by Britt Aamodt
Pick up Midwest Living’s current travel issue, and you’ll find the magazine’s list of the 12 best pizzerias in the Midwest.
Only one Minnesota restaurant made the cut. And it’s not in the Twin Cities.
One of the 12 best pizzerias in the Midwest, according to the magazine, resides right here in Elk River. If you’ve traveled to downtown and smelled the aroma of baking crust and bubbling mozzarella wafting at you, then you know the destination.
Pompeii Pizza has been attracting local devotees of the savory Neapolitan thin-crust pie since 2010. Located on Jackson Avenue, it’s the brainchild of Frank Galli, the food entrepreneur who also thought up Diamond City Bread in 1996.
You can now find Diamond City’s loaves in food co-ops around the state. Galli sold the bakery years ago, but he hasn’t gone far—geographically, at least.
Pompeii sits above the bakery and, like its sibling, is starting to enjoy a following that extends beyond its storefront.
“We were very pleased to get two significant mentions in the press recently,” said Galli.
Minnesota Monthly’s pizza issue, March 2013, singled out Pompeii as a “destination pizzeria.” Midwest Living showcased Galli’s restaurant not once but twice: in the travel issue and in an April 2013 article on Midwestern-style pizza, touting Pompeii as “the rookie who wasn’t.”
The piece also featured a shot of manager Alec Hendrickson stretching the mozzarella, made fresh every morning.
Hendrickson, a graduate of the New York Restaurant School, is a chief ingredient in Pompeii’s success. He’s the artisan behind the menu, which changes every three to four weeks to incorporate seasonal produce, while also offering favorites like the Margherita pizza, made with tomato sauce and basil.
This past Friday found Galli and Hendrickson going about their usual lunch hour, but with a camera crew tagging along. Seth Holst and Kerry Klatt of Twin Cities Live, KSTP’s weekday talk show, paid a visit, “because we heard Pompeii Pizza has excellent pizza and we like excellent pizza,” said Holst.
Holst brought along a Totino’s Party Pizza and asked Galli, “What’s the difference between a party pizza and a Pompeii pizza?”
A good crust, to start with, said Galli. “It’s really the balance of the crust and the ingredients.
You’ll never see an “everything” pizza at Pompeii because, said the owner, “it’s overloaded with toppings.”
Instead, Hendrickson opts for tasteful—and unexpected—combinations.
“We’ll use asparagus, avocados and pesto,” he said. “In the fall, we do beets and squash, and cranberries around Thanksgiving.”
The Fig e Prosciutto pizza pulls together fig spread, feta, mozzarella, mixed greens and prosciutto. The Uva gets its zip from jalapeno jelly.
That sort of diversity and inventiveness is what drew Robin DeWitt to have Pompeii cater her husband’s Christmas party at work.
“I did it because Frank makes great food,” she said. “Pompeii catered a whole Italian meal for the party.”
DeWitt also happens to be one of Galli’s neighbors. She owns Blue Egg Bakery on Main Street, which opened a year ago in the former Don’s Bakery location.
Like Hendrickson, DeWitt and her bakers take a traditional food item and give it a spin. One of the recent bakery case standouts is the chocolate Oreo donut.
And like the other downtown business owners, she’s happy when her neighbors succeed, because all of them have a common goal of drawing more customers to downtown.
Wendy Simenson has worked at Kemper Drug for 28 years and been the co-owner since 1999. To her, Pompeii’s success is a signpost of a new era for downtown.
“I really started to see it when Granite Shores went from condos to apartments,” she said. With a growing resident population, “now we have more people wandering through the store.”
Galli said he’s seen a significant bump in customers since the magazine articles. But that doesn’t mean Pompeii can rest on its media buzz.
“There’s a lot of great pizza in Minnesota, and we’re truly one of them,” he said. “I sincerely believe that, and I’ve got to prove it to myself every day.”