There’s a certain kind of East Coast pizza place I’ve really missed since making the move to Minnesota. Maybe you know the ones: They’ve got those brick-red square tiles on 60% of surfaces, wood paneling where the tile isn’t, and colorful stained-glass pendant lights hanging over a handful of booths. High school students carefully deliver big, flat pizzas on round metal trays to families at waiting tables, while delivery drivers hustle to and from the kitchen, emptying and refilling insulated bags.
In eastern Pennsylvania, they’re everywhere—my childhood home was halfway between Chiaro’s, the lunchroom pizza day favorite of our youth, and Pino’s, our football-watching, don't-feel-like-cooking-on-a-weeknight hangout. And Mario’s, which opened in St. Paul last April, more reliably recreates this experience than any pizza or hoagie shop I’ve been to in Minnesota.
(Sorry, sorry, they’re heroes at Mario's.)
Mario’s boasts quite a bit of wood paneling, both real and faux, and one wall is covered top to bottom with shelves of vintage beer cans—the Yuenglings nestled between the Hamm’s and Schmidts are another nice East Coast nod. A Super Mario Bros. arcade game gets a lot of play in one corner, in another corner sits an old and presently out of order jukebox. There are three TVs, all airing the NHL network on a recent weeknight. (Hosts want to know: Is the Penguins championship window still open?)
Mario’s is the second restaurant from chef-owner Jason Hansen and co-owner Peter Sebastian, who are also behind nearby Estelle. Though the setup here is more laid-back, counter-service pizza place—they give you your order number on a clever little table topper made from pieces of old hockey sticks—the cooking is also more elevated.
The sauces, even the ranch, are made in-house, along with the pizza dough and the sesame-seeded hero rolls (which I would buy in bulk if it were an option). They’re using locally milled Baker’s Field Flour and organic Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, and fresh vegetables whenever possible. So, you know, there’s some stuff it doesn’t have in common with my neighborhood pizza shops, too.
Take the marvels that are Mario’s garlic cheese bread donuts ($10). These things are something else: A toasty brown shell, almost perfectly round, gives way with a crusty crunch to a molten center of squishy, cheesy dough. The cheese pull on these bad boys is breathtaking, as is the overall texture; cheese and dough become one in a science-defying way that will ruin you for mozzarella sticks moving forward.
On the hero side, we went with the Italian combo ($15), a noticeably heavy sandwich piled with an array of meats, thick-cut provolone, veggies, and an olive-pepper relish that, along with stone-ground mustard and chili flake, gives the sandwich a powerful kick. This thing is a flavor bomb—there's lots of everything (and it also might explode on you). The best thing about it is that it tastes like a sandwich that couldn't be easily recreated at home... not without spending a lot of money on specialty Italian meats and also making your own relish. And it's huge.
The pizzas are a lot of fun because I don't think I've had one quite like them anywhere else in the Twin Cities. “We were originally calling them Detroit-style, but it’s more of a pan pizza,” chef Hansen told us as Mario’s was gearing up to open last spring.
They've landed on calling them "Sicilian pan pizzas," and the crust is almost like focaccia in texture and flavor: golden brown and crispy, but soft, too. I wanted to scape a knife across the bottom like a TikTok chef so I could hear the sound. As the base for their cacio e pepe pie ($22), it's perfect, the ideal base for a garlicky cream sauce and peppery pecorino and mozzarella.
“In the absolute most flattering way possible, it reminds me of the Pizza Hut breadsticks,” my dining partner laughed, so do with that information what you will. Mostly it made me wish we were drinking our EPAs out of those red plastic cups.
Mario’s Pizza 232 Cleveland Ave. N., St. Paul Sunday - Thursday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday + Saturday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Know if you go: You can't leave a tip on your card! Bring a little cash.