Naples itself may have lost some of its charm and romance, but as the most bombed Italian city of World War II, let us say it has acquired a certain edge. Even so, it has remained a favorite tourist destination, in no small part because of its culinary heritage.If one defines pizza as an oven-fired flat bread topped with ingredients like tomatoes, then Naples is undoubtedly its godfather. Having an authentic pizza in that city is lure enough to tempt tourists to brave the notorious pickpockets and suffocating streets there. I know of no other city with such an intense, dish-specific draw. It’s all a bit odd until you consider that we’re talking about pizza.
Is pizza not the perfect dish? If Jupiter himself were to feel a wee bit peckish, would he not melt over the perfect slice of cheesy, meaty, tomatoey heaven resting conveniently on a flawless crust?
Pizza is also perfectly accommodating—adjusting itself here and there to please its audience. In Chicago, it is a heartier affair, while New Yorkers prefer theirs on the thin side with loads of toppings.
In Naples, a wood-burning oven is considered a necessity. Punch Pizza brings that very preparation to the Twin Cities. If you’re used to waiting 30 or 40 minutes for a restaurant pizza, be prepared for something entirely different. The Punch Pizza oven burns at a minimum of 800 degrees, which can turn out individually sized pizzas in 90 seconds flat.
At Punch’s Calhoun Village location, a dinner rush is intense even on a Monday night, but the kitchen is able to keep up without breaking a sweat. If you want a more sedate experience, I am told the Highland Park or Northeast Minneapolis venues aren’t as dizzying. But I for one enjoy the hustle and bustle—it’s very Naples.
My dining party was treated to two more-traditional pies, as well as two new specialties.
Margherita Extra ($10.70) is the classic combination of basil, buffalo mozzarella, and tomatoes, only the latter pack an extra burst of flavor, courtesy of the unique climate at the base of Mt. Vesuvius.
It doesn’t take much to make a good pizza: fresh, quality ingredients, along with a worthy crust. At Punch, no matter how simple a particular pie may appear on the menu, expect a rich complexity of flavor.
Furthermore, if you never have had an authentic Neapolitan crust, it’s high time you did. Punch’s crust has the characteristic blisters of a traditional pizza oven. It also is just chewy enough to fold or tear, yet an entire slice is strong enough to be eaten the traditional way, without the use of utensils.
Despite the franchise’s youth, Punch cares about pizza’s hallowed traditions enough to be one of very few pizzerias outside of Naples to be a member of Vera Pizza Napoletana—an organization that regulates the authenticity of Neapolitan pizza.
The Punch name is also a reference to pizza-making tradition, as the English version of Pulcinella, a commedia dell’arte character that has been adopted as the symbol of bona fide Neapolitan pizza.
Another time-honored pie is Siciliana ($10.40), with prosciutto, artichokes, olives, and basil to please just about every diner’s taste buds without feeling too heavy. Not surprisingly, it is one of the most popular at Punch.
However, if you want more kick, your new favorite is Vesuvio ($9.45). With spiced salami, olives, cracked red pepper, sliced pepperoncini, and basil, it packs just enough heat to satisfy a spice-fiend, while remaining palatable.
Bufalina ($10.70) is another of Punch’s more unconventional hits. With rich buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, and fresh arugula, it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure because of the salty prosciutto—only without so much actual guilt.
If you’re dining with another, and the two of you can agree on a pizza, the ideal order would be one pie and one large salad. The salads at Punch are surprisingly good—neither underdressed nor overdressed—and served with triangles of lovely rosemary focaccia.
Punch Salad ($3.95 small/$7.15 large) is the perfect accompaniment to a hot pie, with fresh mixed greens, pine nuts, parmesan, and prosciutto in a light vinaigrette. Chopped Italian Salad ($4.95 small/$8.75 large) is more assertive, integrating more meats and cheeses with pepperoncini and white beans.
Either could serve handsomely as entire meals, yet I believe they seldom are given the opportunity to do so. Because Punch is known for its Neapolitan pizza, sporting five salads worthy of being served at a cloth-napkin venue may go unnoticed.
Punch’s other secret? No matter the casual decor, don’t underestimate the wine list. Even the house red, the sassy Solopaca Rosso ($3.95 glass/$11.85 carafe/$18 bottle) makes for a masterful pairing, prolonging and heightening the flavor of the pizzas. If you’re in the mood for something more velvety, try Protocolo Tinto Tempranillo ($3.50/$10.50/$15.75). In the mood for something more fruit-forward? Meet Salento Rosso ($4.50/$13.50/$20).
Punch hasn’t bothered with a dessert list, and for my money, it doesn’t need to. If traditional Neapolitan pizza, along with a glass or two of wine, doesn’t satisfy you, then I don’t know what will.