In the last few years, the Twin Cities has gained a national reputation as a hotbed of handcrafted, high-quality pizza. With the opening of Pizzeria Pezzo, White Bear Lake is getting in on the action. And if the overflowing crowd of happy diners on a sub-zero Tuesday evening is any indication, the newest coal-fired shop is a welcome addition to the area.
With financial backing from the late Jim Kowalski (of Kowalski’s markets), Pezzo’s owner and chef, Gary Bougie, seemingly spared little expense on this large (borderline massive) restaurant. It’s modeled on Bougie’s original pizzeria, Slyce, located in a northern suburb of Chicago. Pezzo is big enough to accommodate a large bar area, a very large dining area, and a sizable room for private parties. But because there’s so much space, Pezzo lacks intimacy and, as one of our party pointed out, that dreamy “pizza smell.” Still, eager diners won’t face long waits for a table at this popular new restaurant, which is a huge plus, and the place is well-staffed with incredibly welcoming servers — we were thanked for coming in at least a half dozen times. For better or worse (depending on your view of super cheery, super attentive service), Pezzo’s staff exemplifies “Minnesota Nice.”
The “large” theme continues with the salads and, ironically, the “small plates.” The “Sicilian” salad ($12) could feed, well, not all of Sicily, but perhaps a Sicilian family. A heaping portion of field greens is mixed with a generous handful of pine nuts, parmesan, prosciutto, and a slightly sweet vinaigrette. Although it could use a bit more brightness (a few squeezes of lemon would do the trick), the salad is a fresh, enjoyable complement to the richer pizzas.
A “small plate” of five jumbo stuffed mushrooms ($10) is addictive and satisfying, each cap filled with Pezzo’s ridiculously good fennel sausage, four-cheese blend, garlic, and peppers. Reduced balsamic adds pleasant sweetness and acidity to the rich, savory balls of deliciousness. Clearly, we were thrilled that this “small plate” was not small at all.
Pezzo’s thin crust, Neapolitan style pizzas are good, and they have potential to be great. The coal-charred crust is slightly chewy and properly salted. The toppings, however, need tweaking. The fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil ($13.74) suffers from too much of a good thing. Overly generous amounts of cheese and a sweet, pasty sauce weigh down the pie and bury the basil; we didn’t get the fresh, classic flavors we associate with this traditional set of toppings.
The crust on the other Neapolitan style pizza — arugula, prosciutto, olive oil, garlic, and goat cheese ($14.74) — was even better than the first, but an abundance of salt in the toppings put us off. The small pile of fresh arugula was oversalted, and the relatively thick, cooked slices of prosciutto were overpowering. Adding fresh prosciutto after cooking, rather than before, would likely improve the dish.
That said, the real star was yet to come. We were unambiguously pleased with the “Wrigley” ($22.50), a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza with Pezzo’s awesome fennel sausage, thin slices of pepperoni, mozzarella, and chunky tomato sauce. The crust is golden brown, slightly dense, and crumbly, and the meat-cheese-sauce filling is decadent and delectable. We dare you to stop at one or even two slices of this gut-busting winner.
Word on the street is that Bougie plans to open several more Pizzeria Pezzo locations in Minnesota in the next few years. Given the popularity of this first foray, we expect he’ll have little problem achieving his vision. However, Pezzo will face stiff competition in the Twin Cities’ core. For now, we prefer the Neapolitan style pizzas at Black Sheep, Lola, and Burch, though we will surely return to Pezzo for salad, stuffed mushrooms, and deep dish. We’ve just got to get a bigger crew — Pezzo takes “plenty” seriously.
Italian restaurant in White Bear Lake
2143 4th St
White Bear Lake, MN 55110
OWNER / CHEF: Gary Bougie
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $8-$24