A woman with essentially her entire chest exposed, wobbling as if her bones had morphed to mozzarella, tries to chat up a passing dude, who ignores her. “Well, f—k you!” she says. “Stupid white boy!” (The woman, who is white, winks at the tallest policeman, a black guy.) Later, I see her struggling to get a floppy piece of pizza into her mouth.

A few people are simply observing the action—and me. They conclude that I must be an undercover cop, albeit not a very good one, as I’m openly writing in my notebook.

“Watchoo writing there? Can I see?”

I ignore the question and continue to scribble.

“Are you going to write about them cops flirtin’ over there?”

“Maybe.”

I start writing, something about cleavage and canyons, when I hear, “Hey, Five-O!”

I turn to find a guy snapping a picture of me with his cell phone. “This’ll be all over the Internet,” he brags.

“So will this,” I retort.

Stop in the Name of the ’za

Pizza and police go together like pepperoni and onions—at Dulono’s on Lake Street near Lyndale, where cops mingle with motorcyclists and bluegrass musicians, or at the now-defunct Pizza Shack, further east on Lake, where Minneapolis patrolman Jerry Haaf was shot dead while eating dinner in 1992. Broadway Pizza in northeast Minneapolis, just across the Mississippi from the near north side, also attracts its fair share of blue, being one of the neighborhood’s few places for a sit-down meal. Since its inception in 1953, it has also become one of the Twin Cities’ legendary pizza parlors.

Totino’s Italian Kitchen may have opened a few years earlier, and Green Mill and Davanni’s may have more name recognition, but for thin-crust pizza, Broadway is hard to beat. There are now 14 locations, and the mainstay, with a caboose marking the driveway, has been doing business at its current location since 1975. Little has changed. I grab a booth in the bar area, where faux red-and-green train-signal lanterns hang overhead. There are kids running around and, in the booth next to me, a couple of cops.

“I’m writing a story about pizza for a local magazine, particularly Broadway pizza,” I say. “Do you mind if I ask how you enjoyed yours?”

“What magazine?”

“Minnesota Monthly.”

“Heard of it. I’m sure you figure, a coupla blue-collar cops, what do they know about magazines.”

“No, no, I’m sure you’ve seen it around.”

“So, you write about food?”

I’m no longer sure who’s interviewing whom. I dodge the last question and ask again, “Did you like this pizza?”

“We had the lasagna.”

For the record, let it be known that the pizza I had—the thin-crust Classic Deluxe, topped with sausage, pepperoni, and mushrooms—is, in my opinion, worth going to jail for.

 

 

The Gourmets

After three days of nonstop pizza consumption, I can think of little else. At the video store, I consider renting Moonstruck, or maybe Mystic Pizza. Clearly, it’s time to cleanse the palate. I decide to hit a flurry of restaurants that serve artisan pizzas—carefully tended gardens of fresh ingredients in which you’re far less likely to find pepperoni than pepperoncini, which sounds Italian for “tiny pizza meats” but actually refers to peppers. Pizza Nea is among the newest of these upscale eateries. A sleek counterpoint to takeout joints, it’s sandwiched between funky shops on northeast Minneapolis’s newly trendy East Hennepin strip. Its pizzas contain things like fennel and sea salt. The place sounds like a spa. I decide I’d better bring along a food-savvy coworker.

She has the Margherita, the world’s original “classic” pizza, created in Naples for Italy’s queen and christened with her name. Its main ingredients—tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil—represent the red, white, and green of the Italian flag. “This is so minimalist. Not goo,” my colleague announces, then gushes about the crushed San Marzano tomatoes. “Sunny, fresh, it’s like a garden tomato that’s been smashed on your pizza. In a good way.”

I order the “white pizza,” having never had one before. “Where’s the sauce?” I ask when it arrives. My coworker shakes her head. “Oh, Tim. There isn’t any. That’s why it’s called white pizza.”

Oh.

It looks as if someone has emptied a bag of spinach on top of my prosciutto and mozzarella. “That’s arugula,” I’m told. Whatever it is, between its refreshingly bitter bite and the prosciutto’s salty snap, this pizza is as clean as the lines of Nea’s modern décor—and the best pizza I’ve tasted so far.

Up next is Bryn Mawr Pizza & Deli, located near the intersection of Cedar Lake Road and Penn Avenue in Minneapolis. It might not look exactly like a gourmet spot, but you can get pizza with sun-dried tomatoes—and what’s this? walnuts?—so, hey, I’m already expecting white tablecloths. Bryn Mawr isn’t easy to categorize or to find, since the sign outside says “Fast Freddie’s Pizza & Deli.”

Inside, punk music blares and vintage dresses are tacked to the walls. We order a Greek pizza featuring feta cheese and kalamata olives, and something unfortunately named the Plapo, with, yes, walnuts and sun-dried tomatoes. What we’re handed, though, is a veggie pizza and a Rosemary Bianca pizza, only we don’t figure it out until we’ve already dug in. When a car pulls up and the driver, carrying two pizzas back into the store, asks if we’ve gotten the right order, we realize what’s happened.

There are many ways this mix-up could have been prevented, but I’m left thinking that if we had a moratorium on new pizza toppings, new fusions, new Plapos, it wouldn’t have mattered. Sure, what we ended up devouring was so well-crafted, the Bianca’s artichoke hearts, goat cheese, and fresh rosemary so delectably balanced, that we hardly minded the swap. But this wasn’t true for the other guy. And that’s unfortunate. In an age of personalized TV programming on airplanes, how long before we can no longer bond over a single circular dough-and-sauce–based food, before we’re passing in the night, searching for the personal pizza that speaks uniquely to us? Because my ideal pizza just says this: eat me.

It is at Punch Neapolitan Pizza, in St. Paul’s Highland Park, that I realize I’m in over my head with the artisan stuff. Here, the walls glow as yellow as Mediterranean sunshine, and the waitresses—there were no male servers on the day I visited—all wear European soccer shirts. They also all seem 22, healthily tanned, and way too thin to be eating the house handouts. So I’m understandably bashful when one of them asks for my order and I can’t quite bring myself to say that I’d like the Palermo pizza, and I’d like it “wet.”

A wet pizza, according to the menu, is one that’s been steeped in olive oil and extra tomatoes, the way they apparently like it in Naples. (And where they undoubtedly have no problem asking for it.) I settle for saying “Neapolitan style,” though of course I’m now expecting, and maybe even hoping for, a tricolored scoop of ice cream. What arrives is pizza so lush—bursting with fresh tomatoes, and not too cheesy—that I decide pizza should be eaten no other way. If only I could ask for it.
Grease Job

I find myself e-mailing an Internet date, “Would you describe yourself as saucy or cheesy?” “Saucy,” she writes back. That’s good, I tell myself, but then I realize I no longer have any idea what I’m talking about. Attitude? Food? Atti-food?

My refrigerator has two boxes of leftover pizza in it. I have two more in the office fridge. One day, lacking time to prepare anything, I find myself eating pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This is not good.

In a 2002 study, conducted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and published in the book Restaurant Confidential, pizza was found to be “a minefield of saturated fat, and not just from the sausage, ground beef, and pepperoni. Most pizzas have enough cheese to make a cardiologist order that second Jaguar.”

Pizza makers were quick to fire back. The president of Pizza Hut, which got the biggest bashing for its cheesy crusts, responded, “Americans love cheese—they ask us for more and more in our pizzas.”

No doubt this is true, but more and more, I needed this quest to end. I hit three old-school pizzerias in quick succession. Fat Lorenzo’s, near Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, serves true pizza pies, practically an inch thick and said to weigh in at nearly five pounds; ours is swimming with sausage, pepperoni, and mushrooms—fork food, for sure. It’s almost too much; I feel myself getting tired after a couple pieces and bring most of it home. A few miles away, Jakeeno’s Pizza and Pasta, at 36th and Chicago, serves the thin-crust, basic variety. Jakeeno’s was opened in the 1970s by a former Bridgeman’s Ice Cream employee; the staff wore bow ties then, soda fountain–style. Now the pizzeria is run by the founder’s daughters. Both places feature giant murals. At Fat’s, as the locals call it, the artwork includes cherubs riding mushrooms and garlic cloves. I am puzzled by this image for days.

At Jakeeno’s, I eat anchovies for the first time. The salty fish blobs, hidden in the cheese but oh-so-conspicuous in the mouth, remind me of the old adage “Sex is like pizza. When it’s good, it’s really good. When it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.” Whoever said this never ate anchovies, the one thing that can screw up pizza (and probably sex, for that matter).

Finally, I hit Rocco’s on Randolph Avenue in St. Paul, a small takeout joint situated, ironically, next to a plus-size clothing store. I order a sausage pizza, and suddenly three young men emerge like Oompa Loompas and staff the kitchen. Another hops out of a delivery car, though I can’t believe he’s old enough to drive. The thin-crust pizza is cut into squares, and it’s topped with more sausage and cheese than I prefer, but the whole Rocco’s experience lacks only an Atari game console to remind me of after-school snacks at friends’ houses in my youth. This is background pizza, the kind that’s finished before you know it, like childhood itself.

 

Maybe It Was the Hemp

At a certain point (approximately 220 on the cholesterol scale), all pizza begins to taste the same. Thick, thin, wet, dry. Perhaps it really is more about the experience. I can’t bear hitting one more place, though, so I order in. Not that Galactic Pizza, which opened last year at 29th and Lyndale in south Minneapolis, is your typical delivery joint. Its slogan is “Pizza with a conscience”; as you might expect, organic ingredients are a big draw. The drivers pilot three-wheeled electric cars and dress like superheroes. Not Superman and his ilk, but characters of their own invention, such as Galactic Gal and Space Cowboy, complete with capes and silver boots. I create my own pizza, choosing hemp pesto sauce, button mushrooms, green onions, pepperoni, and mozzarella cheese.

Inside of 20 minutes, a young man in a helmet and red full-body spandex suit is standing at my door. He says his name is Superbooty.

I eat the entire pizza. We have a winner, I think. And then, my body swooning, I lie down on the bed. The room begins to spin, as if all the world is a pizza crust, slowly being tossed through the galaxy, and we are merely toppings.

Tim Gihring is a senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.

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