It's hard to imagine two pizza companies with more radically different philosophies.
In one corner, Punch Neapolitan Pizza, proud defender of the ancient and honorable tradition of Neapolitan pizza.
And in the other corner, the nationwide California Pizza Kitchen chain, inventors of the barbecue chicken pizza.
Punch, which opened its first store in St. Paul's Highland Park in 1996, added its first suburban location this summer in Eden Prairie. More might be on the way; Caribou Coffee founder John Puckett has just become a partner, so don't be surprised if the company expands locally or even nationally.
California Pizza Kitchen, which has more than 140 locations nationwide, just opened its first full-scale Minnesota restaurant in Southdale in July. (A smaller California Pizza Kitchen ASAP has been operating at the airport for several years.)
CPK's variations on the pizza theme include Thai chicken with spicy peanut sauce, a Peking duck chicken with soy-glazed shiitake mushrooms and even an Indian tandoori chicken pizza topped with zucchini, squash, mozzarella and a tomato-yogurt curry. Its basic philosophy: Anything you can eat, you can put on top of a pizza.
Packing a Punch
You'll never see a barbecued chicken pizza at Punch, or even a bacon and pineapple Hawaiian pizza. The restaurant is a member of the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, which dictates strict standards for Neapolitan-style pies. Neapolitan pies basically are all variations on the theme of tomato, mozzarella, Parmesan and olive oil, with basil and oregano optional.
Punch offers a wider variety, including toppings of olives, goat cheese, prosciutto, artichokes and even arugula, but they never stray far from tradition. (The official rules state that "variations of pizzas are recognized if they are informed by the Neapolitan tradition of pizzas and are not in contrast with the rules of gastronomy, with judgment reserved to the association's committee.")
I am no purist when it comes to pizza. After traveling around Italy last summer with an 11-year-old who insisted on pizza almost every night, I got a bit bored with tomato, mozzarella and ham.
But I really like Punch's pizzas. The flavors are absolutely authentic and the hand-made crusts are light and crisp, thanks to the wood-fired oven. My favorites include the tufo, topped with arugula, prosciutto, goat cheese, red pepper and garlic ($10.95), and a calzone stuffed with spinach, mushrooms, ricotta and garlic ($9.75). Several pizzas bianco (white pizzas, made without tomato sauce) also are offered, including the cortina ($9.75), a tasty combination of fresh mushrooms, gorgonzola, sun-dried tomato, garlic and oregano.
A few antipasti are available, including an antipasti misti plate ($9.25), which includes roasted peppers and eggplant, sliced prosciutto, ham and salami, fresh arugula and fresh mozzarella. The bread pudding ($4.95) was unavailable when we visited, but we enjoyed the tiramisu mousse ($4.95), which was served in a wine glass, and the banana and chocolate Sonny's gelatos ($2.75). Punch has a nice selection of inexpensive wines by the glass, including a few from the Naples region.
Punch Neapolitan Pizza, 8353 Crystal View Rd. (near Prairie Center Drive and Hwy. 212), Eden Prairie, 952-943-9557, and 704 Cleveland Av., S., St. Paul, 651-696-1066. Hours (both locations): Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday 4:30 to 10 p.m., Visa, MC. Wheelchair accessible. No smoking.
My experiences at the California Pizza Kitchen were more mixed, but there were some highlights. The Singapore shrimp rolls wrapped in rice paper ($6.99) were a creative and tasty adaptation of the spring rolls served in many Vietnamese restaurants, but I was much less impressed with the east-meets-west tortilla spring rolls ($6.29).
The ingredients in the barbecue chicken chopped salad ($9.99; $6.59 for a half) and the smoked bacon and gorgonzola chopped salad ($10.99/$6.79) were different, but the tastes were surprisingly similar; huge piles of stuff (mostly lettuce) tossed in a garden-herb ranch dressing.
The signature barbecue chicken pizza made with smoked Gouda, mozzarella, red onions, cilantro and barbecue sauce ($9.99) and the Peking duck pizza topped with mozzarella, glazed shiitake mushrooms, green onions and hoisin sauce ($10.99) also had an underlying similarity: the very sweet and salty brown barbecue and hoisin sauces tended to drown out the other flavors.
But I was more pleased with the more subtle rosemary chicken and potato pizza ($10.29), prepared with a white wine and lemon-garlic butter sauce, and with the lively Mexican carne asada pizza ($10.99), topped with grilled steak, mild chiles, cilantro pesto, mozzarella, Monterey Jack and a fresh tomato salsa.