The essential problem with talking about pizza is that the term “pizza” is almost meaningless. It implies (but doesn’t even guarantee) crust, sauce and cheese, but nothing else is actually spelled out, leaving ample room for improvisation, inspiration and degenerate mischief. The term includes everything from austere, sauceless thin crust Mediterranean-inflected wafers to 3,500-calorie bowls of molten cheese packed into doughy, fluffy crust that resembles under-baked dinner rolls. Pizza can be a flimsy appetizer or a heavy dinner, an haute cuisine creation that you could proudly serve to a Le Cordon Blue-trained chef or a downscale pile of slop that would put off anyone other than a thoroughly high college student.
New local pizzerias such as Punch (a certified Neapolitan-style operation) and Black Sheep (which offers East Coast-style coal fired beauties) seem to be the dominant trend these days. The new school is, in turn, displacing Midwestern favorites that put more emphasis on the quantity of cheese and substantial nature of toppings than finding some kind of perfect chewy/crunchy balance on the crust or finding precisely the right recipe for the high-end homemade meatballs used as toppings.
Sitting quietly out in Roseville, MN is an understated rebuke and counterpoint to the way pizza seems to be going around here. Aurelio’s is a homey, comfortable, booth-lined little shoebox of a pizzeria in a strip mall, the sole Minnesota location of a primarily Chicago- and Indiana-based chain. Dig through the menu — past the conventional Midwestern pizza, the sandwiches, salad, and pasta — and you find a little section called “Mama Aurelio’s Stuffed Pizza.”
There is no reason to think that this stuff is anything special. As the victim of a number of highly praised and ultimately disgusting Chicago-style sloppy deep dish or stuffed pizzas, it was hard not to view the offering with a great deal of suspicion.
And then the pizza arrived at the table. One small pie (10 inches in diameter and $13.95 on the check) serves two people, at least. The stuffed pizza is, in essence, a plain old regular pie with a second crust crimped onto the cheesy top. That second crust is, in turn, covered with a basil sprinkled layer of red sauce.
This is clearly a setup for disaster: doughy crust. Too much cheese. Too much sauce. Undercooked this, that and the other — there’s a lot of mass in one of these things. And yet: Aurelio’s does it right, threading the needle, putting together a pizza pie that — with its delicate, chewy crusts and well-calculated proportions — tastes shockingly similar to a classic lasagna, with the crusts playing the part of the noodles.
The stuffed pizza at Aurelio’s is like a slap in the face to the modern day pizza, with its crushed San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and fennel sausage. It’s plainspoken, not eloquent, familiar, not elegant, and tasty, not delectable. On top of all of that, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. That’s not necessarily the ideal of pizza. But it’s one of many possible ideals that’s occasionally worth remembering.
BEST BET: The novel and surprisingly well-executed stuffed crust pizza.
Pizza in Roseville, Minnesota
2827 Hamline Ave
Roseville, MN 55113
OWNER: Aurelio’s Is Pizza, Inc.
BAR: 3.2 beer
VEGETARIAN/VEGAN: Yes and No
ENTREE RANGE: ($5-10)