During my recent trip to Minneapolis, I will have to say that I was bound and determined to visit Punch Neapolitan Pizza at some point, based on the recommendation of a friend of mine who lives in the Twin Cities. If you saw my post on Little Sushi on the Prairie, you'll know that I tried to visit the Punch in Eden Prairie one evening, but found out that they had a promotion going on and the place was packed and the line to order was nearly out the door. The next night, however, was back to normal and I was able to get into Punch rather easily.
Punch Neapolitan Pizza was the brainchild of John Soranno who became obsessed with wood-fired pizza as a young boy growing up in Milan, Italy. Soranno's father had been transferred to Milan and the younger Soranno just loved the Neapolitan pizza that was cooked at a small restaurant just around the corner from their home. The Soranno's eventually made it back to the U.S. and John got a degree in business and marketing before going to work for the former Northwest Airlines in the Twin Cities. On a honeymoon to the French Riviera, Soranno and his wife found a little wood-fired pizza place that was just packed. The fire in the oven was over 800 degrees, the toppings were farm fresh and the taste reminded Soranno of his upbringing in Milan. It was then that Soranno decided to leave the corporate world and open his own wood-fired pizza restaurant - something that was not available in the Twin Cities at the time.
Soranno, with the help of friends and family, opened the first Punch pizza location in early 1996. It instantly became a hit with people around the Twin Cities. One of the biggest fans was John Puckett, who along with his wife, Kim, founded Caribou Coffee in 1992. The Puckett's sold their shares of Caribou Coffee in 2000 and he soon approached John Soranno about becoming a partner in Punch and expanding the business. After a trip to Naples to learn more about Neapolitan pizza, Soranno and Puckett became partners and opened the second Punch location in 2002. Today, there are seven Punch locations around the Twin Cities.
Punch continues to make their pizzas as they did when they started out over fifteen years ago - Soranno insists on only the freshest ingredients to go onto his pizzas including imported San Marzano tomatoes and top-grade buffalo mozzarella from Italy. The pizza ovens at Punch are all handmade by Soranno, Puckett and members of the Punch staff. Each pizza oven they have built features an intricate and colorful series of tiles on the outside of each oven. And each location has an oven named after their favorite pizzerias in Naples. The one at the Eden Prairie location is called Da Michele, a pizzeria that has been been making wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas since 1870.
It wasn't far from my hotel to Punch in Eden Prairie (see map) and the crowd was appreciably smaller than the one the night before when they offered $3 dollar pizzas after being named as one of the "Best Places I Have Been" by Twin Cities native Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods on The Travel Channel. I was able to walk right up to the order counter and check out the menu on the board behind the counter.
Punch offers both Neapolian (made with fresh oregano) and margherita (made with fresh basil) styles of pizza. There's only one size - about a 10" pizza - and you can either order one of their house specials, such as the "Milanese" with ham, roasted red peppers, gorganzola cheese and fresh basil; the "Adriatico" with imported saracene olives, fresh oregano, capers, onions and feta cheese; and the "Toto" with arugula, prosciutto, cracked red peppers, goat cheese and garlic. But if you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you know that I'm not very adventurous when it comes to my pizza. I ordered my old stand-by Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushroom, Neapolitan style. I also ordered a couple Surly Brewing Furious ales to go along with the pizza. I thought about just getting a pitcher, but decided just a couple would do me.
Not long after sitting down in a booth in the bright and ornate dining room at the Punch location in Eden Prairie, it was less than 10 minutes after I ordered at the counter and my pizza came to the table. It looked like an authentic Neapolitan pizza, sort of mis-shaped and loaded somewhat caramelized on top from the intense heat from the oven. But I was a little taken back at what I thought was a lack of toppings on the pizza. It was much more crust than toppings. There were a lot of mushrooms - very fresh mushrooms - on the pizza, but there was a noticeable lack of both pepperoni and sausage on the pizza. While I fully expected there not to be a lot of cheese on Punch's Neapolitan style pizza, I thought there would have been more of the meat toppings. And there wasn't a lot of fresh oregano on the pizza, at least not enough to give it any pizazz.
Being that it wasn't that large of a pizza, I made pretty quick work of it - not eating all of the crust, of which there was a lot of crust. While it was chewy, the crust was rather bland. I'm sorry to say that Punch didn't live up to my expectations.
And that's too bad. Punch gets a lot of "People's Choice" awards from Twin Cities residents. While it is authentic Neapolitan style pizza, I've had better Neapolitan pizzas in other places. For the fresh toppings and the unique nature of cooking their pizzas, Punch is tough to beat. But, to me, it was an average pizza, at best. I guess I just wasn't as impressed with Punch as my friend is.