Pizza is the most fun food. Pizza has gooey melted cheese, chewy bubbly crust and rich, spicy sauce. You eat pizza with your hands, usually surrounded by people you love, or at least people with whom you are trying to have a good time. The announcement: “Let’s go out for / order pizza!” is met with cheers and smiles from children and adults alike. Has there ever been a child’s birthday party where another food was served?
Topping options are endless, which makes ordering pizza a cooperative experience, a way to get to know somebody — more a pronouncement of what they won’t eat, than what they will eat. He hates mushrooms. She doesn’t eat meat. He won’t eat vegetables.
The concept of pizza as a social enterprise is the premise upon which chef and owner Pete Campbell has delivered Red Wagon Pizza Company to South Minneapolitans, initially at the Linden Hills Farmers Market and now at the newly opened storefront at 5416 Penn Ave S. His early days at the farmers market have paid off, as evidenced by the excellent menu, cooperatively developed by Campbell and chef de cuisine Sean Little (of Tilia and Travail).
So it was we found ourselves, a party of smiling people, walking into Red Wagon Pizza on a Saturday night. The declared one hour wait (actually only 30 minutes) flew by as we sat at the bar, which wraps around the ebullient, modestly sized dining room and separates diners from the kitchen, where crust after crust is tossed into the air before meeting its fate in the wood-fired oven.
The wall behind the bar houses 36 beer taps built into a white subway-tile backsplash. Each plain, black tap handle is labeled with a number that corresponds to a number on the beer menu. Above each tap sits a jar, the contents of which demonstrate for customers dark porters, red ales, or golden yellow lagers. A 20-bottle wine list is also available.
Once seated at our booth, we started our meal with the roasted butternut squash ($6, below left), a small bundle of julienned squash and carrots wrapped in prosciutto. Served in a small cast iron pan, the squash cuts a toothsome figure. The prosciutto is fused to itself, edges crispy and blackened, surrounding the colorful vegetables. Mild chili spice and maple sweetness complement the roasted vegetables, but the prosciutto, which had toughened in cooking, was a less successful element. The taste lacked focus, and the overdone prosciutto made the dish clumsy to eat.
By contrast, pepperoni rolls ($6, above right) succeeded in achieving the sweet / savory / spicy balance. Red Wagon’s pizza dough is simply rolled up with cheese and pepperoni, sliced, drizzled with sweet fig balsamic vinegar, and baked. The dough is crusty, the cheese golden brown and mingled with the vinegar, and the marinara on the side packs a pleasant kick.
If Minnesota has its own style of pizza, it would arguably be the thin crust variety with marinara sauce, piled high with toppings and extra cheese, and cut into squares, tavern-style. However, in the last 20 years, the majority of new pizza places, from Pizza Luce to Punch Pizza to Pizzeria Lola, draw from more disparate influences, like Neapolitan, California, or East Coast pizza.
Red Wagon brings its own array of influences to the table. Owner and chef Peter Campbell calls it “modern American pizza,” adding, “we’ve had pizza in America for 100 years. It’s OK to call it ours now.” The restaurant’s eccentric toppings evoke a California sense of creativity, and the cheese, a 50-50 blend of mozzarella and provolone, is New Jersey style. Made with organic flour milled at Sunrise Flour Mill, the East Coast style crust is hand tossed and comes out of the wood-fired oven thin yet sturdy. They offer one size pie, but it is easily big enough for two, maybe three diners. Prices are in the $15-$17 range, which considering the gourmet toppings feels like a bargain. You can build your own pizza, but we’d recommend one of the house selections. Of the five we tried (they are happy to do splits), there wasn’t a dud in the bunch.
The Detroit (where Campbell’s grandfather started making pizzas for the family after returning from Italy during WWII) is the lone vegetarian option ($15, above). With thinly sliced rings of green pepper, pickled onions, and sauce on top of the cheese (“Motor City style”) the relatively simple pie lets Red Wagon’s fundamentals shine. This pizza would make a great mission statement, if not for …
The Red Wagon Pizza ($17, top). The pie boasts house made sausage, crispy sopressata, and banana peppers, with chili flakes and fig balsamic. The paper-thin sopressata makes you wonder why pepperoni is the dominant cured salami of American pizza. Add piquant peppers and sweet vinegar, and they again nail the sweet / savory / spicy balance.
The Banh Mi ($17, above top right), in which the trendiest of sandwiches is spread atop a sauceless crust, features perfectly braised pork set off by the crunch of picked vegetables. Cilantro and cucumber add fresh herbal aromas and Sriracha aioli brings moisture and spice. If no one in town is adding cheese to traditional banh mi, it might be time to try.
The Chickmoula ($17, above bottom right) is another sauceless pizza, with roasted mushrooms, chicken, and tiny bits of crisp chicken skin. The earthy flavor of the mushrooms and the texture of the chicken skin come together in an alchemist’s trick to create an illusion that there are nuts on the pizza. The whole thing is drizzled with a green charmoula sauce: a North African blend of parsley, garlic, cumin and other spices. If the winning combination of roasted mushrooms and chicken skin weren’t enough, this scarcely seen sauce makes this pie a hit.
Finally, for the meat and potatoes set, there’s the Longhorn ($17, above): potatoes two ways (a bed of garlic mashed, and a finishing sprinkle of shoestring), braised beef cheeks, pecorino cheese, and steak sauce. Like the banh mi, this pizza transcends the genre, delivering all the joy of eating pizza with all the soul-warming satisfaction of potatoes and beef.
Red Wagon Pizza Company’s dining room is small and loud in a festive way. The overly earnest “Hey-Ho” adult contemporary folk rock could be turned down, or better yet the channel changed. But this isn’t a Dean Martin / Sinatra pizza place — it’s a modern American pizza party every day from 11 a.m. to midnight, which might not be enough time to satisfy the pizza hungry hordes of Armatage, even with Lola a short stretch away.
The Twin Cities have earned a reputation as a hub for great pizza. There are almost as many Punch Pizzas as Chipotles. Black Sheep Pizza has opened a third location and the owners of Pizzeria Lola are currently working on their third. The bar is high, and Red Wagon Pizza Company clears it with ease, maybe even tapping it up a notch or two. Their creative combinations and attention to detail — expertly braised soy and ginger pork, fresh-from-the-souk charmoula — is where Red Wagon Pizza Company excels. We can’t wait to go back and try the gravlax and reuben pizzas. We’re even looking forward to the wait.
Red Wagon Pizza
Wood-fired pizza in Armatage, Minneapolis
5416 Penn Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55419
Daily 11 a.m. – midnight
OWNERS: Peter and Jacquie Campbell
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No