Twenty or so minutes into our first meal at Big River Pizza in Saint Paul’s Lowertown, a pizza lovers’ quarrel broke out. But as we debated crust density, sauce distribution, and topping combinations, our two-year-old dining companion cut in with urgency: “I need that!” His tiny finger pointed at the Proud Mary ($12 / $16), the restaurant’s take on the classic pizza Margherita. In three simple words he’d summarized our feelings about Big River. We need it.
After several years toting around his two-ton, fire-breathing Valoriani wood oven to farmers’ markets and catered parties, Big River’s owner, Steve Lott, has put down roots within shouting distance of the Saint Paul Saints’ new field. Importantly for Lott (below), who takes pride in topping pies and making salads with fresh local ingredients, the restaurant sits directly across the street from Lowertown’s farmers market.
Fueled by two kinds of wood (one for generating heat and another for kicking up flames to create a broiler effect), the elephantine oven produces a slightly charred, delicious crust that’s crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. The crust is thick enough (some might say too thick for Neapolitan-style pizza) to keep the center of the pie from flopping and falling apart.
Big River’s toppings, sourced from some of the best farms and purveyors in the state (including Shepherd’s Way Farms and Red Table Meats), distinguish the restaurant from many competitors. As Lott told us, he “lets the ingredients speak for themselves.” This was definitely true of the Market Veggie, featuring assorted summer squash, purple potatoes, and garlic scapes. With added flavor from chili oil and Gruyere, this deliciously simple and unmistakably summery creation made us consider ordering a CSA box — or at least getting our butts to the next farmers market.
Of the four pizzas we tried, the St. Vincent ($15 / $22) reigned supreme. Packing a major flavor punch, the concoction stars thick bacon, fresh garlic, provolone, and a bright, slightly sweet red sauce made from organic crushed tomatoes. This pizza could have been overwhelming, given the combination of high-powered ingredients, but the components complemented one another, producing a well-balanced, unique pizza that we had to order on both visits.
We feared that the 10,000 Leeks ($14 / $18) — a vegetarian option that includes potatoes, Gruyere, and sour cream, along with a layer of leeks — would be too heavy. Again, though, Big River defies expectations: the pie is flavorful and surprisingly light. Thinly sliced purple potatoes and judicious drizzles of sour cream add texture and creaminess without weighing down the pie or detracting from the headlining leeks. This pie should appeal to hot dish and pizza aficionados alike.
Big River’s salad offerings are less exciting than those at Black Sheep or Pizzeria Lola, though Lott says he’s adding more creative options as the staff finds their sea legs. Since we visited, he’s added, for instance, a market salad with tricolored green beans, roasted cauliflower, charred onions, fresh mozzarella, and basil. The two salads we tried, the Mixed Greens ($3.50 / $7) and the Caesar ($3.50 / $7), were impeccably fresh and balanced, with top-rate ingredients and restraint. The focaccia croutons, however, stole the show.
Just a few weeks old, Big River looks to have staying power. The food is delicious; the space is fun and comfortable; and the owner and staff are personable and attentive. The combination of Big River, Saint Dinette (the newly opened sibling of Strip Club Meat and Fish), Heartland, Bedlam Theater, the Saints’ ballpark, and the farmers market is transforming a once-hidden gem into St. Paul’s place to be. Or, as our littlest diner might put it: Lowertown! We need it!
Big River is throwing a party today (July 15) from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. to celebrate its one-month anniversary. Mayor Chris Coleman will be pouring pints of special edition Surly Pentagram, and partygoers can get a pint and a slice for $5. Adam Grainger will provide live music.
Big River Pizza
Wood-oven pizza in Lowertown, Saint Paul
280 5th St E, St. Paul 55101
OWNER / CHEF: Steve Lott
Mon closed (unless there’s a Saints game)
Tue 4-10 p.m.
Wed-Fri 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sat 10 a.m.-10p.m.
Sun 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
BAR: Wine and Beer
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $7-$25