If spring 2009 was the second coming of the hamburger in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, with the openings of Five Guys, Smashburger, and Burger Jones, one could argue that fall 2010 is the season of pizza. The debut of Pizzeria Lola in Southwest Minneapolis and the expanded footprint and menu of Pizza Luce, combined with the long-standing popularity of favorites Black Sheep, Punch, and Pizza Nea, has given pizza lovers ample reason to sample slices and debate the merits and shortcomings of each crust, sauce, and toppings. Did you expect such a trend to emerge without local restaurant group Parasole getting in the mix? Of course not.
The Monday before Thanksgiving saw Parasole founder Phil Roberts and his crew launch Mozza Mia in Tejas’ former space in the 50th and France shopping district that straddles Edina and Minneapolis. The “pizza pie and mozzarella bar” concept that Mozza Mia offers may work in Los Angeles, where renowned chefs Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali, and Joseph Bastianich opened Pizzeria Mozza / Osteria Mozza four years ago to critical acclaim, but how does it measure up in our chillier environs? While we found the restaurant’s cozy dark wood decor and hot pizza oven to be inviting, the inconsistency of the pies failed to bring us to our knees in praise.
Mozza Mia’s wood-burning oven churns out 10 varieties of pizza, ranging from the classic Margherita ($10) to more inventive pies like the Gamberi ($16), with shrimp and pesto, and the potato- and prosciutto-centric Patate ($12). But what’s best on any given night is anybody’s guess. What works swimmingly on one pie — a crispy crust or savory sauce — is the downfall of another. The rich tomato sauce on the Regina ($15) made our mouths happy, but the scarcity of the smoked mozzarella was disappointing. For a place that boasts its house-made, signature cheese, it doesn’t make much sense to skimp on it. Another night, though, the base of cremoso cheese on the Fresca ($15) expertly tied together the appropriately chewy crust with the veritable salad of arugula, pear-shaped tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella atop the pie. The off-notes of the Salumi ($12) pizza made it less than enjoyable — perhaps an overabundance of fennel in the salami was the culprit — and a heavy hand with the spices in the sauce for the Margherita made it seem more meaty than vegetarian. Uneven salting and distribution of ingredients also marred the Fig and Prosciutto ($15) and Calabrese ($14) pizzas, and the children’s classic cheese pizza suffered from a saggy bottom.
More successful, however, were many other items Mozza Mia offers, often with thick, chewy, and deliciously oiled slices of grilled bread. With carbs taking up 95 percent of the real estate on the menu, even the most die-hard anti-Atkins crowd would beg for a salad, and the Sicilian ($8) combines fresh fennel, arugula, orange slices, and pine nuts with a zesty vinaigrette to bring a burst of freshness to a heavy dinner. The Panzanella ($8) was more like a green salad with thick wedges of tomato and hefty croutons than the traditional version that primarily consists of tomato and bread, but it still was a pleasant, if slightly overdressed, start to the meal. If you’ve decided that vegetables aren’t meant to be a part of your dinner, turn instead to the trio of bruschetta — specifically, the version featuring ricotta and goat cheese with plum marmellata ($8). Even a goat-cheese hater couldn’t resist the tempting sweetness of the marmellata, which nicely balances the creaminess of the cheese spread.
Whoever sources the tomatoes that share the spotlight with the fresh mozzarella deserves applause — while they don’t have quite the same tang as the late summer fruit, the tomatoes’ bright colors and firm texture don’t make you regret ordering such dishes in December. (Yes, I realize that means the tomatoes aren’t local — let the tongue-lashing begin.) Thick slices of those tomatoes cradle the mozzarella in the Caprese antipasto ($9), and while it makes a satisfying enough starter, we couldn’t help but remember better versions at Broders’ or Parma 8200. On the other hand, the smoked-salmon rollatini ($7) we ordered during another visit was everything we imagined it would be — silky salmon layered with salty cheese gracing the top of a slice of that grilled bread. The caponata-like spread on the side was pleasing enough but not necessary — how about a few more slices of salmon instead? But examined on its own merits, the mozzarella didn’t win over discerning cheese enthusiasts. Though enjoyable while consuming it, the cheese didn’t linger on one’s mind more than five minutes after finishing it. The mozz wasn’t bad by any means — it just didn’t have that something extra, whether that would be flavor, texture, or moisture, you’d expect from a made-fresh-daily cheese.
The two chocolate desserts sampled — a scoop of gelato and a healthy wedge of chocolate-hazelnut cake (both $6) — avoided the curse of too much sugar. In fact, the Torta Cioccolato needed those salty hazelnuts on top to bring out the slice’s subtle sweetness. Surprisingly sour, though, was the limoncello ($5), which arrived ice cold in the tiniest pitcher. After the initial bite of the alcohol faded, the apertif tasted like lemon-drop candy. The strength of the sipper leaves little doubt that it’s made fresh in house.
So where does Mozza Mia fit in to today’s pizza scene? It has a long way to go if it wants to garner the accolades that Lola and Black Sheep have received, but despite its shortcomings, Mozza Mia will likely thrive. Its aesthetically pleasing setting and 50th and France location will appeal to shoppers who crave warmth and a glass of wine after a brisk walk among the boutiques, and the friendliness and professionalism of the staff make Mozza Mia a welcome respite for diners of all ages. (I can’t think of another restaurant where so many servers have come up to my table to talk to my children instead of rush by with a nervous smile.) Let’s hope that some tinkering with the recipes will bring the quality of the pizza up to the level that area pizza lovers will embrace.
BEST BET: If the daily rollatini ($7) includes smoked salmon, jump on it. Pair it with a Fresca pizza ($15) and you won’t even need to order a side salad to get your veggies.
Wood-fired pizza in Edina
3910 W 50th St
Edina, MN 55424
OWNER / CHEF: Parasole Restaurant Holdings / Vittorio Renda
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes on weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $10-16 for pizzas, $7-13 for mozzarella dishes