By Casey Ek

Tucked away in the heart of downtown Nicollet lies the culmination of 25 years of struggle, culinary refinement and the time-tested perseverance of the American dream.

Throughout the last year, Great New York Pizza, owned and operated by Hensta Tesfai, has become known to many as a gem in the area between Mankato and New Ulm. What isn’t as well known, however, is its owner’s own story—which is just as impressive.

International roots

Hentsa hails from Eritrea, an East African country across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. He first entered the restaurant industry when he arrived in the United States in 1994 as a refugee, following the end of his native country’s fight for independence from neighboring Ethiopia, which ended in 1991.

Photo by Casey Ek - Akberet and Hensta share a pleasant moment in the kitchen of Great New York Pizza. The siblings, who separately left Eritrea in response to domestic guerilla warfare in 1981 and 1994 respectively, now view the United States as their home.
Photo by Casey Ek – Akberet and Hensta share a pleasant moment in the kitchen of Great New York Pizza. The siblings, who separately left Eritrea in response to domestic guerilla warfare in 1981 and 1994 respectively, now view the United States as their home.

Hensta and his siblings left the country in phases, because leaving their wartorn home was difficult, and the leaving was often as risky as staying Hensta said. Hensta’s sister Akberet left first in 1981. Next was their sister Msgna and two brothers Esayas and Yonas in 1987. In the time between his siblings’ leaving the country and his departure in 1994, Hensta recalls regular political violence. Protests and gunfire in the streets meant that those wishing to avoid any clashes were in their homes before 6 p.m., Hensta said.

For me, I have never had a single day without thinking about [the war]. Never. It’s part of me. Even though we know we are here in America, our mind is the war. Akberet Tesfai

Hentsa was 25 when he arrived in the U.S., and, like his family and many Eritreans at the time, he didn’t remember a time that did not involve bloody guerilla warfare. For Hentsa and his sister Akberet, who is phasing into a management role at Great New York Pizza, their past life left indelible marks. Akberet said her family’s exodus was one shared by many.

“For me, I have never had a single day without thinking about it. Never,” Akberet said. “It’s part of me. Even though we know we are here in America, our mind is the war. The atrocities are burdening us, the people.”

Photo by Casey Ek - Hensta places food in an oven while an ‘open’ sign reflects on a display case in Great New York Pizza.
Photo by Casey Ek – Hensta places food in an oven while an ‘open’ sign reflects on a display case in Great New York Pizza.

A new passion

When Hensta finally left Eritrea around a decade after his siblings, he needed to find a way to make a living. His brother got him a job as a dishwasher, but Hensta soon found a different interest in the industry.

“I wasn’t going to work just to learn, I was going for money, but at the same time I liked to cook,” Hensta said.

New York is a Great Place. New York City is Great. The pizza is great, so [I called it] Great New York Pizza. Hentsa Tesfai

Hentsa’s first cooking job was at Villa Pizza in the Mall of America for three years before moving onto Slice of New York in Minneapolis. He learned what he could from whomever he could learn it, and eventually he was able to open his own restaurant, Great New York Pizza, in July 2019.

Photo by Casey Ek - Akberet Tesfai has her portrait taken while folding takeout pizza boxes
Photo by Casey Ek – Akberet Tesfai has her portrait taken while folding takeout pizza boxes

When it came to his restaurant’s name, Hentsa had a simple explanation: “New York is a Great Place. New York City is Great. The pizza is great, so [I called it] Great New York Pizza.”

An unexpected location

Hentsa owes his location in Nicollet to his sister Msgna, who found a storefront available in Nicollet for cheaper than expected. When they discovered the listing for Nicollet was the town and not the popular Minneapolis stretch, they were amused, but Hensta decided to give the location a shot

Photo by Casey Ek - Shot through a display case showcasing various a la carte items like calzones and pizza by the slice, Hensta stops to have his portrait taken.
Photo by Casey Ek – Shot through a display case showcasing various a la carte items like calzones and pizza by the slice, Hensta stops to have his portrait taken.

With about 7,400 miles separating Nicollet and Hensta’s birthplace, many have raised questions about Hentsa’s settling into a place a world apart from his roots in just about every way possible.

“Actually, when I came here, a lot of people, they told me this question, ‘Why? How?’ It’s my experience,” Hentsa said.

Actually, when I came here, a lot of people, they told me this question, ‘Why? How?’ Hentsa Tesfai

Akberet was perhaps the most skeptical about Hentsa’s relocating to a remote community like Nicollet. Would there be enough customers to sustain a new business? Would Hentsa be able to thrive in a community so different from his own? What if he had a medical emergency? These were all questions that ran through Akberet’s head in the early phases of the business’s opening.

In the first few months of its opening, Great New York Pizza drew curious eyes from the Nicollet community, but no one, particularly the Tesfais, knew whether the business would survive. Now, more than a year later, Akberet’s skepticism has faded, and she regularly greets customers by name. Hensta has happily settled into Nicollet after selling his home in Apple Valley. The restaurant is in full swing, serving everything from buffalo chicken pizza, calzones and lasagna to subs and roast potatoes.

Photo by Casey Ek - Hensta pulls a pizza from an oven at Great New York Pizza.
Photo by Casey Ek – Hensta pulls a pizza from an oven at Great New York Pizza.

Drawing from experience

Hensta said he curated his menu based on the dishes he found to be successful at the restaurants where he used to work. He views his crust as the main attraction to the pizza he serves, and the most crucial component of a good crust, he said, is a crispy bottom. The sauce is made from scratch, like most other items on his menu. As for his favorite, Hensta recommends the buffalo chicken ranch pizza or any of his calzones.

Photo by Casey Ek - Akberet, who resides in Brooklyn Park is phasing into a management role at the restaurant. The family has goals of expanding in the near future and plans to standardize Hensta’s recipes for perspective employees.
Photo by Casey Ek – Akberet, who resides in Brooklyn Park is phasing into a management role at the restaurant. The family has goals of expanding in the near future and plans to standardize Hensta’s recipes for perspective employees.

Hensta doesn’t draw much direct inspiration from his Eritrean roots for his flavors, though bits and pieces still show through at times.

“This is homemade,” Hensta said. “I know sandwiches. I know calzones. I do my own sauce. No chemicals, no nothing.”

This is homemade. I know sandwiches. I know calzones. I do my own sauce. No chemicals, no nothing. Hentsa Tesfai

While he attributes his current flavors to hard work and incremental improvements, his sister Akberet believes something else is at play.

“I would say it’s a gift too,” she said. “You know we all have gifts. I think for him, it’s a gift.”

Photo by Casey Ek - A pan of a spinach filling simmers on a stovetop. After joining the restaurant industry 25 years ago after leaving his home country of Eritrea, Hensta has embraced life in America through his cooking.
Photo by Casey Ek – A pan of a spinach filling simmers on a stovetop. After joining the restaurant industry 25 years ago after leaving his home country of Eritrea, Hensta has embraced life in America through his cooking.

Author


  • is a freelance multimedia journalist with regular bylines in Mankato and St. Paul. A 2016 graduate of American University in Washington, DC, Casey covers, education, culture and politics.

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