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Food & Drink

Is Kettle River the Best Frozen Pizza in Minnesota?

The Up North freezer delicacy is a contender.

Over the past 16 hours, the author of this piece consumed that entire Hot Hawaiian pizza.
Jay Boller

I was part of the City Pages team that set out exhaustively and comprehensively rank the frozen pizzas of Minnesota back in 2018.

For two long summer days we had multiple ovens roaring inside Em’s tiny Blaisdell Avenue apartment, churning out pizza after pizza; the marathon walloping of heat, grease, salt, and beer cast an Apocalypse Now pall over those final bites, but we emerged with a solid, 20-pizza list that saw Kowalski’s Market snag the No. 1 spot. A full year after CP’s demise, marketing window clings still tout the victory from the Kowalski’s freezer section.

Heggie’s partisans griped and Totino’s apologists ranted, though readers mostly accepted the results. Yet one aggrieved camp—defenders of Kettle River Pizza—appeared in the greatest numbers. Our stated methodology provided a convenient excuse: eligible pizzas had to be “widely, consistently available” in Minnesota supermarkets, thus eliminating Kettle River… or so we thought.

I’m here today, without the permission or knowledge of my current and former colleagues, to admit we fucked up. A quick glance at Kettle River’s distribution map shows that, while predominantly scattered up the I-35W corridor, the Askov-based pizza maker does maintain a significant metro presence. In fact, you can allegedly pick up the $9 pies at the Kowalski’s on Hennepin Avenue.

The grocery stores, gas stations, and bars that offer Kettle River.

And credit to those ol’ CP commenters: Kettle River Pizza is, in fact, exceptional. In something of a (non-racist!) Papa Johnian shame quest, I’ve spent the subsequent three years consuming Kettle River Pizzas during trips to Ely and Two Harbors. I don’t have the authority to retcon CP’s findings, though I will say Kettle River competes in the same elite class as Heggie’s and Kowalski’s.

Founded in 1986, Kettle River slang ‘zas in and around Sandstone, Minnesota, until 2002. That’s when current owner Ken Waletzko took over, moved operations to Askov, “perfected existing recipes,” and expanded throughout the state.

The company’s pizzas distinguish themselves with an absolute tidal wave of gooey, greasy cheese from Wisconsin’s Burnett Dairy Cooperative. My cutter struggled to slice through the pizza you see above, with blankets of the three-cheese blend piling up on either side of the blade. Unlike Heggie’s and Kowalski’s, Kettle River opts for a thick cracker crust that snaps around the edges. That sturdy base is essential for propping up 1.75 pounds of oven-kissed cheese, jumbo Hormel toppings, and a smooth, rich sauce.

All your standard varietals exist, as do some more adventurous offerings like Hot Hawaiian, Taco, Breakfast, Chicken Alfredo, BBQ Chicken, and Buffalo Chicken. The Hot Hawaiian—pepperoni, pineapple, jalapeno—is a true “connoisseur’s pizza,” the menu notes. A South of the Border queso pizza and a seasonal Kielbasa & Kraut one are available at KR HQ in downtown Askov.

So, to wrap up this overdue mea culpa, yes, Kettle River belongs in the conversation for Minnesota’s best frozen pizza. If context sways your dining experience, the northern Minnesota ritual of taking off your hiking boots, cracking open a Castle Danger, and enjoying a Kettle River might just give it the edge over Heggie’s in a tavern or Kowalski’s on the couch.