From the shores of Gitchie Gumee to the Pizza at Fat Lorenzo’s: Poetry in South Minneapolis

Fat Lorenzo’s is one of those places that people “find.” The food is exceptionally good but the location, the setting, the ambiance, and the name of the place might all be considered questionable to some. So if you were one of those traveling food critics like Jane and Michael Stern you might “find” Fat Lorenzo’s and then tell everybody how great it is even though it is where it is and looks like it looks and is called what it is called.

But of course, I deeply disagree.

Fat Lorenzo’s is actually in a stunning location and has an outstanding ambiance, and I’d like to tell you about these things. I am, however, going to say nothing about the name. I mentioned to an Australian colleague who recently had a sufficiently long layover in the Twin Cities to grab a bite to eat that we could run over to Fat Lorenzo’s from the airport and grab a beer and some food and he said “Sounds gross, but okay…” So we’ll just skip the part about the name.

Fat Lorenzo’s is in one of my favorite neighborhoods of Minneapolis. It sits just across from the park at Lake Nokomis. Lake Nokomis is part of the Hiawatha, Nokomis, Minihaha Falls park system. Do you know Nokomis? No? Nokomis is the grandmother of Nanabozho and Hiawatha (who, in turn, are probably roughly the same person). You know, like this:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest.

That is a tiny fragment of the poem by Longfellow. It goes on much longer than that. Which, had I not already known, I would have discovered one day in a very surprising manner.

A few years ago, when I lived walking distance from Nokomis and Minihaha Falls, my good friend and colleague Sir Dr. Francis Thackeray of South Africa was visiting. So Francis and I went over to the park, because I wanted to show him an example of a glacial lake, as well as the Mississippi river channel and some of the local hard rock geology, as well as an interesting glen loaded with native carnivorous plants, which are all in this park. And as we were walking in the general direction of the carnivorous plants, we passed a large stone and concrete open-air monument thingie, and Francis leaped up on top of the monument (about a foot high, big wide flat thing) and started reciting the poem with his eyes closed.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

And so on and so forth. And I’m thinking, “Wow, how does he know that? And why is he saying it now?”

I recognized the Longfellow poem because I grew up five city blocks from a location that was said to be the Vale of Tawasentha…

“In the vale of Tawasentha,
In the green and silent valley,
By the pleasant water-courses,
Dwelt the singer Nawadaha.

It turns out, of course, that every other creek and vale in New York and New England and much of the Upper Midwest is linked to such a claim. Also, I also used to walk by the Longfellow house (where he was born or died or something) every day when I worked in Cambridge, MA, and a friend of mine lived in a house (in Maine) that sports the stairway from one of his famous poems, and of course the local subway went across the Longfellow Bridge, and so on and so forth. You can’t swing a dead stanza in New England without hitting a Longfellow reference.

But why Francis, why now? And why are his eyes closed like that?

Then I looked down and saw that the monument was actually the poem he was reciting. The low circular wall had the poem, The Song of Hiawatha…

“There he sang of Hiawatha,
Sang the Song of Hiawatha,
Sang his wondrous birth and being,
How he prayed and how he fasted,
How he lived, and toiled, and suffered,
That the tribes of men might prosper,
That he might advance his people!”

…carved in it, and Francis was doing this with his eyes closed to demonstrate that he knew it by heart and was not just reading it off the giant cheat sheet made of stone and concrete that otherwise resembled a 19th century alien landing strip.

Anyway, Nokomis, Hiawatha and Minihaha Falls parks, include some of the finest glacial geology and a bit of nice hard rock (sedimentary) geology, as well as some very nice walking paths. My ex (well, not my ex at the time, but…oh, you get the picture) and I used to walk around this lake once or twice two or three times a week. Then she got a real job and we could not do that any more. Once for old times sake we walked all the way from home to the park, about three miles, with the intention of eating at Fat Lorenzo’s then walking back home. So we worked up this huge appetite, gorged at Fat Lorenzo’s, then could not move for the next hour.

Walking three miles to your lunch sounded like such a great idea at the time. In retrospect, I do not recommend it. It’s like this:

Ye, who sometimes, in your rambles
Through the green lanes of the country,
Where the tangled barberry-bushes
Hang their tufts of crimson berries,
Walks too far before some dinner
To eat too much homemade pizza,
Can’t stand up when it is over,
Wants to take a cab back homeward,
Should have had a different plan for
Getting exercise and food while
Sitting by the park so green and
Wetly lush by Fat Lorenzo’s,
Waddle to the park nearby and
Read the writing on the ground, so
Full of all the tender pathos
Of the Here and the Hereafter;
Stay and read this rude inscription,
Read this Song of Hiawatha!

So, getting back to Fat Lorenzo’s and away from Longfellow…

The restaurant is clearly in a good location, on Cedar just by the park. There are a few parking places in the lot in back, but you can park on the residential streets nearby if necessary. The tables are medium size and the pizzas are huge, so they solve this problem by placing a huge can of tomatoes in the middle of your table, and propping the pizza pan on top of that. The beer selection is not impressive but is quite adequate, and the various Italian sandwiches are all excellent.

And the ambiance is fine, and they are expert at takeout.

Specific recommendations: The artichoke dip appetizer is outstanding. I’ve never had the salads. I have had the Steak and Cheese, Italian Sausage and Meatball hoagies, and all are top notch. I’ve seen but not tried the pasta, and it looks fine. But people go there for the pizza. The first two or three times you eat there, this is what you should do. Try the pizza.

Oh, and the building is painted with locally famous murals, inside and out.

Bon appetite!


Fat Lorenzo’s is located just south of Lake Nokomis, on 5600 Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis. The web site is here.

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7 Responses to “From the shores of Gitchie Gumee to the Pizza at Fat Lorenzo’s: Poetry in South Minneapolis”

  1. March 11th, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Iain says:

    Sorry I missed Fat Lorenzo’s, but flattered to be called a colleague. Longfellow was surely named after his poem. It is huge. How much of it did Thackeray know. And then again, that name is associated with prolific writing too.

    But why is Longfellow’s Paul Revere reveared? By comparison with Hiawatha it is unrhythmical junk. And do you know who documented the influence of that poem on the knowledge of Paul Revere’s ride?

  2. March 11th, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Mme. Piggy says:

    This is my neighborhood now. I have longed loved Fat Lorenzo’s (including the name) and am happy to vouch for the pastas and the pizza. But, you left out a few crucial aspects such as the gelato and the sidewalk dining with a view of Lake Nokomis (and the airport). I have not explored the park enough as I recently moved into this neighborhood, but intend to if we ever thaw out. Nice Review.

  3. March 11th, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    I don’t know about the documentation, but I always figured Longfellow was being ironic with that poem. There was a lot of reconstruction going on in the Commonwealth of Revolutionary War stuff. He probably had a graduate student write it.

    Thackeray knew the whole thing, of course. A small task for him. I think he also knows everything Shakespeare ever wrote by heart.

  4. March 12th, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Mme: Many people never get down to the carnivorous plants. I think spring is the season for that.

  5. June 18th, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Rob V. says:

    In case you’re interested, the home you walked by in Cambridge is the Longfellow National Historic Site (part of the National Park Service), where Longfellow himself lived for 45 years and raised five children. He did die there and his family held the home for just under another 100 years. “Or something.”

  6. September 29th, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    Jay says:

    I’ve been meaning to try Fat Lorenzo’s since I read this back in March. I finally got the chance to do so this evening, and it’s definitely going to get some return visits. Lorenzo’s Lasagna is amazing.

    Greg – are you familiar with Al Vento in South Minneapolis? We tried that a couple of weeks ago and were very impressed with it.

  7. April 6th, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    kris says:

    It’s named after the former owner…Larry…who also owned the 5-8 Club down the road (famous for its Jucy Lucys).

    Also, it’s Minnehaha, not Minihaha :)

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