Most of us in Minnesota grew up scarfing down cardboard pizza slathered with thick tomato sauce and topped with sausage or pepperoni and a heavy blanket of rubbery cheese. These days, pizza has gone artisanal, and we have many more choices - good, bad and in between.
The popular Neapolitan style, which comes out of a wood-burning oven, can be really good. But have you tried coal-fired pizza?
Black Sheep introduced it to the Twin Cities four years ago. The pies are sleek and classic, like a fine Armani suit. The crust comes out of the oven charred and blistered with a billowy outer layer topped with just enough sauce and good cheese that you may find yourself devouring an entire pie before you know it.
Jordan Smith blazed the coal-fired trail, opening in downtown Minneapolis. Last year, he branched out to downtown St. Paul at 10th and Robert streets. The Lowertown location is modeled after the original - basic but inviting. But it's bigger and louder, with wide booths, separate bar area and more microbrews on tap.
Even though the restaurant is not accessible by skyway, people are going out of their way to find it. Smith said business in St. Paul has exceeded expectations.
That might be because Smith is a stickler when it comes to doing things right. He uses good ingredients and keeps the menu small - 10 pizzas, a couple of appetizers, four salads - which helps get the food to the tables quickly. He also knows that not everyone is a pizza minimalist; the menu has a long list of ingredients so diners can design their own pies.
All 10 pizzas on the menu are so delicious it's hard to choose a favorite. But if I had to choose one, it would be the fennel sausage pizza, which is strewn with thinly sliced salami and fennel sausage, strings of sliced onion and a handful or so of cracked green olives.
Another favorite is the simple cheese and sauce pizza.
Pizza is the star at Black Sheep, but the salads are waiting in the wings. The one to order is the market salad, which changes daily. I loved the North African spicy cauliflower salad with raisins and feta. Another time, it was an addictive mix of arugula, goat cheese and roasted potatoes served on top of romesco, the classic Spanish sauce made with olive oil, garlic, peppers and nuts. On my most recent visit, it was yet another winner - roasted parsnips and other root vegetables with arugula and basil aioli.
If you're thinking about dessert, don't. There isn't any. But with pizza and salads so good, you probably won't notice or care.
BLACK SHEEP COAL-FIRED PIZZA
*** out of 4 stars
Address: 512 N. Robert St., St. Paul
Info: 651-227-4337; blacksheeppizza.com
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily
Prices: $6.50 to $20.50