Chef Russell Klein has never featured pizza on a menu before (“My history with pizza is eating it,” he said with a laugh), but you’d never know it.
Not given the impressive output at his Foreign Legion, an applause-worthy result for a first-timer. He shrugs off the praise.
“Pizza isn’t rocket science,” Klein said. “It just comes down to quality ingredients. Papa John’s may say that, but we really mean it.”
And how. Kudos to the Florida rock shrimp marinated in olive oil and fiery dried chiles, the brightly flavored fresh San Marzano tomato sauce, the sweet roasted red peppers, the squeaky-fresh mozzarella and the lively house-made pepperoni.
The crust also merits praise. It’s fueled by a sourdough starter and leaves the oven nicely blistered and glistening with olive oil, a sure-handed marriage of crispy and chewy.
The menu offers six selections ($10 to $14). There’s also a great happy hour bargain: On weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m., the restaurant becomes a slice shop. Although slice is a relative term; they’re roughly a quarter of a whole pizza, and they chime in at $4 a pop.
105 S. 5th St., Mpls., 612-333-0505, foreignlegion-mn.com
Erik Anderson, consulting chef behind Uptown’s new Scena Tavern, is another pizza neophyte. Again, the outcome is so impressive that his newbie status seems inconceivable.
“I didn’t think I could have this much fun making pizzas, or be so proud of them,” he said.
His pride is understandable. Each bite of the gently crispy crust quietly suggests its tangy sourdough roots, and diners will appreciate Anderson’s playful and insightful approach to toppings.
That could mean fashioning a sauce by reducing cream and white wine with liquid from just-opened clams (then going to town with juicy clams, mellow dried chiles and perky parsley), or using familiar potatoes and onions as a means of introducing Midwesterners to an Italian Alpine cheese.
Anderson categorizes his pizzas as piadini ($11 to $16) — that’s Italian for “flatbread” — and it’s an understandable strategy, as the menu’s five selections sport thin but sturdy flatbread-esque crusts.
“I grew up in Chicago, and I’ve always despised deep-dish pizza; it’s strictly for tourists,” he said. “For me, when it comes to crust, the thinner the better.”
Another reason to love: The plate-size, oval-shaped portions don’t overwhelm, meaning that eating the whole thing doesn’t become an exercise in dietary shaming. Besides, who wants to schlep around that pesky leftovers box?
2943 Girard Av. S., Mpls., 612-200-8641, scenatavern.com
Innovation on Lyndale
Chef Ben Rients and his crew at Lyn 65 Kitchen & Bar have an affinity for pizza, and then some.
For starters, the crust is spectacular. It’s a seamless fusion of springy, sturdy bottom and agreeably bubbled and chewy top, a sleight-of-hand that’s achieved by a combination of super-wet (and sourdough starter-fueled) dough that’s aged for 72 hours and then baked for 90 transformative seconds inside a blazing, thousand-degree oven.
As for toppings, these stocking cap-clad cooks seemingly spend their off hours concocting attention-grabbing ways to adorn that stellar crust. I’m still kicking myself for missing the short-lived combination of beer-braised goat and house-made goat’s milk ricotta. Oh, well.
The menu’s five choices ($11 to $14) change every eight or so weeks, but the ingredients roster always showcases a house-made sausage, a braised meat and some kind of interpretation — often a rather liberal one — on pesto.
Right now, expect to find a flurry of seasonal mushrooms scattered over a decadent cream sauce, along with a lovingly rendered Margherita (“that’s our pizza gateway drug,” said Rients with a laugh) as well as the near otherworldly delights of a vinegary kale pesto topped with a lively compare/contrast blend of pickled peppers and sweet onions. Pepperoni seems deadly dull by comparison.
Rients offers a heck of a late-night (by Minnesota standards, anyway) deal: Sunday through Thursday, starting at 9 p.m. and running until the kitchen closes (no later than 11 p.m.), diners can snare any one of the menu’s pizzas, along with a tap beer — the bar curates eight microbrews — for just $10.
6439 Lyndale Av. S., Richfield, 612-353-5501, lyn65.com
The skinny in St. Paul
Devotees of ultrathin-crust pizzas have a refuge at Pazzaluna, a crust so firm and sleek that it tiptoes toward cracker status.
It’s at its very best when chef Seth Teiken steps into disciplined Margherita mode, sticking with acidic San Marzano tomatoes, ultrarich mozzarella, a fragrant sprinkle of dried oregano, a few splashes of fruity extra-virgin olive oil and a handful of freshly harvested basil. Some combinations are classics for a reason, and this is one of them.
Not that the handful of other pizzas ($14 to $18) aren’t worthwhile. Far from it. Fennel seed- and red chile-packaged sausage packs a punch, and the eternal pairing of prosciutto, pears and gorgonzola was practically tailor-made for pizza lovers.
Don’t take my word for it; follow the example of hockey fans.
“We sell a lot of pizzas on Wild nights,” Teiken said. “We probably sold 120 last night.”
Another reason to visit: Catch the later (9 p.m. to close) happy hour, and enjoy a pizza (select from three varieties) for just $5.
360 St. Peter St., St. Paul, 651-223-7000, pazzaluna.com
Finally, newish Victor’s on Water is schooling the western suburbs on how to do pizza.
I realized we were in for something special as we watched chef Tyler Fiecke grab a fennel bulb and shave the heck out of it.
His efforts were the basis of what turned out to be the Francis Drake, which also sported scallops and shrimp on a blistered, wonderfully this-side-of-doughy crust.
What a winner. It was equally delicious cold the next morning at breakfast, a clear sign of success.
The menu’s five choices ($15 to $18) usually hang around for three or four months before getting pulled out of rotation. There’s one exception, and that’s the Keith Richards. Like each one of Fiecke’s hefty, garnished-to-the-rafters iterations, it’s obviously designed for sharing, and it’s truly one for the ages, a blend of tender grilled artichokes, charred onions, mildly seasoned sausage and teasingly smoked fontina.
Yes, there’s a happy hour bargain. From 4 to 6 p.m. daily, take a seat in the restaurant’s stylish bar and feast on any one of the menu’s pizzas for $10.
205 Water St., Excelsior, 952, 474-8879, victorsonwaterstreet.com
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