Black Sheep revives pizza passion

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2009 - 9:28 AM

An all-American favorite gets a new take with a coal-fired oven.

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Chef/owner Jordan Smith is clearly having the time of his life.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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First-time restaurateurs -- and veteran ones, for that matter -- could take a few lessons from Jordan Smith. After an admirable career working for others (his résumé includes top positions at Mission American Kitchen and the former Azur as well as directing the launch of countless D'Amico & Sons outlets), Smith decided the time was right to step out on his own.

Rather than going big, Smith took the small route, a wise step in this bruising economy. Pizza, brilliantly prepared, is the passion at Black Sheep Pizza, with little else to distract.

After tasting one of Smith's understated creations -- I'm particularly crazy about one topped with thin-sliced oyster mushrooms, a veritable forest of rosemary and just the right amount of smoky mozzarella, I think I've ordered it five times in as many weeks -- I'm convinced that the Domino's and Papa Murphy's and Pizza Huts of this world should pack it up and retreat in shame, seeing as how they are chiefly responsible for the bastardization of this primal food group. Frankly, until I'd slid into one of the wide booths at Black Sheep, I'd forgotten just how much there is to adore about the simple experience that is a great all-American pizza.

Let's talk crust for a moment. Smith isn't doing the overt charred-and-blistered Neapolitan thing, and why should he? Punch has locked down a near-monopoly on that market. No designer cracker-crust model here, either, and don't even mention the words "cardboard" and "Black Sheep" in the same sentence, or I will hunt you down like a dog in the street. No, Smith is showing how the basic, beloved American-style pizza is done, nurturing a crisp beauty that confidently straddles the fine line between thin and sturdy. It's an achievement that stands out not only because Smith is remarkably good, but because nearly everything else concerning the sad state of the American pizza is remarkably bad.

A taste test makes it clear

The most direct way to test-drive Smith's creation is to order his cheese-free tomato-oregano pie. It's clarity itself, and utterly divine. What you'll get is crushed, richly flavored tomatoes -- acidic enough to make an impression, but no overkill -- and a sprinkle of super-fresh oregano.

Oh, and that glorious crust, which stands at attention when it's pulled off the plate. No soggy droop, no sorry sag; it's the Viagra of pizzas. Even better, Smith's handiwork passes the take-home-for-breakfast test, with flying colors. This is one pizza that stands up to an overnight in the fridge. And how.

Smith has a few secret weapons up his sleeve. First and foremost is the restaurant's monster of a coal-fired oven. Yes, coal-fired, and it's no gimmick, either. Burning environmentally friendly anthracite coal produces an exceedingly hot, reliably even and desert-dry heat, a baking triumvirate that leads directly to that glorious crust. It may lack a wood-burning oven's smoky flavor notes, but the texture -- which also comes from a little rye flour and an unusually long (three-day) proof -- more than makes up for the slight.

Toppings are selected with obvious care. The robust house-made fennel sausage starts with naturally raised pork. The dense pork-beef meatballs, kissed with black pepper, are the recipe Smith prepares for his family at home; lucky them. The exceptional pepperoni and paprika-laced salami hails from San Francisco-based Molinari & Sons, arguably the nation's top large-scale sausage-maker. The marinated olives pop with gutsy flavor, the anchovies are nicely salted and the herbs are so fresh you wonder if Smith's crew are snipping rosemary and oregano every few minutes from a hothouse somewhere out back.

Nothing's overdone. Seasonings are carefully calibrated, which means that taste buds accustomed to chain pizzerias' sodium slabs might take a few visits to fully embrace the brilliance that is the Black Sheep pizza. Since so few topping combinations are scattered across each pie, their flavors tend to jump right out rather than getting buried under a blanket of dreary commodity cheese. This is what happens to pizza when it's prepared by a pro rather than a part-time 11th-grader equipped with little more than a Sbarro training manual.

A limited but ideal menu

The rest of the brief menu exhibits a similar reserve. I admire how Smith resists the temptation to use that oven to roast off chickens, sear rib-eyes or otherwise embellish his menu. Instead, the password is "succinct." Translation: a ramekin of can't-keep-your-hands-off-them olives scented with garlic and rosemary, a plate of roasted vegetables (the only dullard in the bunch) and a small crock of those fabulous meatballs.

Along with a decent spinach-blue cheese combo, there's a daily salad special, an improvisation based upon seasonal availability. One night I nearly inhaled tender roasted beets marinated in balsamic, on another it was a crunchy and colorful root veggie slaw. There's a single dessert, and it's perfect: a thick round of vanilla ice cream sandwiched between a pair of chewy chocolate-chip cookies.

The half-basement/half-first floor space, what landlords on Craigslist euphemistically describe as "garden level," manages to be both raw and warm, with lots of concrete, exposed pipes and ducts and a few splashes of color. Smith wisely funneled the bulk of his savings into his $100,000 oven, and it's a cool centerpiece that manages to toss out enough BTUs to heat the joint.

But the real warmth emanates from Smith himself, who seems to be everywhere at once, running a cutter over pizzas, pulling beers out of the tap, clearing tables, schmoozing with his customers and clearly having the time of his life. He tells me that he's considering expanding into lunch service, as soon as he can hire what he calls a "true believer," aka someone who cares as much about the restaurant as he does.

Truth to tell, I'm about three mushroom-mozzarella-rosemary pizzas away from applying.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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  • Frequent patrons

  • BLACK SHEEP PIZZA ★★★

    Location: 600 Washington Av. N., Minneapolis, 612-342-2625, blacksheeppizza.com.

    Hours: 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

    Atmosphere: Bare-bones, but in a good way. A few dimmer switches couldn't hurt.

    Service: Fast, casual, cheerful.

    Sound level: Conversation is a challenge when full.

    Recommended dishes: Tomato-oregano pizza, mushroom-mozzarella-rosemary pizza, sausage-salami pizza, meatballs, roasted olives, ice cream sandwiches.

    Wine list: Short - perhaps too short - but inexpensive and well-chosen. Decent craft beer selection.

    Price range: $6 to $13 for 12-inch pizzas, $12 to $22 for 16-inch pizzas (extra ingredients $2 to $3), starters $6 to $8, dessert $5.

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