There are plenty of places to find Neapolitan pizza in Minneapolis, and one of them is inside a Northeast backyard.
Not far from 13th Avenue, landscape architect Eric Baldus decided to build a pizza oven and host huge pizza parties every month. The parties are now in their third year, and 250 people are on an invite list that’s becoming a harder ticket to come by — due to the small yard size, a lottery system is in the works this year to keep the parties limited to 50 or 60 people.
“It’s been a huge amount of fun to have friends come by, and neighbors, and friends of friends,” Baldus said. “It’s been a really great way to meet people.”
Baldus spends three hours building up the fire to 900 degrees. He and his girlfriend Janna Schneider, a ceramicist with a studio in Northeast, provide all the pizza dough and sauce. Guests bring toppings of their choice, everything from homemade sausages to marshmallows.
“Many new friendships have been formed, and so have some really amazing pizza combinations,” Baldus said.
Baldus is the founder of TerraVista, a Northeast firm that landscapes many homes around the Minneapolis lakes and created a more striking entry for the Walker Art Center. In recent years, Baldus has seen more clients install outdoor kitchens and fire features. He considered a fire pit for his own yard, but decided that burning wood for no other reason would be wasteful. When he landed on the idea of a pizza oven, Schneider became inspired to host pizza parties. Many of their friends had disappeared from the social scene, and they figured that early-evening parties at home might be a nice option for them.
Baldus built the pizza oven over the course of a slow winter. The design was inspired by the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, where the interlocking stones were formed without iron tools.
“It really amazed me how they did that, so I emulated that in the stone work I did on the oven,” Baldus said.
He chose to build a “barrel vault” bread-baking oven, which is a very traditional style that dates back to Roman times. Baldus said you can still spot many of the ovens in Turkey.
The oven was also built to jive with Baldus’ award-winning backyard design. The yard is a modern interpretation of a Persian garden, with many of the materials recycled from Baldus’ old landscape jobs. Mirrors that help light up the space were leftovers from a Holiday Inn remodeling project. Pavers were reclaimed from Central Avenue road construction, including the cobble that used to stand around trolley lines, and Purington pavers on which carriages once rode.
The garden provides the lush backdrop for six-hour pizza parties that run monthly from April to October. When the oven reaches 900 degrees — true Neapolitan pizza requires twice the normal oven heat — the pizzas cook in just 90 seconds.
The pizza concoctions are always creative. The Salty Tart’s pastry chef put together a Carbonara pizza with ham and fresh eggs that were cracked and cooked on the pizza after it was pulled out of the oven. Other pizzas have featured pears, Nutella, figs and sauerkraut.
“A lot of our friends are into the slow food movement,” Baldus said. “Some of them make their own sausage and smoke all their own meat.”
The cooking isn’t over when all the guests leave around 11 p.m. The oven still runs about 425 degrees the next morning, so Baldus and Schneider cook bread, and later they throw in a roast or some ribs for a few hours.
“It’s a heap of fun,” Baldus said.
The pizza party house wasn’t always so hospitable. It was boarded and vacant when Baldus bought it in 2004, at a time when 13th Avenue wasn’t nearly as busy.
“That was before 331 and before the Ritz,” Baldus said. “The only thing on that street was the Modern Café.”
Back when the housing market was better, Baldus fixed up and sold about 20 houses. So he wasn’t deterred by a house that needed work. He bought the house as a foreclosure and hauled several dumpsters worth of trash out of it.
“I wanted a house that hadn’t been all cut up,” he said. “I also didn’t mind living in a construction site for five years.”
Apparently, the end product was worth the wait. Baldus’ backyard won a Minnesota Nursery & Landscape Association award in 2007, and he opened it to the public during Art-A-Whirl for a couple of years. He said the parties have led to new friendships between their mutual friends, and it’s a great networking opportunity as well.
“Building an event around food was really appealing to us,” he said. “Everybody likes pizza.”
Reach Michelle Bruch at email@example.com.