Pizzeria Lola has transformed me into a previously unimaginable persona: an early-bird diner.
Not by choice, either. I'm not ready to mimic the Sun City set just yet, but experience dictates that pizza hounds like me are well advised to arrive at 56th and Xerxes as soon as the doors open at 5 p.m., or risk a long wait for a table.
Yes, it's that popular. Customers are certainly flooding the place for the food -- more on that in a moment -- but I wonder if they're unconsciously drawn to the restaurant's fascinating and inspiring back story.
Like so many modern-day Americans, co-owners Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur have dared to see themselves in different careers. Kim was an actor, Leifur was in finance, and both are pizza freaks. Rather than replicate the styles they love best -- crispy, thin New York pizza for her, airy and charred coal-fired New Haven pizza for him, with soft, bubbled Neapolitan thrown in for good measure -- they decided to combine attributes from a variety of sources.
After endless hours of reading, studying, apprenticing and testing, Kim -- she's the chef, while Leifur runs the business -- has crafted a slow-fermented dough that is hers and hers alone, based on breadmaking principles and baked in a red-oak-fired, clay-lined, French-made oven.
Because Kim prepares all the dough herself (the kind of laborious, hands-on task that makes me exhausted just thinking about it), the results are remarkably consistent from day to day, a thin but sturdy crust that has a slight lift, with a crispy outer layer, a tender, air-pocketed interior and a gently sour flavor. It's a fine foundation for a detail-oriented array of toppings that are almost always paired in satisfying combinations.
There are roughly a dozen pizzas on the menu, including a build-your-own option, but why not take advantage of Kim's endless recipe testing and go with the formulas she prescribes?
My No. 1 choice is the "Sweet Italian," which features a house-made pork shoulder sausage, each hot bite popping with garlic and fennel, its overt spiciness tamed by subtly sweet, cherry-tomato-sized peppers. It's followed closely by the "Xerxes," in which a light touch of mozzarella and feta stands up to nicely bitter sautéed broccoli rabe, salty olives and crushed almonds. If there is a more imaginative and appealing vegetarian pizza in this town, I haven't tasted it.
Leading the Simple Pleasures department is a first-rate Margherita, its splash of red sauce -- a brightly flavored crush of three types of tomatoes -- dotted with creamy Wisconsin-made cow's milk mozzarella, whole basil leaves and a crush of intensely flavorful dried oregano. If you can manage to take some home, it makes for a breakfast of champions. Even more basic is a straight-up blend of red sauce, roasted garlic, drizzles of olive oil and more of that oregano; it's so good that it's easy to overlook that it's cheese-free. The "Old Reliable" -- just red sauce, mozzarella and pecorino -- has obvious roots in New York City slice shops, and is much more affordable than a round-trip ticket to La Guardia.
Eggs and kimchi
Kim does the cooked egg thing and does it well, with a barely gelled yolk adding a finishing touch to cured pork cheek and leeks shaved to resemble blades of grass. The dreaded pineapple-Canadian bacon combo is brilliantly born anew. Kim also celebrates her Korean heritage, luring her mother, Young Kim, into the kitchen to prepare pungent kimchi, then adding complementary Asian flavors of sesame, soy and shishito peppers. No bland green peppers for this pizzeria.
Culinary bombast is kept to a minimum, with the focus remaining almost exclusively on pizza. Still, there are a few imaginative snacks. The oven's less intense morning heat is used to place a brown cast on cauliflower, which Kim then tosses with fiery Italian peppers. Even better is a superb dish of roasted Brussels sprouts, some of the leaves crisp, the others soft and caramelized, with pearl onions and bits of golden butternut squash adding a gentle dose of sweetness.
The beet salad is a beauty, and I love the skillfully prepared meatballs, a spicy combination of veal, pork and beef bolstered by bits of Iowa-made prosciutto and that refreshing red sauce. What really blew me away was the thick slices of succulent olive oil-cured tuna, sharing the plate with toothy, lemon-kissed cannellini beans and a hearty olive tapenade. It's the kind of carefully crafted dish, like the pizzas, that makes a person wonder if Kim has a secret past as a chef.
Recyling with style
"Resourceful" seems to be Kim's middle name. Her cheery collaboration with the St. Paul architectural firm Loom Studio demonstrates a Dumpster-diver's flair and wit. The wood horizontal walls are repurposed Georgia pine floorboards. The chairs are $7 Craigslist finds, originally from a chapel with obvious Danish Modern sensibilities.
The light fixtures are fashioned from No. 10 tomato sauce cans, scavenged from Kim's favorite neighborhood pizzeria, nearby Lake Harriet Pizza ("They would take one look at me and say, 'The can lady is here,'" she said with a laugh). Track lighting radiates from above the copper-wrapped pizza oven, in a kind of sunburst pattern that suggests a trompe l'oeil big-top circus tent. Don't miss shooting a few impromptu souvenir portraits in the retro and lovingly restored photo booth.
Another find: the soft-serve ice cream machine that Kim bought from a Wisconsin cheese shop. Rather than resorting to a commercial -- and fake-tasting -- soft-serve mix, Kim doctors a basic gelato base she imports from Italy, and the combination produces the most luscious soft-serve imaginable. It's served in cute little tulip sundae cups, and while there's the occasional specialty flavor -- pistachio, chocolate -- this paragon of simple goodness is best enjoyed as straight-up vanilla, either naked or garnished with a fruity olive oil and twinkling grains of fleur de sel. "It's a marvelous taste sensation," declared our server, a total understatement.
Kim also serves the kind of chocolate chip cookie that I wish I could bake -- browned and buttery, with a gently crispy outer shell and a tender interior -- and serves them warm with a glass of rich, chilly milk. On one visit, the kitchen was showering each table with an experimental bread pudding, made with the ciabatta fashioned from leftover pizza dough and scented with black raspberry liqueur. You'd think that after pizza, the last thing to sound tempting would be a carb-y dessert. Wrong.
A few missteps
Would I change a few things? Sure. Starting with getting that bread pudding on the menu, ASAP. Roughly half the pizzas are $15, and that's pushing the outer limits, price-wise, on what is essentially a single-serving pie. A few variations failed to impress: The "La Creme" tasted like a pale version of that divine Margherita, and truffled cheese and truffled salt overpowered the woody roasted mushrooms in the "Forager." Lola, named for Kim's beloved 2-year-old Weimaraner, can be punishingly loud when it's going full tilt.
And wouldn't it be lovely if it were possible to make a reservation? The upcoming patio season will thankfully add some much-needed capacity. Kim also is toying with the idea of weekend lunch, which might take some of the pressure off the evening table availability. But then again, if the porketta sandwich she's talking about serving to her noon-hour guests is anything like her pizzas -- and those Brussels sprouts and soft-serve ice cream -- then I foresee, at least for me, a summer of very early lunches.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757