As of this writing, Donald Trump’s baby-carrot fingers are inching ever closer to the country’s nuclear codes, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting at an apocalyptic rate, and the Panama Papers are exposing the ridiculous shell game the rich and powerful are playing with the world’s wealth. To quote Kendrick Lamar, “Boys and girls, I think I gone cray.”
Of course, every generation thinks it’s gone cray, but that doesn’t make the existential dread any less palpable. You know what does, though? Pizza! Eaten with a side of anxiety, it’s not just a dependably tasty treat, but the culinary equivalent of a bear-hug from above.
As with all the strongest medicines for the human condition, pizza’s healing powers are universal. Meerwais Azizi understands this notion well. The owner of Crescent Moon Bakery in Northeast Minneapolis has dedicated much of his life to making pie that reflects his Afghan heritage as well as the country where he’s built a life from nothing. For Azizi, pizza is both salve and salvation.
In 1988, amid the last gasp of the Soviet-Afghan War, a then 13-year-old Azizi left his family in Kabul City. Azizi’s parents felt he’d be safer living in Pakistan, so they hugged him tight, and put him on a plane with an older cousin to live with his family there. It would be more than a decade before they would see their son again.
“It was tough to leave Afghanistan,” says Azizi when I meet him at his bakery on a recent afternoon. “I had a good childhood in Kabul City. Good neighbors.” Sporting a black leather jacket and a thick goatee, Azizi looks a little like rocker Dave Navarro. At 41 years old, he has the serious, straightforward bearing of someone who long ago wrote a list of goals and, one by one, has systematically achieved them.
After spending 11 months in Pakistan, Azizi made his way to Minneapolis, where he lived with his grandma and eventually got a job at the venerable Holy Land bakery. He made enough money to send a few bucks back to his parents in Afghanistan, but his bakery gig was a grind. Azizi worked the night shift and juggled the job with additional work at Pizza Hut and Papa John’s. He’d get home hours before he had to go to school at Southwest High School. Many days, he could barely stay awake during class.
Azizi continued the grind after graduating from high school, putting in long weeks as a carpenter, hoping to salt away enough to someday open a bakery. “I wanted my own shop since I was a boy,” says Azizi, who learned to bake naan in the family’s backyard tandoor in Kabul City. A few years into his hardworking twenties, Azizi married a nice girl from Andover, who shared her husband’s vision of a neighborhood bread shop. Together with help from both their families, by 2000, the couple had saved enough to open Crescent Moon on Central Avenue, a thoroughfare that has nurtured so many immigrant-owned restaurants, from Thai cafes to taquerias.
The small counter-service spot did well from the get, selling naan and pastries, and strong, sweet coffee. By then, Azizi’s parents were living in Minnesota, and the business became a family affair. His father worked the counter and his wife baked bread and balanced the books. When Azizi decided to expand his menu, his mother taught him to play the classics of Afghan cuisine—rich and savory kourmas, sizzling kebabs, a goat stew that delivered just the right amount of funk.
But the biggest culinary contribution came from Azizi himself. “I like games. Action,” he says. “And one day I just came up with the idea to make a pizza shaped after one of my favorite sports.” And so arrived the Football Pizza—though if you want to get technical, it looks more like a flattened prolate spheroid. (But that’s not as catchy as football pizza.)
What in theory sounds like pure gimmickry is in fact one of the finest, most unique pies in the Twin Cities. That it happens to explode tired, old notions of pizza architecture in the process only adds to its offbeat charm. That, and the fact that it’s served at an Afghan restaurant.
“I wanted a pizza with the old flavors—the flavors of Kabul City,” says Azizi. To that end, the football pizza starts with an Afghan flatbread that puffs up nicely when baked and walks the chewy-crispy tightrope with the best of them. Next comes a tangy tomato sauce and a hit of salty mozzarella. The house special is topped with onions, peppers, and spicy halal beef, and every pie gets a side of fiery cilantro-pepper chatni, a common dipping sauce in Afghan cuisine. You want the chatni, by the way—its heat and earthy notes launch the pizza into mad genius heights of innovation.
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