Pizzeria Lola in Armatage, Minneapolis

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The new Pizzeria Lola is barely open, and it’s already packed. In fact, if the initial weeks of business, food, and service are indicative of the restaurant’s trajectory, it will be probably be scouting around to open second and third new locations sometime in late 2011.

They’ve earned it; the pizza is unambiguously good.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

It’s worth noting that pizza, like hamburgers, pie, and bagels, is a food that lends itself to eternal deconstruction and debate. It’s a deceptively complicated thing that can be interpreted in a hundred different styles, and the lines between “I personally like it,” “It’s objectively good,” and “It’s authentic” are numerous and always up for discussion.

Therefore, if I write that the newly opened Pizzeria Lola is one of the three best pizzerias in the Twin Cities (along with Black Sheep and Pizza Nea), I understand and sympathize with the coming counterattack. (Punch partisans will likely be leading the angry mob.) But it’s written, so let’s deal with it.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Here’s a quick summary of what’s great about Lola. First of all, they’ve got a Le Panyol oven. It’s a big, gorgeous, wood-fired copper monstrosity that must certainly be among the loveliest pieces of working kitchen equipment in the Twin Cities. It’s also made with Terre Blanche clay from France, oft-praised for its kickass thermal properties. The oven is the understandable focal point of the restaurant’s design, which is warm and modern with charming touches such as coffee-can light fixtures and vintage cigarette boxes in lieu of leather folders for the check.

The restaurant also boasts a lovely, lovely pizza crust, the key to pizza bliss. It’s exceedingly chewy while retaining crispiness, and while it could be more carbon-kissed (as per my own preference), the oven does give it some nice spots of browning. It’s also got a perfect level of salt — you can taste the salt, but it doesn’t crowd out other flavors or parch your mouth.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Here’s one subjective breakdown of bad versus good versus great crust: After you eat a slice of pizza, bad crust gets discarded, tossed aside like chicken bones. Good crust gets finished. Great crust is eagerly anticipated, a reward even after you’ve polished off the deliciously cheesy and saucy bits of any given piece of pizza. Pizzeria Lola has great crust.

City Pages described the restaurant’s co-owner, Ann Kim, as a pizzaiola certified by the International School of Pizza, the only school in the United States affiliated with the Scuola Italiana Pizzaiolo in Italy. Credentials like these always warrant further investigation, but if Kim’s output at Lola is indicative of what they’re teaching, it’s a degree worth being proud of.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The ingredients at Lola also merit a mention. A touch of real parmigiano-reggiano on the Caesar salad brought an already good salad to a new level; the use of La Quercia meat products on various menu items is both high class and regionally appropriate. The fancy stuff is used sparingly, and to great effect, as a way to finish a piece of pizza as opposed to crushing or dominating it. (The fig and prosciutto pizza at the newly opened Mozza Mia also uses La Quercia meat, but in such quantity that the saltiness of the meat crushed any flavor from the cheese, and overwhelmed the sweet depth of the figs.)

In an effort to thoroughly review Lola… and, hell, because we fell in love with it, the Heavy Table staff turned this place into our unofficial clubhouse. We ordered up and down the menu, meeting consistently good results — “OK” was about as bad as it got, and “superb” was not an unusual verdict to hear. A Caesar salad ($10) was classic, well-balanced, and perfectly seasoned; The Breakfast pizza ($15) combined La Quercia guanciale, pecorino, cream, green onion, pepper, and a very soft egg to make a rich and swoon-worthy dish; a Boise (with still-crisp disks of potato, fontina, caramelized onion, and rosemary, $14) was entertaining and popular.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

A special-of-the-week Meatball and Ricotta pizza ($15) started out pretty good, but as it cooled, the flavors developed and sharpened and it became tremendously tasty; a writer ordered one of these to go, planning to enjoy it cold for subsequent lunches.

And the classic Margherita ($12), earned praise from staffer (and noted pizza blogger) Aaron Landry, who praised its “stripped down, basic style,” and for being “very well balanced.”

Aaron Landry / Heavy Table

But by general consensus, the favorite dish was a pizza called the Hawaii Pie-O. Hawaiian style pizzas tend to suffer from sloppy pineapple and big sheets of low grade ham — this version went much lighter on the toppings, meaning that crisp little bites of pineapple shone alongside a meaty Berkshire bacon, both of which felt both supported by and integrated into the high quality mozz atop the pie. Salty, sweet, chewy, cheesy, meaty — this is a pizza that has it all, but in moderation and balance.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Lola’s dessert is also nicely executed, consisting as it does of crispy and substantial chocolate chip cookies, and an interesting housemade soft-serve ice cream. We tried the latter with olive oil and fleur de sel and really enjoyed how the soft and creamy texture played up the sensually rich olive oil; the tiny bits of salt were a great counterpoint.  (A qualifying note: We also tried the chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich and thought the ice cream, which had gone hard and flavorless in the freezer, was a “scrape-that-crud-off” downer.)

Even if the crowds at the door continue to swell, there could be a second side benefit — the criminally underappreciated Cave Vin is right next door waiting to accept the spillover. So if you can’t get your wood-fired slice, bop one door over and do it up French bistro style. And then come back to Lola with renewed determination the next night, and order a pizza. You’ll thank us for it.

BEST BET: The Hawaii Pie-O. Extraordinary balance and restraint makes for a pizza that’s as classy as it is delicious.

Pizzeria Lola
★★★½ (Excellent)
Wood-fired pizza in Armatage, Minneapolis
http://www.pizzerialola.com/menu.html

5557 Xerxes Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55410
612.424.8338
HOURS:
Fri-Sat 5pm-11pm
Tue-Thu 5pm-10pm
Sunday 5pm-10pm
OWNERS: Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of a book about Minnesota sandwiches and the people who eat them, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a daily video blogger for CHOW. His latest book is a guide to the food and restaurants of Minneapolis and St. Paul called the Food Lovers’ Guide to the Twin Cities. Norton has written about food for Culture: The Word on Cheese, Salon, Gastronomica, Popular Science, Saveur.com, Minnesota Monthly, and City Pages (as a weekly restaurant reviewer).

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40 Comments

  1. Other Jim12/07/2010Reply

    I think you can easily please both the Punch and the Lola crowd by taking Nea off that list.

    I don’t get the small minority of people in this town who prefer Nea to Punch, but maybe someone can clue me in? To me, ingredient by ingredient Punch is either equal or better, and while Nea might be more “subtle” I just read that as a euphemism for “comparatively bland.” And I’ve been to Nea several times.

  2. Maybe it’s my sense of neighborhood pride that has me in love with this place, but I personally blame the pizza – it’s just darn good. Honestly, Minneapolis/STP has quickly become a killer pizza market and I think Lola is different enough to carve out its own identity. Jim is right about the neighboring Cave Vin – it’s friggin’ fantastic too. SW has a new fantastic food corner on its hands to go along with the Broders double-down and my favorite weekend brunch debacle with Cafe 28 and Zumbro.

  3. I agree with this. Been there twice since it’s opened. Apart from the long wait to sit down, everything was awesome.

  4. Other Jim12/07/2010Reply

    But back to being positive: homemade soft serve with fleur de sel and olive oil? That alone has me set on trying this place out.

  5. I would disagree with the assertion that punch isn’t in the top 3. Nea isn’t better than Punch, in my opinion.

  6. I have to agree. We’ve been to Lola once, and the pizza was out of this world. Can’t wait to go back now and try the Hawaii pie-O and soft serve ice cream. Certainly a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

  7. There aren’t many pizzas I don’t like … I tend to alternate my ‘dining’ adventures. I’ve even had chain pizzas that hit the spot. But Lola serves exquisite pizzas. I totally agree that the crust has the perfect balance of crispy/chewy and just salty enough.

    While I’ve had nice pizzas at Punch (I’ve tried three locations) they have invariably been damp and soggy in the center. I’ve come to believe, perhaps in error, that this is the intended outcome. But, by all means, eat where you’re happiest.

  8. We went Saturday & almost went back again last night, it was that good! I loved that Breakfast pizza.

  9. I agree Phil. To me, Punch is seriously flawed in its design due to the soggy, sometimes water logged, center. Given the their price point and good flavor, I still regularly eat Punch. However, I find Pizza Nea to be a far more satisfying pizza.

    Nonetheless, as you say, eat what you enjoy.

  10. But the oil/water that seeps onto your plate is sooooo tasty. Nea might be “drier,” but it also doesn’t taste as good.

  11. I’m a Pizza Nea partisan, too, and my complaint about Punch (if you can call it a complaint, since objectively, Punch obviously makes very good pizza) is also that floppy crust. I find their toppings to be nearly indistinguishable from Nea, so for me, the crisp, chewy crust at Nea wins out. (I don’t find it dry in the least.) Looking forward to trying Lola!

  12. Went to Lola with my 14-year-old nephew, who lives a few blocks away. He had the Hawaii Pie-O, which was smart. I chose the Boise and found it quite bland, especially after my perfectly dressed starter salad of frisée, roasted beets, goat cheese & toasted hazelnuts. When I mentioned that I wasn’t thrilled with the pie, the house took it off my bill. Great service, nice style, and of course yummy crust. It was also fun listening (despite the din–too many hard surfaces) to my nephew lament the loss of his local convenience store, Kenny’s Market, which Pizzeria Lola replaced. He was torn between nostalgia and wood fire pizza.

  13. Kenny’s is gone?? Noooooooooo!!!!!

    I’ll check this Lola out. Sounds great.

  14. re: soggy/wattery pizza @ Punch.

    that happens mostly if you go for the Buffalina cheese over the regular, don’t believe me? order a margherita and a margherita extra sometime and compare the two.

  15. Martha and I didn’t have dinner plans last night, so — partly on the strength of this review — we checked out Lola. After last night’s experience, I would not rank Pizzeria Lola among the top three pizzerias in the Cities; I am not sure I will even return.

    Starting with the crust, where indeed all discussions of pizza ought to begin, I would not describe it as “exceedingly” chewy so much as excessively chewy — by the time I was most of the way through my pie my jaw was getting sore. Nor was I impressed by the flat cornicione which when bitten into revealed a dense crumb. I wonder if these problems, along with the lack of char mentioned in the review, are caused by running that beautiful Le Panyol oven a little too cool.

    I do agree with what others have said about the quality of the service — they were willing to quickly rectify their mix-ups — and I the ingredients topping these pies are top quality, justifying the price, but if someone from out of town (or, God forbid, one of the coasts) asked me where to go to get an idea of the exciting things happening on the Twin Cities pizza scene, I would not send them to Lola (I’d probably send them to Black Sheep.)

  16. After one visit I also prefer punch. (but of course that’s based largely on my addition to their Mimi pizza, which is a distinct animal from anything else Punch makes…)

    That said, I’m quite sure my family will be helping support Lola in a big way, given that it’s almost shouting distance from our house.

    In fact, that looks to be a common (and unexpected, on the part of the proprietor) sentiment. When I was there with my 6 year old daughter on a wednesday night, the server apologetically gave me a full sized water glass for her. (“we don’t have any smaller kid-sized water glasses – we’re ordering a bunch of them ASAP!”)

  17. Agreed, Nea and Black Sheep are the best, though we haven’t been to Nea in some time; also, I don’t remember them having a wood burning oven, still …

  18. Evelyn Meyer12/08/2010Reply

    I sit here salivating as I read the text and see the pictures. Unfortunately I am an American living in Ontario, Canada or I’d be dashing to the front door of Lola’s. As I told Scott, it is exciting to read of your success even from afar because I celebrate excellence and achievement. When I make my next summer pilgrimage to visit relatives in the Midwest, I will plug in this address in the GPS. Bravo to you all and vive la pizza chez Lola! Eve M.

  19. The crust is simply disgusting. My god. What is it about pizza makers here in the midwest? The crust is supposed to be thin. We can all buy bread at the supermarket.

  20. Totally sold me. My mouth is watering!

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