The Italian Job

In a time of austerity, where can you go to indulge in <em>la dolce vita</em>?

Restaurant critics have never been the first need of a society, so when times get tough, I get anxious. After 9/11, for instance, I had the overwhelming feeling that while other folks might have been rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, my job wasn’t even that. It was more akin to making pompon monsters with googly eyes on the Titanic. And now with the constant drumbeat that the Next Great Depression is coming, coming, coming, I once again find myself bolting awake in the middle of the night with a single thought: Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there is no need to critique the wine service in foxholes.

For the whole world has turned into a foxhole, right? It certainly feels that way in the world of restaurants. Nothing of note is opening and some things of note are closing—most lately Fugaise, that of the ugly-duckling dining room and spectacular food; Stone’s, of the million-dollar patio in Stillwater; and La Bodega, the also-ran tapas bar near the corner of Lake and Lyndale avenues in Minneapolis.

So what now? We just eat beans and wait to die?

Amid this steady stream of bad news, I’ve become aware of a contrary vein of thought: Emotionally driven, or, dare I say, hysterically driven austerity is the one thing that could turn this recession into a depression. Overly cautious thrift, for instance, is widely blamed for turning the 1990s into a lost decade for Japan. “Recessions get worse when prosperous people do not spend,” Harvard economics professor Edward L. Glaeser recently argued in the New York Times. “If you can afford it, then this is exactly the moment to redo your kitchen or buy a car. Not only will you be able to get a good deal, but your spending will help revive the economy. The economist John Maynard Keynes convincingly argued 70 years ago that thrift was no virtue during a recession.” Yale economics professor Robert J. Shiller has said that the constant invocation of the Depression is in fact a cause of our current troubles since it reduces “consumers’ willingness to spend and businesses’ willingness to hire and expand. The Depression narrative could easily end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

So maybe we don’t eat beans and wait to die. Maybe if we eat beans and wait to die, we really will.

So what sort of dining story is particularly relevant, meaningful, and helpful in a season such as this? Obviously, the regular rules of quality must apply. Just because you’ve made a decision to reject hysterical austerity doesn’t mean you should spend money at bad restaurants. But what sort of restaurant could make reluctant spenders leave their houses? The answer, at least in the Twin Cities, has to be Italian. Year after year, it is local diners’ favorite cuisine. Which brings us to another question: What is the best top-flight Italian restaurant in the Twin Cities right now—where, in other words, should you choose to embrace calculated indulgence?

The candidates are clear enough: D’Amico Cucina, the downtown Minneapolis stalwart that most people under 30 tend to forget about; Osteria I Nonni, the haute Italian restaurant in Lilydale; and Pazzaluna, the expense-account and date spot in downtown St. Paul. In the spirit of inquiry and not waiting to die, I ventured forth. What I found surprised me in so many ways.

Pazzaluna, for instance, was packed. Austerity be darned. I’ve been wondering about Pazzaluna ever since acclaimed chef Rino Baglio left last fall (he’s rumored to be working on a gourmet-burger project for downtown St. Paul) and was replaced by Wil Borgstrom. So, how is Pazzaluna now? Great—if you like meat. Every meat dish I had out of Pazzaluna’s kitchen was lovely. The rosy, fresh beef carpaccio had a briny, berry-like richness to it. The antipasto plate, composed of various salamis and such, was gargantuan and top-rate; it made having a glass of wine with friends companionable, hearty, and fancy – I couldn’t ask for more. The best thing on Pazzaluna’s menu is the “veal medallions,” beef tenderloin–sized pieces of veal that were spoon-tender and served with a delicious porcini- mushroom sauce. Unfortunately, everything that was not meat was lacking. The seafood pasta was a particular disaster: wildly overcooked noodles serving as a funeral bier for tough, cold, and flavorless seafood. The gnocchi, too, were gummy as paste. If you love meat and wine, Pazzaluna’s a great restaurant. I’m just not sure it’s a great Italian restaurant right now.

Osteria I Nonni is the fine-dining restaurant part of Buon Giorno Italia. When it opened a few years ago, I thought I Nonni didn’t live up to its potential, but I go back every year or so and it’s always worthwhile. What struck me on this visit was how positively joyful the crowd was. The bar was packed with people ordering from an affordable tasting menu (when I visited, it was $35 for three courses, though the price changes weekly) and every corner of the main room seemed to host a big group howling with laughter. I haven’t seen that many obviously happy people in years. It was a joy.

A couple things on I Nonni’s menu were joys, too. The calamari was the best I’ve had in years: so crisp and light that they may as well have been sparks off a firework. The gnochetti were plump, tender, and expertly done, even if the braised-goat ragu that came with them was spectacularly salty. The “Fregola allo scoglio,” a sort of Sardinian bouillabaisse made with little balls of pasta and a fennel broth, was delightful. The shrimp in it were perfectly fresh and plump, the other seafood was light and lively, and the pasta gave it all unity. But there were missteps as well: A pasta carbonara was smoky and greasy, tasting as if someone had poured a pan’s worth of bacon drippings into it, and over-salting ruined the lamb meatballs with salsa verde. That said, the wine list remains spectacular, offering something beguiling from every interesting Italian region, and hard-to-find vintages at that. I walked out of Osteria I Nonni convinced that there’s a spectacular restaurant hidden in there, if only they were a little more rigorous.

Up next was D’Amico Cucina, the flagship of the D’Amico empire, which now includes the various D’Amico and Sons fast/casual outlets and Campiello. Please God, I bargained in a particularly acute moment of not being an atheist in a foxhole, please don’t let the best Italian restaurant in the Twin Cities end up being one you have to make yourself by hiring a limousine and hitting these three restaurants for separate courses.

But D’Amico Cucina knocked it out of the park. It was the best Italian meal I’ve had in Minnesota. At $60, the six-course tasting menu I had was a phenomenal bargain. The salad of beets, smoked lake trout, chicory, and a pumpkin-seed vinaigrette was a local farm-to-table inspiration that actually seemed quite Italian. The sausage-and-bread stuffing concealed in a de-boned roasted quail was so rich and fragrant that it forever raised the bar for all future stuffings—and it wasn’t even as good as the intense composition of lentils and sautéed mushrooms that came with it. The timbale of braised beef cheeks wrapped in chard leaves that arrived alongside slices of grilled rib eye was silky, tender, and blissful. But not quite as blissful as one dish off the regular menu: the suckling pig, a cupcake-sized mold of knee-bucklingly tender pork, crowned with a tiara of pickled onions and presented on a bed of herbal green-onion pesto, with fat leaves of new watercress. It was one of the dishes of the year—a triumph, a joy, a scrumptious oasis in a hectic world. And that’s not all! The pear-currant cake was a sophisticated take on Christmas pudding: warm, plump, made contemporary with a bit of poached Seckel pear and rendered irresistible with a dollop of Zabaglione Moscato cream.

Cucina seems more Italian than it’s ever been. The dishes are simple, in terms of not being over-conceptualized, and executed as finely as a fine-dining kitchen can. The service was professional and focused. It was one of those meals after which you immediately kick yourself for not having had it last month, and the month before that, and the month before that. It was spectacular.

So, there you have it. If you, too, decide that now is not the time to succumb to economic terror, I know just where you can go out and live a little.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.

360 Saint Peter St., St. Paul

Osteria I Nonni
981 Sibley Memorial Hwy., Lilydale

D’Amico Cucina
100 N. Sixth St., Minneapolis