I've been on the look out for pizza places in the Twin Cities area that I haven't eaten at and one that popped up on my radar (thanx to my buddy, Rob Boyd) is a place that opened in the late fall of 2010 by the name of Pizzeria Lola located at the corner of Xerxes Ave. and 56th St. in Southwest Minneapolis (see map). I've been going to the Twin Cities more often because of an uptick in business and I decided to seek out Pizzeria Lola when I pulled into town one evening.
I'm always interested in the back-stories behind the development of a restaurant and Pizzeria Lola's turned out to be somewhat interesting. The first person in the picture is Ann Kim, whose family immigrated to the Twin Cities from Korea a number of years ago. Ann Kim was a good student - no, a great student - and she eventually was accepted into Columbia's prestigious law school. But Ann was also an actress and she became disenchanted with the law business. She eventually moved back to Minneapolis to work at the Children's Theater Company. Her mother wasn't too happy with this development in her life and there was some friction in the family. But Ann Kim was happy with her decision and with her boyfriend and partner, Conrad Leifur, they decided they wanted to do something even more bold with their lives.
Ann Kim at right - Picture courtesy of Maine Wood Heat.
Leifur was a Yale graduate and a former hedge fund manager. Leifur would talk about missing the great pizza places in New Haven, CT, while Kim would lament about the days of great pizza in New York City. They decided to chuck everything they had into a venture that would eventually become Pizzeria Lola. But not before they went back to New York City and New Haven to sample some of the better pizza places there. The two decided that if they did open a pizza restaurant, it would be a wood-fired pizza place.
Kim then decided to move to San Francisco and enroll in the International School of Pizza, headed by 11-time World Champion Pizza Maker Tony Gemignani. The International School of Pizza was - at the time - the only pizza-making school in North America recognized by the Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli, the first accredited pizza-making school in the world. (Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli now has a Scoula Italiana Pizzaioli USA in New York City.) After becoming a certified pizzaioli in January of 2010, Ann Kim worked as an apprentice for Tony Gemignani before moving back to the Twin Cities a few months later to further her pizza venture with Leifur.
Knowing the oven would be the key, Kim and Leifur imported a Le Panyol wood-fired oven, one of a handful that are in the United States. Le Panyol wood-fired ovens are made from clay from a small town in the Rhone-Alpes in Southern France by the name of Larnage. The clay around Larnage is known as Terre Blanc, or white land clay known for having exceptional thermal properties that allows for even cooking temperatures throughout the oven. The Le Panyol clay oven that Kim and Leifur bought for Pizzeria Lola is covered with a copper sheath. It's the center visual and focal point of the restaurant.
Kim and Leifur settled upon the name of the restaurant - Pizzeria Lola - which is named after her much-loved weimaraner - a German hunting dog. They opened the doors in December of 2010. Their unique gourmet pizzas were an immediate hit with critics, food bloggers and the general populace.
I got to the restaurant around 8:30 one evening and parked in the last available parking spot on the north side of the building. Then I made a rookie mistake - I went around the building and went in the first door I came to. It turned out it was the entry way to Cafe Vin, the restaurant next door to Pizzeria Lola. Both places had outdoor dining and I figured it was one and the same. Nope. I looked aimlessly around the interior of the quaint little restaurant before I finally figured out that this was not a pizza place. No one had any pizza on their tables.
I walked out of Cafe Vin and into Pizzeria Lola's exquisite modern designed dining area. Spokes with hanging can lights came out from the large copper clad clay oven. The tables and seats had a sort of retro French auberge look to them, but were still modern in their look. The hostess asked me if I wanted to sit at the bar since many of the tables and booths in the place were filled. She ran me back to the bar and let me take a look. A television with a Minnesota Twins game playing was on the wall at the end of the bar. I told her that would work for me. Just like the large oven in the kitchen area, the bar had a copper top to it. Very classy. (Picture at right courtesy Kerry Klun)
The hostess left off a menu and I was soon greeted by my bartender/server for the evening, Liz. I asked her if she had any Surly products on tap and she gave me a beer menu to look over. They did have the very forward and hoppy Surly Furious on tap, but they also had a Surly Hell seasonal lager available. I hadn't tried that before, so I ordered one of those. It was actually pretty damn good - but I don't think I've had a Surly product that was bad.
In addition to their pizza at Pizzeria Lola, they also had a number of unique appetizers that sounded pretty good. Many of the appetizers featured farm-to-fork items such as roasted baby beets with arugula; roasted cauliflower; and an organic mixed green salad with pancetta, sherry vinaigrette and topped with award winning Hook's Blue Cheese out of Mineral Point, WI. A couple of 20-something girls were seated next to me and they were sharing an order of the homemade meatball platter. It looked like that was a meal in itself. And they both got pizzas after that!
The pizza kitchen was right in front of me and there was a flurry of activity with a team of pizza makers hand-tossing dough, laying it out and passing it along the line to add the fresh toppings, homemade pizza sauce and fresh mozzarella, pecorino or provolone cheeses. They make their own Berkshire-fennel sausage at Pizzeria Lola and they serve natural casing pepperoni. I was getting hungry looking over the menu.
Many of the pizzas are overly unique. For instance, they have a Korean barbecue pizza that plays up to Ann Kim's heritage. It features grass fed beef short ribs, mozzarella, arugula, scallions, with a sesame and soy-chili vinaigrette. I wasn't quite that adventurous. Another Korean-style pizza is the Lady Za-Za - house-made kimchi and Korean sausage, serrano peppers, scallions, and a sesame and soy chili glaze. Once again, I'm sure it's pretty good,
Another interesting pizza on the menu was The Boise - potatoes, gruyere and fontana cheeses, caramelized onions, topped with olive oil and rosemary. Potatoes on pizza? Um, not for me. They also had a pizza named The Iowan on which they use prosciutto from La Quercia artisan meats out of Norwalk, located just south of Des Moines. I'd heard about La Quercia meats before, but had never had any of their meats. I understand their Tamworth bacon is to die for. In addition to the prosciutto, The Iowan featured ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, garlic confit and arugula. Sounded good, but not quite what I was looking for.
They have a pizza called the Old Reliable that features their homemade pizza sauce, mozzarella and pecorino cheese. From there you can anything from the homemade fennel sausage, fresh basil, roasted wild mushrooms, up to over a dozen different choices of toppings. I had my eye on the My Sha-Roni with the fennel sausage, the natural cased pepperoni, homemade pizza sauce and mozzarella. When Liz came back around to take my order, that's what I ordered. Only I added some of the roasted wild mushrooms on top. There's only one size pizza at Pizzeria Lola - about a 12" size.
Because the wood-fired clay oven heats up to about 800 degrees (F), it doesn't take long to bake a Lola's pizza. In fact, it probably took longer for them to toss and lay out the homemade dough, then add the toppings before it went into the oven. I had my pizza about 10 to 12 minutes after I ordered.
The dough had bubbled up on the edges and had a slightly charred look to it. There were ample amounts of the pepperoni, sausage and the roasted mushrooms on top with the mozzarella and sauce mixed in. The crust wasn't thick, but it wasn't thin, either. I pulled off one of the natural-cased pepperoni slices while waiting for the pizza to cool down and popped it in my mouth. Oh, man! I had a slightly salty and spicy taste to it. The slices weren't big - about the diameter of a good sized hot dog. But they were very good.
Once the pizza had cooled down sufficiently - at least cool enough that I wouldn't get 2nd degree burns in the top of my mouth - I had my first bite of my Pizzeria Lola's pizza. It was - in a word - fabulous. The taste sensations that came together with the homemade fennel sausage, the pepperoni and the roasted mushrooms were exceptional. The pizza sauce was light and tangy, not too sweet - the way I like it. The pizza crust was crisp, yet chewy. It was a pizza that looked like it would be very filling, but the crust was very light. It was a very easy pizza to eat.
I had noticed a number of people coming to the bar and ask Liz for tokens. And I really hadn't noticed behind me that there were hundreds - maybe thousands - of three-shot pictures on the long wall going back toward the restrooms. People were getting tokens for $3 bucks to go back to a photo booth in the back to get their pictures taken. You got two sets of pictures for the money and you could keep strip and put the other on the wall. If you wanted to have more pictures taken, it cost an additional $2 bucks. There was a steady stream of people that went back to the photo booth while I was there.
Pizzeria Lola suddenly jumped to the top of my list of good pizzas in the Twin Cities. Granted, I haven't had many pizzas in the area, but if someone were to ask me where to get a great pizza in town, I wouldn't hesitate and say, "Pizzeria Lola." Although it was a little expensive (the pizza was $17.50 and the two beers I had were $6 each), it was tough to beat. It was one of the finest pizzas I've ever had, anywhere. Maybe on my next visit at some point I'll be a little more adventurous. I'm sure any pizza at Pizzeria Lola would be wonderful.