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Punch Pizza - MSP

MSPD Oct 23, 2006 09:32 PM

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
651-696-1066

  1. d
    Danny Oct 23, 2006 09:45 PM

    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. AliceS Oct 23, 2006 10:08 PM

      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. k
        KTFoley Oct 23, 2006 10:30 PM

        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. f
          faith Oct 23, 2006 11:41 PM

          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
            MSPD Oct 24, 2006 12:33 AM

            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):

            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

            1. re: MSPD
              f
              faith Oct 24, 2006 08:25 PM

              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
              d
              Danny Oct 24, 2006 01:10 AM

              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. Jordan Oct 24, 2006 02:36 AM

              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
                MSPD Oct 24, 2006 03:57 AM

                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.

              2. t
                tex888 Oct 24, 2006 04:46 AM

                I hadn't been looking so I hadn't realized the negativity behind Punch lately.

                We started going to the Eden Prairie location 4 years ago, when we first moved to MSP, then went the St Paul location about once a month, and have been going to the Lake Calhoun location EVERY WEEK for the past 2 or so years since they opened.

                Same pizza every week: Margherita, extra basil, with proscuitto.

                Since we have the most experience with that, I will say that the quality can vary depending on who's making the pizza and who's working the oven.

                Go there frequently enough, and you will recognize who the "artisans" are on the team that will ensure a quality product. The team at the Calhoun location has low turnover during the time of day we go.

                The variance shows mainly in how soft/soggy the middle of the pizza is, as well as the chewiness of the crust.

                Can't say we've ever had issues with the tomato flavor or any excessively charred crust, as Jordan had.

                That said, on the best days, I'd give Punch a 9 out of 10, and on their off days, it's still a 7.5.

                1. d
                  dahlsk Oct 24, 2006 03:45 PM

                  As a St. Paul resident, I've been to the main Punch many many times over the last 9-10 years and have always been happy, but I have only been to a counter service Punch once. I don't understand why they have to expand and make a different version of the original, because it does take something away from Punch's reputation. I also get concerned when places expand too quickly, I'd much rather have two good sit down locations instead of 4-5 mediocre restaurants.

                  1. d
                    Danny Oct 24, 2006 03:58 PM

                    I generally go to the Calhoun location, and I've never had anything like what Jordan is describing. I wonder if they're having some growing pains at the newest location as they learn the oven/train in new staff.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Danny
                      t
                      tex888 Oct 25, 2006 03:50 AM

                      It seems when they are about to open a new location, the experienced ranks get thinned as they have to go to the new location to train.

                      This shows up in the varying thickness of the pizzas and the differences in how well cooked they are. It seems the oven person is definitely a more skilled position requiring some more expertise.

                    2. l
                      Loren3 Oct 31, 2006 05:49 PM

                      An academic question, please from someone who prefers Psycho Suzi's or Fat Lorenzo's to either Punch or Nea. If Punch's woodfired ovens burn hotter, therefore better, why are there so many posts about the soggy crusts?

                      I do prefer Nea in part for this reason, and mostly for the reasons posted by Jordan, who summed it up most succinctly. And, as with many pizza places, local proximity is worth a lot. I can walk to the Nea and the Punch in Nordeast. I ain't ever gonna drive to St. Paul for a pizza under any circumstances, so asking if I've tried that one before passing judgement is in a way somewhat moot. I agree that when dissing someplace with more that one location, it's important to so specify (unless they all suck).

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Loren3
                        f
                        faith Nov 5, 2006 04:49 PM

                        I would reply that the oven is so hot that the pizza is charred
                        before the inside is cooked and it has to be taken out of the
                        oven to prevent it from becoming a total piece of carbon.

                      2. l
                        Loren3 Dec 7, 2006 09:45 PM

                        "I honestly have never been to Nea, but as far as I'm concerned why would I go to a place that doesn't serve authentic Neapolitan pizza when I have the real deal?"

                        In case the "fake" deal at Nea is actually better than the sweet, soggy glop at the "real deal"? You at least owe it to yourself to find out.

                        Those of us who prefer the Nea side of the street have at least tried Punch, and for whatever reason have found it lacking. Please do yourself the honor of trying someplace before declaring it sub-par. If, after trying Nea, you find it lacking and continue to prefer Punch, then you can explain why to others who might wish to know.

                        Thanks.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Loren3
                          l
                          Loren3 Dec 11, 2006 08:35 PM

                          And for the record, I went back to Punch last night. How can something fired in 800degrees come out wet and soggy? Nea every time for me, unless someone else is buying (which was the case last night).

                        2. MSPD Nov 13, 2006 04:03 PM

                          Interesting addendum to the Punch discussion, especially the photos. To tie it back locally, for any UPN lovers from NYC, you can satisfy your cravings while in MSP at Punch St. Paul.

                          http://www.roadfood.com/Reviews/Write...

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: MSPD
                            Jordan Dec 6, 2006 05:48 PM

                            Dara weighs in on Punch vs. Nea (at the bottom of the article):

                            http://www.citypages.com/databank/27/...

                          2. Foureyes137 Dec 11, 2006 09:38 PM

                            RE: The Punch v Nea debate, I think Dara's article did the best job of putting this into perspective. While both serve neapolitan pizza, the similarities end there.

                            We love Nea (especially on Monday and Tuesday nights) for it's relative formality (and great local art on the walls) and my wife enjoys the pie more than Punch. While I have never been to the Highland Park original, the Calhoun Village location makes a mean pie with the char and chewiness a good pizza should have. The NE location is finally making pies on par with those.

                            I think the difference in pies really comes from the cooking method (and someone might have mentioned this already). While both use brick ovens, Nea uses gas burners and no wood where Punch uses wood. The difference being the inclusion of the great carbon char on Punch's pies. The wood also makes the oven a far more challenging environment in which to cook (I am sure this has all been mentioned already).

                            I must agree with whomever made mention of the confusion when it comes to how to get your food at the NE Punch location. Whatever the modus is for retrieving your eat-in food, it goes unspoken, thus as a consumer I end up being confused as to what part I play. I to have had someone bring me food and other times had my number called. Also, the plastic cafeteria trays need to go.

                            As a resident of NE, I am glad to have Punch in our neighborhood, and the consitancy of the pies has increased steadily since opening. However they will never replace Nea for a date night.

                            PS. Favorite pies: Nea: Salsice with pepperoncinis, Punch: Vesuvio.

                            PPS. nothing beat's Grimaldis (not Sam's, not Lombardi's, not John's.) Here is the wife with a grimaldis pie from a few weeks ago: http://drunkenmasters.org/foureyes/Th...

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Foureyes137
                              l
                              Loren3 Dec 12, 2006 03:52 PM

                              So what's the secret to ordering a pie at the NE Punch and getting the crust to be something other than a gloppy soggy mess? It happens to me 2/3 of the time. I'm reluctant to go back with Nea only a block away and never a bad pizza yet.

                              1. re: Loren3
                                Foureyes137 Dec 12, 2006 03:55 PM

                                I'm the wrong person to ask, I like the gloppy soggy mess. Obviously the longer it sits, the soggier it gets, so you could eat gut-wrenchingly fast to avoid a wet pizza.

                                Seriously though, you could ask for it "well done", however I fear this might only leave you with a burnt gloppy soggy mess.

                            2. t
                              Tommygill Feb 16, 2007 06:00 PM

                              With the crust it is not about the fuel of the fire but the heat. Both Pizza Nea and Punch ovens get to 800 or better! It's about the heat stupid and the quality of flour. Type oo Italian flour is used at Nea (so says a friend who works there). Letting the dough rise in the cooler for two nights and bringing it to room temp is also part of the secret. To get the blistering of the crust the bottom is first cooked and then the top is cooked either closer to the flame or the pie is held up with a peel in the 900 degree dome of the oven. This creates the delicate crust for which bot Pizza Nea and Punch Highland produce on a regular basis. As for the restaurants...Pizza Nea is nice for my wife and I to enjoy as well as the kids without the "zoo like" atmosphere of the Caribou style Punch pizzas. Also young couples and singles can have a nice quiet dinner at either Pizza Nea, or th Uptown store was great for a large party we had after work one day taking advantage og their daily happy hour at Nea.

                              1. m
                                MIKELOCK34 Feb 18, 2008 06:48 AM

                                We ate at Punch Pizza last night for the first time. The crust was an excellent wood oven crust. The toppings were good except for the sausage which was very bland and dry. The only problem for us was that they put the pizza on a non-breathing dish which causes the crust to become soggy from the condensation caused by placeing the pizza on that solid dish. If they would use a pan or plate with holes in it, we would enjoy their pizza even more. We eat in NYC very often, and we would not compare them to our favorites there. We enjoyed Punch and are giving our opinion on their pizza with no comparisons to any other pizza.

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: Foureyes137
                                  a
                                  AmityGuy1 Feb 18, 2008 11:22 AM

                                  Agreed. Born and bred Long Islander here, who lived just moved from Brooklyn and has eaten more great pizza than you can shake a stick at. I have never seen pizza served on some swiss cheese plate. Ever. Ninety percent of the time it is on paper, though sometimes on plastic.

                                  As for pizza here, I haven't yet tried either Punch or Pizza Nea, having been burned one night by some atrocious junk at Uptown Pizza. I realize that the latter shouldn't be compared to the first two, though I am still smarting from the $25 pie my wife mistakenly ordered from them. Who the heck charges $25 for any pizza anywhere? It was no better than the frozen junk in the supermarket that goes for 3 for $10.

                                  I will stick to the superb pies and cinnamon rolls here.

                                  1. re: MIKELOCK34
                                    MSPD Feb 18, 2008 12:32 PM

                                    I've honestly never thought about the surface the pizza is served on. Question Mike:

                                    Do you think it would affect things to get it in their to-go box (standard cardboard) vs. on the plate?

                                    1. re: MSPD
                                      m
                                      MIKELOCK34 Feb 18, 2008 03:05 PM

                                      Maybe so. The number of takeout pizzas that were leaving that place last night were unbelievable. There was a nonstop flow of people carrying multiple pizzas out the door. There were quite a few people with four to nine pizzas each.

                                    2. re: MIKELOCK34
                                      drew13000 Feb 18, 2008 12:48 PM

                                      I can't speak for NYC pizzas, but I can say that I spent several months in Italy and ate dozens of pizzas and they served them on dishes without holes--most of them were just your standard large white restaurant plate. They were soggy in the middle from the olive oil--that's the style, and that's why I think Punch is the closest to authentic Italian pizza that I've had in Minnesota. I don't think it's fair to compare Punch to a NYC pizza because it's not meant to be picked up and eaten like a new york slice--it's meant to be eaten with knife and fork.

                                      1. re: drew13000
                                        m
                                        MIKELOCK34 Feb 18, 2008 12:52 PM

                                        We agree on the comparison issue. That is why we posted our thoughts on Punch without comparing to NYC. The two pizzas that we ate last night at Punch were crispy throughout when first served, but became very soggy after a few minutes. There seemed to be more condensation under the pizzas than olive oil. We enjoyed the pizzas and we will be back to Punch for more when in MSP.

                                    3. Davydd Feb 18, 2008 06:40 PM

                                      Over the Christmas holiday we were in Washington DC and tried Neapolitan style pizzas at Pizzeria Paradiso and 2 Amys, the reputed best in that city. We tried Punch in Wayzata and found it to be equal to Pizzeria Paradiso and better than 2 Amys. I thought that put them in a pretty good class. My preference is woodfired. Here are the two Punch pizzas we tried.

                                       
                                       
                                      1. heine143 Feb 19, 2008 01:33 PM

                                        We've tried both Punch's and Nea's. Punch's at Calhoun, to be exact, and loved it both times. We;ve eaten it there, outside, and also taken it to go and sat by the lake on a blanket. Awesome both ways, never had it be soggy. Nea's was good also. Except the memory that stands out, is mostly regarding the salad we got along with it, which was really good with gorganzola cheese crumbles and walnuts on it...mmmmm.
                                        The only thing better than that was kissing at the table :) And watching the birds fly overhead and watching passerby's.

                                        1. beelzebozo Aug 8, 2008 05:23 PM

                                          i was in st. paul on business, and stopped into the sit-down cleveland avenue location with a cohort. LOVED it. we ordered the salame e funghi and the toto (arugula, prosciutto, garlic and goat cheese), and we devoured both. delicious. the toto in particular had a nice spiciness. i am back home now, and wish i had a place as unique and good :(

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