Element Pizza in Northeast Minneapolis — A Solid Neapolitan Pizza

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 PizzaPizzeria 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.Element Pizza on ourwaytoeat.comWe 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.  The Nordeast at Element PizzaWe 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.  Napoli with Mushroom and Olive at Element PizzaI 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.

A Taste of Cat Man Do, The Sample Room and Basil’s

This is the second in a short series of posts about a few restaurant experiences we’ve had around the Twin Cities in recent months.  
Cat Man Do – 1659 Grand Avenue, Saint Paul, MN Telephone:  (651)528-7575
I read about Cat Man Do a few months ago on a local food blog that I like to visit and knew it was a place we should try.  Cat Man Do is a cozy restaurant in our neighborhood that offers authentically prepared Nepali food.  Its menu is filled with interesting choices for vegetarians and omnivores alike.  We have now eaten there twice, and we enjoyed both meals.  After our first visit, I woke up the next day craving another Samosa, a savory pouch stuffed with potatoes and peas, served with a spicy-sweet sauce (not pictured) and considered going to the lunch buffet solely for the purpose of having another one.  On our first visit, I tried the Chow Chow noodles with vegetables with medium spice.  The noodles were pleasantly spicy, but I wouldn’t be shy about ordering them hot in the future.  Bjorn tried Mo Mo, a steamed dumpling, shaped into a little coin purse stuffed with seasoned meat.  On our second visit, Bjorn ordered Chow Chow with chicken, and I ordered M.A.P.P. curry with mushroom, asparagus, potato and peas which had a wonderful balance of warming seasonings.  On both occasions the dining room was nearly full, about half of the diners were college age and half were couples in their twenties through middle age.  This is both a fair representation of the neighbourhood’s residential composition and a testament to the tasty, enjoyable and interesting menu choices, and the reasonable price point at Cat Man Do.  Cat Man Do has earned a regular spot on our Saint Paul dining rotation.  We enjoy the satisfying, well-seasoned dishes at Cat Man Do.  Cat Man Do offers different flavors and preparations than the food we make at home, with results that are no less homey, craveable, and comforting.
The Sample Room – 2124 Marshall Street NE, Minneapolis, Minnesota Telephone:  (612)-789-0333
One rainy Sunday we went out for a drive in North East Minneapolis.  We had no particular destination in mind, but we knew dinner would be involved.  There are many solid options that we’ve enjoyed in visits to this neighbourhood, Psycho Suzi’s, The Modern Cafe, Northeast Social, Mill City Cafe, The Red Stag, and The Bulldog Northeast are all reliably good.  On this particular evening, we ended up at the Sample Room.  We’ve driven by many times on our way to listen to music at 331 Club, and finally managed to stop in for a meal.
I started by ordering a flight of wine.  When it arrived I stopped taking pictures.  Oops.  The aptly named Sample Room offers small plates of cheese, charcuterie, pasta, salads, meat, seafood and vegetables and a variety of interesting condiments, made in-house.  We started by sharing a house salad of mixed greens, aged ricotta, red onion, radish and pepitas with a red wine vinaigrette and a “Pickled Plate” which included pickled egg, an assortment of pickled veggies and mustard.  For my “main” I had the fresh fettuccine with wild mushrooms and kale in a sauce of chive crème fraîche, butter and white wine garnished with shaved parmesan and cracked black pepper.  I liked the fettuccine, but I didn’t love it.  I am pretty spoiled these days when it comes to fresh pasta.  Between living down the street from Scusi where you can get a killer fresh pappardelle any night of the week, the wonderful bowl of egg fettuccine with green garlic and grape tomatoes I recently enjoyed at Broder’s Cucina Italiana, and the pretty darned good pastas I’ve been rolling out at home, I have a high bar for fresh pasta.  Maybe I’m being too hard on the noodles, the real issue I had with the pasta was the kale.  I’m afraid to admit this for fear of losing all of my vegetarian cred, but I’m not sure that I’m sold on kale.  Admittedly, I haven’t made much of an effort to fall for this frilly, dark, cabbage-like green.  The kale on my fettuccine makes a good example of why I have a hard time jumping on the kale bandwagon — it had a mineraly-metallic taste that almost reminds me of meat.  The difficult flavor and texture of kale overpowers whatever feel-good vibes eating this super-nutritious green gives me.  In further damage to my vegetarian rep, I feel the same about collards.  I’ll stick to spinach, thank you very much.  I can’t blame the Sample Room for my personal views on the vegetable in a dish I opted to order, unless they sautéed the kale in a cast iron or aluminum pan which would be the cause of the pervading iron / B Vitamin flavor in the dish.  Bjorn had crab cakes and the Bison-Pork-Beef Three Meatloaf with smoked tomato ketchup, which was recently named the “Best Meatloaf in the Twin Cities 2012” by the Citypages.  Bjorn liked the meatloaf and as wonderful as it probably is, I cannot believe the Best Meatloaf in the Twin Cities isn’t made by somebody’s mother!  My mother’s meatloaf would surely be a contender if she made it in the Twin Cities and I hereby give it an unofficial nomination for Best of the Twin Cities 2013.  What is more, I cannot believe “Best of” rankings include meatloaf!  It seems like we’re going a little far with that, but I wouldn’t have been shocked if “best bike rack” made the list, so I guess meatloaf deserves its place.  The Sample Room gives you the opportunity to sample a variety of their local charcuterie, house-made pickled things, unique condiments and interestingly prepared meats and seafood offerings without committing to a massive portion or price.  It is another solid spot to add to the list of reasons that that Northeast Minneapolis is one of our best ‘hoods.
Basil’s Restaurant – 7th Street & Marquette Ave, Minneapolis, MN Telephone: 612.376.7404
Next on our Twin Cities tour is a lunch I had last week by myself at Basil’s, a slick restaurant circa yesteryear in the Marquette Hotel in Minneapolis, overlooking the Crystal Court in the IDS Center.  For out-of-towners, the IDS Center is the tallest building in Minnesota, and provides office space to scores of law firms, stockbrokers, venture capital firms and consultants of every ilk.  I chose Basil’s blindly, wanting to eat a salad in a calm place where I could write at noon on a Wednesday.  I found my way to Basil’s on the third floor taking the elevator in the hotel lobby and requested a table for one.  The host honestly seemed a little freaked about my request and spent several minutes nervously scrolling through his computer screen, uttering “uhhhh.”  I didn’t know how long this would continue so I interrupted to ask if the restaurant was booked with reservations.  He finally took the cue and showed me one of many open two-seater booths, which was in fact, kind of perfect for one person.  I chose to sit with my back to the kitchen door, instead of facing it where he had directed me.  There were a few more “uuuhs” and he told me to sit on whichever side I felt comfortable sitting.  I got the feeling he was maybe a bit uncomfortable with me having lunch by myself.  I waited quite a while before my presence was noted by a server.  By now, my discomfort was mounting.  I looked around the room and realized that the only escape was the elevator bank past the host stand, so there was no turning back on lunch without even more awkwardness.  When my waitress arrived, she was warm, experienced and didn’t seem at all bothered to serve a table of one.  I quickly ordered and enjoyed a few stolen moments of quiet to do my own thing.  Soon my Grilled Caesar salad arrived.  It was no more or less exciting than I expected, but it was totally good, and I immediately felt better about lunch.
I have noticed that nicer Italian restaurants are now grilling a head of romaine lettuce, and serving it whole in a deconstructed Caesar salad, rather than chopped or torn, with all elements combined.  Nowadays, said Caesar salad is probably going to arrive with either a whole anchovy, perhaps some chopped kalamata olives or some crunchy, lacy, toasted Parmesan cheese and an artistic crouton somewhere on the plate.  Maybe grilled romaine is standard everywhere else, but, it is my position that it is a newer offering in Minnesota.   I surmise that serving the lettuce grilled and the salad deconstructed challenges diners and adds enough interesting possibilities for presentation and accoutrements to allow the chef to keep the ubiquitous Caesar salad on the menu without feeling like they’ve given up on their dreams.  Basil’s and the grilled Caesar are both trying to be fresh.  The grilled salad did so more convincingly than the aging power-lunch spot — an out-of-step microcosm in the surreal universe of the IDS Center — where silver-haired suits hesitantly broker the passage of a torch forged of intensely-burned midnight-oil during long absences from home in the western ‘burbs to smartly be-spectacled nouveau-yuppies in short trousers and argyle socks poised to board a bicycle bound for South Minne at 5:01 p.m.  Me?  I just wandered here looking for a salad and to seize a minute to write in the middle of a downtown workday.