New Neapolitan pizza parlor quickly becomes a Southwest destination point
Since Neapolitan Punch Pizza opened in the Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood in mid-December, it has become a bustling destination point, luring people from Southwest and nearby suburbs with traditional Neapolitan pizzas.
Richfield resident William Salvador, originally from Milan, Italy, said he considers himself a regular at the new Punch, 3226 W. Lake St. "I'm Italian and this is the only place I'll have pizza in town," he said. "It's truly the only place in town with original Italian pizza.
The restaurant is the latest example of the business savvy of Punch co-owner John Puckett -- also the founder and former owner of Caribou Coffee -- and his business partner and Punch founder John Soranno.
Soranno and Puckett claim the secret to their success is in their experienced cooking method, attention to detail and ingredients, such as buffalo mozzarella made in Naples, Italy, and tomatoes grown on nearby Mt. Vesuvius.
A pizza obsession
Punch founder Soranno was raised in Milan. He said when he was boy, he'd hang out with friends every day after school at a neighborhood pizzeria. "I really got a sense of how to make the pizza and cook the pizza," he said.
Despite a stint as a Northwest Airlines marketing analyst, Soranno said he's always wanted to own a pizzeria. "I always knew I would do something like this; it was just a matter of the opportunity," he said.
In 1996, Soranno, by then a St. Paul resident, opened his first Punch location, followed two years ago by a second location in Eden Prairie. Puckett said at about the same time, he had sold the Caribou Coffee chain he'd started with his wife and joined Soranno in business.
Puckett said he first met Soranno about three or four years ago, when he and his wife went to St. Paul as Punch customers. Puckett said their love for the pizza quickly grew. "It became our favorite restaurant," he said.
Some store accents include an outdoor bonfire to add to the ambiance. Puckett said, in addition, the duo hand-tiled their spectacular wood-burning pizza oven themselves, adhering 50,000 individual tiles.
They've also enacted quirky store traditions, like naming the oven at each store after a real Italian pizzeria and filling the rafters in each restaurant with kitsch ceramic cats, strategically hidden. (They said they're currently accepting donated cats for the Minneapolis location.) Customers quickly look past the eccentricities once they see the Pizziolas (pizza chefs) at work.
Authentic Neapolitan pizza
Soranno and Puckett said cooking an authentic Neapolitan pizza takes years of practice to get it just right -- it only takes 90 seconds in an 800-degree wood-burning oven. Every Punch Pizziola has more than five years experience. "It takes years to train the cook," Soranno said.
According to the owners, an authentic pizza's success depends upon the ingredients. Soranno said all of their ingredients are fresh, direct from Naples, Italy to get the perfect taste and also make for a healthier pizza. (One of the fringe benefits for the co-owners: frequent buying trips to Naples.)
Punch is part of an exclusive international association called Vera Pizza Napoletana, dedicated to preserving the near-science of creating the ideal and traditional Neapolitan pizza. The group consists of only a handful of members on each U.S. Coast, with Punch the only Midwest member.
But Italian-born patron Salvador doesn't need an association membership to know the pizza is authentic. He said they use oregano on the pizza, which is the way it's traditionally made, not with basil. (However, a pizza with basil is also available.)
The pies are served in Italy traditionally as an appetizer, but here they are a main course. Puckett said, traditionally, the pizza also isn't sliced, but eaten from the inside out with a knife and fork, allowing the olive oil and kosher salt to seep out. (Unsliced is available upon request.)
Despite freely confessing to the consumption of large amounts of their pizza, both Puckett and Soranno remain slight men. "I eat 10 pizzas a week, and I haven't ballooned up yet," Puckett said.
Southwest and beyond?
Puckett said unlike the Caribou Coffee's dramatic growth, he and Soranno plan to focus more of their time on each restaurant's quality, not quantity. "Our goal is to enjoy every store we open," he said.
However, that might come as a disappointment to some anxious customers. As St. Cloud resident Julie Berling finished her first Punch pizza, she said she wished they had a location in St. Cloud.