If I were running for local office, I would promise a chicken in every pot and a wood-fired Neapolitan Pizza shop in every ‘hood. It would be an easy promise to keep, because we’ve got ’em: Punch Neapolitan Pizza, Pizzeria Lola, Pizza Nea, Element, Black Sheep Pizza* all come to mind–all well-known, well-loved and everyone has their favorite. Also, almost everyone has a Neapolitan pizza shop a stone’s throw from their house, if they happen to live in the metro.We were in Northeast Minne and hungry last Sunday, so we stopped by Element for lunch. Over time, I’ve managed to make the rounds to many of the establishments in the Twin Cities Neapolitan pizza scene. Element is a tiny, triangular-shaped space filled with glossy and grainy woodwork, limited seating and sparse decor. We headed straight to the to counter place our order and spied the wood-fire pizza oven right in the front of the kitchen which is overseen by just a few cheerful employees. The menu on the wall lists 15 pizzas named for the 5 elements and other local references, a special and a long list of toppings for creating your own combination of toppings. Each pizza begins as either Napoli, seasoned with oregano; Margarita, seasoned with basil, or Bianco, topped with olive oil, mozzarella and no sauce. Having fallen for Neapolitan Pizzas at Punch, seeing Napoli and Margarita serve as the base of a thin-crust pizza topped with artisan ingredients, I am in familiar territory and I expect to taste a Neapolitan pizza I have come to know and love. We ordered a small Aegean salad to share, which was a generous portion of lettuce, tomato, pepperoncini, olives with a house made vinaigrette served with several slices of tasty rosemary flatbread. Bjorn ordered a Nordeast topped with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms and oregano. For a meat-eater, this combination of ingredients would be hard to pass up. I ordered a Napoli topped my way, with mushrooms and olives. As much as I know that trusting the Pizzaioli’s carefully curated pie toppings is the hip thing to do, I am a control freak and I like being able to select pizza toppings myself. I enjoyed the amply topped, chewy and slightly sweet, fire-kissed crust and found it filling enough to allow me to take home a few slices. The crust was more substantial than the very-thin, Punch crust that almost melts under its sweet, light yet earthy San Marzano sauce. In all, there were several similarities between Element and Punch’s approach to Neapolitan pizza–the Napoli and Margarita base, similar side offerings, such as the Aegean salad, which is nearly identical to the Greco at Punch, and is also served with Rosemary flatbread. I haven’t been to Naples, but I expect we’d find their influences there. Element veered away from the extremely minimalist approach to topping pizzas characteristic of all of the other pizzerias I’ve ranked in their cohort. While interesting topping combinations were available, Element avoided the extreme in topping one-of-a-kind juxtapositions achieved by Lola and Black Sheep. This straightforward unfussiness is probably why I liked it. Element, like Punch is a solid provisor of Neapolitan Pizza standards, with the option of flexible and ample and predictable toppings to satisfy the desires of my thrifty, picky Midwestern heart.
*At Black Sheep, pies are coal-fired which hearkens back to coal-fired pizzas in New York. In other words, this shop doesn’t qualify as Neapolitan, but their pizzas have a crispy-crust, minimally-topped with an assembly of curated toppings so I’m ranking them among the Neapolitan shops despite their intentional departures.