The title on Facundo Javier Defraia’s business card reads “chef/owner,” but it could just as easily say “Dough Whisperer.”
The talent behind Boludo is making pizzas that are unlike any other in the Twin Cities, and his empanadas — he learned to make the savory turnovers from his grandmother in her Buenos Aires kitchen — have no local peer.
I can’t rave enough about these pizzas. The dough, fashioned from unbleached flour and a bit of cornmeal and stretched into a rough ovoid shape, is an ingenious combination of crackers-meets-pizza crust-meets bread. It forms a foundation that holds up to a pile-on of ingredients but still manages to maintain a tender chewiness that tiptoes toward crispness.
Baked to a dark golden brown, the hearty outer edges magically puff up and often form hollow, delicate blisters. Defraia takes two crucial post-oven steps, brushing those edges with olive oil and then liberally sprinkling them with twinkling flakes of Maldon sea salt, the kind that pops in your mouth. This is a dough that’s destined for greatness.
There are only six pizzas on the menu — a modesty dictated by the restaurant’s sliver of square footage — and each one is as tempting as the last. All benefit from an acute attention to detail. In terms of toppings, they’re carefully constructed, and refreshingly uncomplicated.
The tomato sauce is hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes, nothing more. The superb prosciutto hails from Italy, the salty Reggianito — that’s a South American homage to Parmigiano-Reggiano — is imported from Argentina and the mozzarella is squeaky-fresh. Defraia makes a fabulous chorizo, one that plays beautifully against mushrooms and caramelized onions, and the oven’s intense heat transforms his cheese mix (fontina, smoked provolone and mozzarella) into a soft, buttery decadence.
Two versions really stand out, and that’s saying something. One combines thinly sliced pears with punchy Gorgonzola, a sweet-salty marriage that’s enhanced with pine nuts and tons of fresh dill; it’s gorgeous, and it could almost pass for dessert.
Then there’s the variation on pan-style, which is nothing like the doughy specimens that came of age in the 1970s.
Using the same dough he calls upon for his other pizzas, Defraia doesn’t go overboard, pressing it into maybe a quarter-inch thickness across a generously buttered round baking pan. The butter insinuates itself into that olive oil-infused dough, forging a gentle but distinctive flakiness and an enriched flavor.
From there, Defraia skips the tomatoes (“Sometimes it’s good to have a white pie,” he said) and instead scatters sweet, thinly sliced onions, a spice blend he fashions from dehydrated red peppers and that fontina-smoked Provolone-mozzarella mixture. The spot-on finishing flourishes are fragrant fresh oregano and tangy Kalamata olives, proving once again that restraint is a valuable trait.
There’s one caveat: The pizzas are really at their best when consumed directly from the oven, and that’s not always easy in a space that seats about a dozen diners.
It’s asking a lot, but if you can manage to leave with leftovers, do it. I can’t recall the last time that cold pizza for breakfast turned into such a smile-inducing way to begin the day.
The empanadas are equally enthralling. The dough is, of course, spot-on. So often these little pies can be deadly dull, but not here. Defraia invests all five versions with big-as-all-get-out flavors and scrupulous cooking methods.
He loves spinach, so he pairs it with shallots and fiery Fresno peppers. The classic ground-beef version brims with punchy Spanish olives and sweet roasted red peppers. That the chicken remains juicy and succulent is due entirely to the cooking process: Defraia calls upon the sous-vide technique, a modernist detail I never expected to encounter in a humble empanada shop (“There’s nothing worse than eating a dry empanada,” he said). Another features leeks that are cooked in butter until they fall apart. After they’re fortified with white wine, shallots and tons of black pepper, the filling is made super-creamy with the addition of mozzarella and Gorgonzola.
That’s the memorable formula that Defraia served during his yearlong empanada-making tenure at Martina — chef/owner Daniel del Prado, another Argentine expat, is an old pal, and he recruited Defraia to Minneapolis from his decadelong stretch on the West Coast, primarily in Seattle. Mr. del Prado, we owe you.
Each sports different shapes and decorative variations. The spinach version bears a little baked-in pinch that’s a visual reference — and an inside joke — to Defraia’s distinctively spiky, sculptural coiffure.
“I don’t know which takes longer, making an empanada, or making my hair look this way,” he said with a laugh. “I think it’s my hair.”
But he makes a valid point: A great deal of labor is channeled into each empanada, and that handicraft shows. Their $3.95 price may be one of the Twin Cities’ great dining-out bargains. No wonder nearly 500 are flying out the door on busy days.
There are two salads — both vivacious and full of texture and flavor bonuses — and two desserts. One is as-expected churros, the other is a spectacular flan.
Served in a glass jar, the decadent custard is flecked with vanilla-bean seeds and crowned with a thick layer of dulce de leche, cayenne-dusted pecans and more sea salt flakes. Following the kitchen’s mantra, what could be more straightforward — and skillfully rendered — or more irresistible?
Come summer, Defraia hopes to find the time to branch out into ice cream, as if Minnesotans needed a reason for hoping for warmer weather, after the winter we’ve had. But a salted dulce de leche ice cream? I’m counting the days.
The place is tiny. Repeat: tiny. The cramped, intimate scale is also decidedly un-Midwestern.
“I wanted it to be like Buenos Aires,” said Defraia. Since I’ve never been, I’ll have to take his word for it. What I can add is that, with its boisterous music, elbow-to-elbow quarters and jovial conviviality, Boludo bears very little resemblance, atmosphere-wise, to the typical Twin Cities restaurant. Hurrah.