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Oct 23, 2006 09:32 PM

Punch Pizza - MSP

Punch Pizza has been brought up quite a bit in recent posts, and there seems to be a growing trend of negativity. Since my experiences with Punch -- the original location in St. Paul -- have been consistent (and very good) over many years, I've tried to figure out what's going on.

I would imagine some of the negativity is generated by the growth in number and locations of places doing very good Neapolitan or Neapolitan-style pizzas (which, to me is a great thing). In other cases, it may be that the new, no sit-down service branches of Punch don't measure up to the original (to which I heartily agree, and wish they would quit bastardizing the original). And, as always has been the case, some of the negativity is simply people who don't like Neapolitan pizza, including it's slightly black charred crust and lack of gloppy Chef Boyardee sauce, cheddar cheese and Jimmy Dean sausage crumbles.

That said, the original St. Paul Punch location in my opinion is still a great chowhound spot, especially when you consider what you get for a $10-15 total proposition. I've always enthusiastically introduced this place to locals and out-of-towners alike with great success. Fresh high-quality ingredients, enough options to please anybody (meaning safe if you have vegetarians or non-chowhounds along), bright interesting atmosphere, enthusiastic staff and in a lively centrally located neighborhood. I have a hard time thinking of too many places that deliver all of that casually and at an equally accessible price point.

I don't know really what's inspiring me to send up this post, but it seems like a lot of times lately I've seen negative comments about a place I like and have wanted to impose some kind of chowhound rule that people specify which location they're bashing or wanted to jump in with "yeah, but was it the St. Paul location???" on every thread. Well...whatever it is, hopefully hitting "Post New Topic" will make it all go away.

Punch Pizza (the good one)
704 Cleveland Ave S (at Highland Pkwy)
St. Paul

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  1. I've not been to the "sit down" Punch location, but I still think it is quite a bit better than what I had at Pizza Nea, when I finally returned there a few weeks ago. (The last time I had Pizza Nea, they were still in the back of the St. Paul Bagelry.)

    If the only pizza around was Pizza Nea, I'd be very happy.

    However, I much preferred the crust, sauce, and cheese at Punch. I found the Nea crust to be a little to hearty, almost "tough." It also wasn't nearly as charred as the crust at Punch, and I missed the dusting of sea salt around the edge of the crust that you get at Punch, but was nowhere to be found at Nea.

    Maybe it is because Nea uses a gas oven, while there's real wood involved in creating the heat at Punch? I could also see why some people prefer the non-charred hearty crust to the soggier, charred Punch crust, but I'm just not one of those people.

    I also didn't like how Nea distributed their cheese in squares, rather than scattered crumbles (and I thought the quality of cheese was better at Punch.) The sauce also seemed better at Punch, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

    The only area where I give an edge to Nea is the availabilty of white pizzas on the menu. I suppose I could just ask for one at Punch...

    I think this is just a case of people having their preferences - kind of like Izzys/Crema/Pumphouse in the Ice Cream department. We're hearing more from the Nea loyalists, but I don't think that says anything bad about Punch. It's more about preferences for each place's strong suits.

    1. I can't remember where exactly this came up, but I want to clarify: I like Punch, quite a bit. I just think it is not quite in the same class as some of the best in NYC. I think it is very good and we go there semi-frequently, but there is a glass ceiling for me that starts and ends with a place in Brooklyn called DiFara's.
      So to sum up: like Punch, no bashing of Punch, just cautioning visitors that if they are looking for pizza to rival NYC, it is not ideal.

      1. Danny, I think there is also some heat around what's being compared to what. Best what?

        Best in breed? Some folks are debating whether a slice from Pizza Nea is better than a slice from Punch just down the block. That's one aspect, all the more interesting because a true side-by-side comparison really is logistically feasible.

        Best all-around? Others are debating crust, sauce, toppings AND 'tude. Different priorities can lead to different preferences.

        Best dam & daughter? You pointed out correctly that it can be a different discussion to make comparisons with one of the new outlets or with Punch's original location -- one of the weaknesses in the Punch operation is that the difference is so obvious.

        Best in show? I do notice that quite often, one person will say that Punch or Nea is "the best" and nearly immediately a reply will come back that its nowhere near as good this spot or that in New York City. All well and good but unless I get 70,000 frequent flier miles with a slice of black-olive-and-tomato, it's a pure abstraction.

        Best pet for me? And finally there is the thesis that Punch or Nea may be the best Neapolitan-style pizza in the Twin Cities but so what because the responder doesn't WANT pizza with a char on the crust or with an unfamiliar sauce consistency. Fair enough. Totally different discussion, though.

        1. And to all of you Punchophiles, thanks for putting it succintly: Soggy and charred. I really don't get it. I have
          to speak up because I must challenge the assumption that non-
          Punchophiles are missing Chef Boyardee, Jimmy Dean and cheddar
          cheese. NOT! I do appreciate the high quality tomatoes, cheeses
          etc that Punch uses. I just think they are debased by the burned crust. The ovens are too hot in my opinion. And I believe someone in Naples is doing this but I still don't like it. And for a high sodium food, dusting salt on it doesn't do it either for me. I did have a slice of artichoke/sausage/onion
          pizza at Ginelli's today that made me very happy, say what you
          will. Thanks for listening and to each her own.

          3 Replies
          1. re: faith

            These posts are what I was talking about (general..not just you faith). You have a place that is excellent at their particular craft (the St. Paul location of Punch) which is "certified" Neapolitan pizza. It used to be, you could recommend Punch St. Paul as a great Neapolitan pizza place and not have automatic negativity associated. Loving another new, Neapolitan pizza place in town, or another type of pizza doesn't mean you have to hate Punch (again, I think danny's ice cream analogy was great).

            By the way, out of curiousity faith, how many times have you had pizza at the St. Paul location of Punch?

            p.s. I just dug up this thread from a while back -- how great it was to have a whole bunch of multi-genre pizza discussion without a single negative comment on anyone else's input (well...except me dissenting on Alice's Checkerboard recommendation (ha ha!)...but at least I gave several nearby alternatives IN THAT CATEGORY as fair comparison):


            1. re: MSPD

              ok, I'll answer the question here- I have never eaten at the
              St Paul location. My experience at Calhoun didn't motivate me
              to try again. But I will consider checking out St Paul and let
              you know the results. And I didn't hate the Punch experience
              because I loved another place's pizza; I tried to make my reasons clear.

            2. re: faith

              Definately a case of varying tastes. My reaction to Pizza Nea was "if they were burning wood, not gas, they could get their oven as hot as Punch - and we'd have something to talk about."

              As for the salt on the crust, we're not talking gratuitious sodium, we're talking about the taste of sea salt on a fine, toasted crust at the end of each piece of pizza. It's the perfect reward at the end of each slice.

              In fact, I love that toasted crust so much, I've found that I can't visit without ordering their foccacia - which is pretty much their dough with nothing but olive oil, rosemary, and a pinch of sea salt. I don't think you could produce something as heavenly with Nea's dough/oven.

            3. Well, I have become one of the Punch detractors, so I suppose I should speak up.

              I have been to the St. Paul Punch location a few times. I enjoyed it. This was at least a few years ago, though, and I didn't care for the crowding and the wait.

              I have been to the Calhoun Punch location. I thought it was adequate, though I disliked the plastic trays and counter service.

              When the Nordeast Punch opened a block south of Nea, I figured that they were fair game for comparison. I've tried the Nordeast Punch twice. It was ... bad.

              First, although they've put some money into a beautiful mosaic of tiles on the oven, the design of the rest of the place is pretty atrocious. You get in line and order at the counter, then figure out what you're supposed to do next. (Once, they brought my pizza to me on a red plastic tray. The second time, they called a number and I had to go pick it up.) You get your own silverware and drinks, then find a place to sit. They've constructed a long, narrow dining room, occupied by booths on one side and tables on the other. Running down the middle of the room is a long, long community table with far too many chairs crowding it. You really are elbow-to-elbow in this place. There's also a crappy "bar" along the window which is at an acute angle, so even people sitting THERE are jostling each other. Just amazingly bad, bad layout.

              The first pizza I tried was the Siciliana, my favorite from Pizza Nea. I liked the prosciutto. They used green olives instead of kalamatas ... interesting, but not bad. The artichokes were inferior. Pizza Nea uses fresh, roasted artichhokes. Punch uses vinegary pickled artichokes. I thought the cheese was skimpy, and the sauce was too sweet. As for the char .... I don't mind the slightly blackened crust, but this was beyond well-done. Quarter-sized blotches on this crust were burned black, all the way through. Nobody wants a mouthful of charcoal. This was really unpleasant.

              On my second visit, I tried the margherita. I even decided to let them show me their stuff by paying for the version with buffalo mozzarella and some kind of fancy tomatoes. The mozzarella was nice (but, again, not very much of it), but the tomatoes were awful. They were like grape tomatoes that had been dipped in sugar. Plus, the crust was burned even worse than the first time. Sugar and gritty charcoal -- not a good combination.

              By contrast, Nea has a pleasant room with art by local artists on the walls. They have a counter against the kitchen, so you can chat with the pizza cooks, if you like. Tables and chairs are not overcrowded, and you actually get table service by waiters.

              Finally, the pizza is just better. There's an adequate amount of cheese, the sauce is simple and not as cloyingly sweet as Punch's, and the ingredients (like the roasted artichokes) are usually a cut above. Not biting into a mass of charcoal powder is also a plus, in my book.

              I haven't been to the original Punch in a few years, so it may indeed be better. The outposts are pretty atrocious, though.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Jordan

                Wow...I can completely respect any assessment like that! Thanks for taking the time and I'll for sure take it under advisement when I'm up in NE. When I was waiting for my wife to meet me at Fugaise I scoped out Nea and thought it was a great looking space and menu -- I just haven't been back up that way in a while. Thanks for taking the time to post that.