Sunday, May 31, 2009

Punch and Pizza Nea

I used to think there were two distinct types of pizza, and that, before discussing the relative merits of any particular one, the first step was determining which sort you were dealing with. The two types, in my mind, were Neapolitan and Plain Old Wonderful Pizza. Then Black Sheep opened, and kind of screwed that up for me. Apparently there are three: Neapolitan, Plain Old Wonderful, and Gourmet American. Black Sheep, by the way, is the third one, and it rocks. Go there. More about that another day.

Punch and Pizza Nea are both purveyors of the Neapolitan Pizza. There are several things that make a pizza a Neapolitan pizza. They don't have sauce. They have olive oil and crushed San Marzano tomatoes. They're little, like 9"-10". This is actually the perfect size, because you can still get an appetizer and split one, but if you feel like downing the whole thing, no one will look askance at you or your gluttony. They don't exactly have crust, at least not in the doughy american sense. They're served on what would be focaccia if it didn't have a pizza on it. And they're baked fresh in an insanely hot, wood-fired, brick or tiled oven. They also make your eyes roll back in your head because they're so darned amazing, but that probably doesn't pass muster as any sort of scientifically valid assessment.

I thought I'd write about Punch and Pizza Nea at the same time for a couple of reasons. First off, when locals talk about Neapolitan Pizza, these are the places that come up. Pizza Nea is Punch's competition. If that wasn't obvious to begin with, it became quite clear when Punch had the cheek (one could also say poor taste) to open up a shop about a hundred feet from Pizza Nea on Hennepin. I'm all for expansion, but zheesh. No reason we can't all get along. The other reason is that if you park your car anywhere near Hennepin and University, it's no trouble at all to walk to one, eat, and walk to the other and eat again. The whole blog thing might lend that plan an air of respectability, but I suspect I'd have done it anyway.

Once I decided on a plan, I needed backup, since splitting pizzas would be involved, and I thought it would be a little tacky to take leftover pizza into someone else's pizza joint. My friend Meg gamely stepped in, and we set off for Punch, no easy feat if you start out in Saint Paul, since large stretches of Larpenteur and 280 are essentially missing right now. At Punch, we ordered a Bruni, half-onion, at the bar. This was a little off-putting, since I'm used to the flagship Cleveland Avenue location where you sit and ponder before some kind person or other takes your order. Our pizza, or rather the timing of its arrival, was something of a mystery. We paid up, went to get drinks and napkins and a seat, took the extra red pepper back up to the counter, and by the time I turned around again, someone was handing me a pizza. Now I know these cook quickly, but we're talking 60 seconds here, tops. And it was not right-out-of-the-oven hot (according to Meg, hot is half the battle). I was forced to conclude that (gasp) most of this pie was made ahead of time, then topped and given a quick warm-up. I am not even going to go into the list of reasons why this is not okay. I've heard from a number of friends who are devoted Punch fans that the pizzas are somehow never as good at the satellites as they are at the Cleveland shop, and I wonder if this might not be a contributing factor.

One of the risks of not providing table service, it seems to me, is that the patrons' entire experience in your restaurant is going to hinge on the quality of the food. That's a big deal, don't you think? "Here. I am going to hand you this pizza and have nothing further to do with you. You will be amazed, and return again and again because it is over-the-moon good, and you're lucky to get it." How many places have the guts to risk that? In my experience, most places don't even understand why that's a risk, and many who do risk it shouldn't.

So I'd like to write all about our time at Punch, but I can't. All I can talk about is that 9" pie, that came out instantly and not hot. I've got no other data. Okay, the iced tea was real, and very nice, and, um, my silverware was clean. The end.

Here's the thing, though. That pie? It was still a Punch pie, and even under suspicious circumstances, it was deliriously good. Sausage, spiced salami, onion (half, 'cause I can't stand them), oregano, and mozzarella, all perfectly balanced, and perfectly wonderful. There is an alchemy that Punch achieves with its pizza. I don't understand it, but outside of Italia, you're unlikely to ever have anything like it.

As nice as that was, we were in and out in twenty minutes, and off we went to our second stop. Everyone we talked to at Pizza Nea was nice as could be. Our waiter was very mannered, and a little odd, but oddly charming, and good at his job. We put him somewhere between Edward Norton and the little smarmy guy from Dirty Dancing. As an appetizer, we ordered the Polpette Napoletana, little meatballs in tomato sauce served with focaccia. These were evil, and I could easily have eaten seventy-five of them, but that would have seriously messed with the pizza course. The focaccia was also good. A little puffier than Punch's, but that helped it stand up to the meatballs.

For a pizza, we settled on the Salsicce- sausage, roasted red pepper, cracked red pepper, and basil. The pizza was hot and very well-timed. I credit the server for that. The roasted red peppers were a bit dry, but everything else seemed just fine. And that, I guess, was the trouble. It was fine, but it wasn't alchemy. The sausage was good, the cheese was good, the spice was good, the crust was good, and it all looked just perfect. But I wanted to be transported, and I got a good little pizza instead. In case it sounds like I'm complaining, I should also say that we had a great time, because the space is beautiful, the staff was friendly and professional, and the food was very good.

In the end, I suppose it's an apples-and-oranges problem. If I was in that part of town, and I was alone, or I wanted a pie to take home, I'd go to Punch. No question. If I wanted to impress a friend, or just have a quiet evening with my beloved, Pizza Nea would take the day. Then we'd go to Surdyk's and be irresponsible.

One of the best things about both of these establishments is that they offer an excellent value. Our bill for both outings combined was about $45 with tip. For the quality of the food involved, you'd be hard pressed to beat that anywhere.

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