March Madness may be cancelled, but we still have a bracket for you.
It’s the Star Tribune’s Minnesota Frozen Pizza Bracket, in which 16 brands vie to steal a pizza your heart. Over the next few weeks, you’ll have a chance to bake, taste and vote for your favorite frozen pie, until there’s only one pizza left that cannot be topped.
Cheesy puns aside — sorry, we couldn’t help it — frozen pizza is serious business. It’s a $4.8 billion industry in the United States, thanks in part to the success of several top brands made in Minnesota. Frozen food giants Schwan’s Co. and General Mills are based here, bringing the likes of Red Baron and Totino’s, respectively, into home ovens across the country. Bernatello’s Foods makes a handful of well-known brands, too, such as Bellatoria.
But you’ll find more than those supermarket strongmen in Minnesota’s stores. Boutique bakers, house brands from regional grocers and a few local restaurants have made forays into the freezer case, too. Lunds & Byerly’s, 7th Avenue Pizza and Green Mill all make that list.
In our wholly unscientific seeding process, the Star Tribune asked readers to write in with their frozen favorites. The results sent us driving to stores on the outer reaches of the Twin Cities just to buy a pie (the farthest-flung: Giovanni’s, from a convenience store in Rosemount).
Some pizzas couldn’t be found anywhere near the Twin Cities; those were ineligible (though we’re still curious about Shelton Foods from Saginaw, Minn.). Others that were only available in one shop in the entire state were also cut (sorry, Morelli’s Market and Cossetta). So were those that required visiting a restaurant to get it (we see you, Football Pizza).
Once we managed to stuff a freezer with as many contenders as we could, the Star Tribune’s bracket team gathered at Cooks of Crocus Hill in Minneapolis’ North Loop, where we took advantage of four enormous ovens to bake two dozen pies. By secret ballot, and after off-the-charts sodium intake, our taste-testers landed on the Saucy Sixteen.
Here’s how it shook out:
Number 1 seed Mucci’s, with its fried crust — unique among the other contenders — is the one to beat. The Cinderella might be No. 11 Kettle River, an Askov, Minn.-based brand that only recently began distributing in the Twin Cities. It’s got a serious fan base; e-mails about these pies topped all the others.
Some surprises: While the omnipresent Red Baron landed at No. 2, the famous Totino’s Party Pizza didn’t make the cut. Kowalski’s is the only grocery store house-brand to land in the Saucy 16.
A few matchups to watch out for: local vs. national with No. 8 Kowalski’s vs. No. 9 Sabatasso’s, and No. 3 Heggies Pizza vs. No. 14 Tony’s. And the best-rhyming matchup would be Davanni’s No. 7 vs. Giovanni’s No. 10.
But almost every pie we tried had its merits. Only one didn’t get a single vote (no, we’re not telling).
But now, the decision is in your hands. So, preheat your ovens — seriously, trust the process — and get baking. Vote for your favorite in each of the Saucy Sixteen matchups at startribune/pizzabracket. The winning pies will advance to the Easy-Cheesy Eight.
Here's a complete list of the Saucy Sixteen:
The Italian-American restaurant, with outposts in St. Paul and Minneapolis, also makes a frozen version of its signature pizza with a Montanara-style fried crust.
2. Red Baron
The bestselling pizza from Schwan’s Co., the Marshall, Minn.-based frozen-foods chain, became a national household name after its launch in 1976.
3. Heggies Pizza
Founded in a garage in Onamia, Minn., in 1989, these local pies grew to become go-to bar food in this state, as well as Iowa and the Dakotas.
Pan pizza, ultra-thin crust, gluten-free and a breakfast line of pies are made in Maple Lake, Minn., by the frozen pizza chain Bernatello’s Foods.
5. Wicked Pizza Co.
Four combinations loaded with meaty toppings come from the same St. Paul company that owns Green Mill. The brand also makes pasta sauce and salsa.
6. Brew Pub Lotzza Motzza
A half-pound of Wisconsin cheese goes into every pie, from the Maple Lake, Minn.-based chain Bernatello’s Foods.
The 45-year-old company, first launched in St. Paul, sells five flavors of its pizzas in grocery stores and at some of its 21 restaurants across the metro.
In addition to the many brands it carries, the Twin Cities grocer has a thin-crust pizza all of its own, in five flavors, including pepperoni and margherita.
With roots in Naples, this brand of “singles” mini pies was founded in 1950. Now owned by Marshall, Minn.-based Schwan’s Co., it’s sold at Costco.
Vacationers discover this wholesaler’s pies in resorts around the Brainerd region. Near the Twin Cities, they’re sold at Rosie’s Market in Rosemount.
11. Kettle River
These Askov, Minn.-made pub pies are a favorite of Up North vacationers and American Legion regulars. Newly available in the Twin Cities at Kowalski’s.
12. Sven & Ole’s
Known to cabin-goers on the North Shore, this Grand Marais, Minn., restaurant also sells frozen pies; the closest is at Anoka Meat & Sausage.
Marshall, Minn.-based Schwan’s Co. owns this supermarket staple, with a local-wheat crust that rises as it bakes. There’s a gluten-free version, too.
Marshall, Minn.-based Schwan’s Co. bought Tony’s in 1970, after placing an ad in the Wall Street Journal that said “Wanted: Frozen Pizza Manufacturer.”
An “all natural” line of frozen pies in eight flavors is made in Maple Lake, Minn., courtesy of the frozen pizza chain Bernatello’s Foods.
Originally from Eau Claire, Wis., this bar-style pie now comes from Maple Lake, Minn.-based Bernatello’s Foods in 10 flavors, including bacon cheeseburger.
The winner will be announced April 6.