Minneapolis: Dull Flavors Trump the Hype at Black Sheep

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[Photographs: Daniel Zemans]

Black Sheep Coal Fired Pizza

600 Washington Ave N., Minneapolis, MN 55401 (map); 612-342-2625; blacksheeppizza.com
Pizza Style: Coal Oven, Thin
The Skinny: Extremely popular Minneapolis pizzeria, home of the area's first coal oven, doesn't come close to living up to the hype
Price: 12" pizzas start at $6; 16" pies start at $12
Notes: Second location in St. Paul

Ever since Chef Jordan Smith opened Black Sheep amidst Washington Avenue's trendy strip of renovated warehouses, diners and professional food writers have fallen over each other to get a table and sing the praises of Minnesota's first coal-oven pizzeria. The press page on the pizzeria's website is filled with high praise. Unfortunately, this review is not going to be added to the list. I wanted and expected to love Black Sheep, but my four dining companions and I all walked away underwhelmed.

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Black Sheep does let people build their own pizzas, but we tried three of their nine recommended combinations. The best pizza of the evening featured meatballs, ricotta and garlic. The pizza was completely covered with toppings, which I appreciated. And the meatballs, which I often find too dry on pizzas, were nice and juicy.

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The ricotta was a solid step above a standard grocery store version, but when featured as a topping, I expect something decadent (and after all, homemade ricotta is a snap to make). Still, this pizza, which had good elements, could have been great if the crust shined. But on all three pies I sampled, the crust lacked flavor and was too chewy to make the pizzas sing.

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The pizza with sausage, hot salami, onion, and cracked green olives was a study in imbalance. There was plenty going on atop the pie, but all any of us could taste were the overpowering olives. The sausage is billed as "fennel sausage", but the pork was way too lightly seasoned for any fennel flavor to come through.

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I've spent a lot of time in the upper Midwest and know that spicy food isn't too popular, so I was confident the hot salami and dried chili pepper pizza wouldn't have me chugging water. But I was expecting some decent heat and there was almost none to be found. The sauce, which stood out more on this pizza than the other two, was a simple one made of crushed tomatoes, but it wasn't particularly vibrant.

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When done right, this style of pizza can be magical. The problem is that there isn't a lot of wiggle room for chefs to make mistakes. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the crust, which was consistently underseasoned and undercooked. I kept eating, hoping to get a shot of yeastiness or a spark of salt, but encountered neither. And texturally, all three crusts were heavy on the chew and nonexistent on the crisp, which meant this was one of the rare occasions I left end-crusts on my plate.

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Everything was working in Black Sheep's favor when I arrived. I was starving and looking forward to what I assumed was going to be good pizza. Unfortunately, I got pies that were decidedly mediocre and failed to standout in terms of flavor, creativity or execution. Judging by the avalanche of praise Black Sheep has received, I suppose it's possible I was there on an off night, but the consistency of the problems I encountered on all three pizzas has me worried the young restaurant loses a significant step when Chef Smith isn't manning the oven.

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