Lenny Russo of Heartland
Lenny Russo and his wife Mega Hoehn opened Heartland in October 2002. This Saint Paul restaurant serves contemporary Midwestern cuisine using local, seasonal ingredients. Patrons will find separate menus for the 50-seat dining room and cozy wine bar.
On Heartland versus home:
The difference between what we do at Heartland and what we do at home, is that at home my cooking represents more of my ethnicity. [Russo is referring to his Italian heritage, specifically from the Apulia region in southeastern Italy.] That’s not to say you won’t see stuff on the Heartland menu that employs traditional Italian method, because everything in here is basically classic French or Italian method and technique, but just using local ingredients. The first dish I learned how to make, at ten years old, was mussels and red sauce. I was cooking for the whole family by the time I was ten, relatively traditional southern Italian and Italian American food.
The other big difference between Heartland and home are my ingredients. Everything we use at the restaurant is local. I don’t have those restrictions at home. I won’t use olive oil at Heartland, but at home we’ll have really nice, expensive, single-source, vintage olive oils. We eat a lot of ocean fish, which we wouldn’t use here. I’ll use rice and citrus at home. We do a lot of pasta. I don’t have a brand that I need to protect there, outside of what my wife married me for. However, there are a lot of crossover ingredients from the restaurant and home that are local and traditionally Italian, like wild boar, pheasant, rabbit, wild mushrooms, and grains.
I’d rather not cook on a holiday. But that being said, whether I like it or not, I do it anyways. If I do cook on Thanksgiving it’s usually not for a stack of people, in which case I’ll do a wild turkey as opposed to a domestic turkey. I’ll make the traditional stuff to go along with it. Of course it’s all from scratch and local. I’ll work with seasonal ingredients too. If we’re doing vegetables, we’re probably doing winter squash, turnips, parsnips, onions or potatoes. It’s not that much different than what we do at Heartland.
On the other hand, if it’s Christmas and I’m cooking, I’m doing something that is ethnically traditional. On Christmas Eve we’ll do the feast of seven fishes; using seven different types of fish. A few years ago I did a meal with a raw fish in the beginning, followed by a fish stew, filet of sole, pasta with lobster. Then on Christmas Day I made pan-roasted rabbit with wild mushroom faro.
On eating healthy:
My junk food at home are roasted-in-the-shell, salted pistachios. I taste so much at the restaurant I won’t snack when I’m here. With all of the tasting, my caloric intake is probably double what it should be. If I didn’t live such an active lifestyle I’d be a 300-pound man. The food at Heartland is healthful to begin with, because we’re serving whole foods in portions that we think are appropriate. But sometimes we do cook in rendered animal fat, which is high in fat but nonetheless another whole food and it’s using the whole animal form tail to head. I have some rendered duck fat in my refrigerator at home, but I don’t use it much.
1806 Saint Clair Ave
St. Paul, MN 55105
HOURS: Tue through Sun, 530pm to 930pm
(Wine bar open until 1030pm Fri and Sat)
BAR: Beer and wine
RESERVATIONS: Accepted in main dining room
ENTREE RANGE: $20-35 in main dining room, $15-25 in wine bar
Learn more about this business in The Heavy Table’s Atlas of Ethical Eating and Drinking.