Sopranos Italian Kitchen in St. Louis Park

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Editor’s Note: Sopranos Italian Kitchen is closed.

A recent Chowhound post singled out Sopranos Italian Kitchen in St. Louis Park as being “worse than Olive Garden,” a charge that’s about as incendiary as it gets in the world of Italian cooking. It seemed worthwhile to check (the restaurant’s detestable name* suggested that there could be some truth to the charge), so we dropped by for lunch last week.

Charge debunked. Not only did Sopranos Italian Kitchen float effortlessly above the low bar of Hospitaliano!, it offered a couple highly enjoyable moments that suggested that this suburban outpost could become destination dining.

It’s well-known that Chef JP Samuelson (formerly of Solera and jP American Bistro) is serious business, and his skill came through in three of the four dishes we ordered during our recent visit. We tried the spaghetti and meatballs ($13 for lunch, $17 for dinner) because at this preposterous price, it seemed likely to be the restaurant’s Waterloo, and proof that the joint’s anonymous detractor had a valid point.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

But no. This was a good rendition of spaghetti and meatballs. In fact: This was a great rendition of spaghetti and meatballs. The fresh house-made spaghetti noodles were a toothsome, satisfying delight — and unusual, to boot. I can’t remember having eaten fresh spaghetti before; ravioli, sure, linguine, OK, rough rustic noodles, sure, but not delicate spaghetti. The sauce had a real depth of flavor (herbal, funky cheese, a bit of heat) that made it scrape-off-the-plate tasty, and the meatballs had a savory lightness to them without being breadballs.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

An appetizer called piadina ($11) sounded like a straightforward flatbread-and-ham-type deal, but when it arrived at the table, the bread element was fried and crispy as the dickens, and kissed with liquid honey. (My wife compared the flatbread in flavor and concept to scalidi, Sicilian holiday cookies traditional to her family.) With the saltiness of the prosciutto and restrained creamy funkiness of the accompanying blue cheese, the piadina managed to be familiar yet exotic, and balanced yet a bit provocative.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We ordered a sausage and pepper grinder ($11) because we figured it would be a bulletproof hit; surprisingly, it was a flyweight loser. Insubstantial bread,  low-wattage sausage, and a lack of heat made this grinder more suited to Subway than a serious Italian joint. The giardiniera on the side, however, was zippy and flavorful, and helped step the sandwich up. A bit.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Dessert undid any bad feelings created by the grinder, however. The tiramisu torte ($8) that we tried had real cocoa depth without being chocolate-syrupy or overly sweet, and various textures (including a crispy thin chocolate layer) gave this sometimes pudding-like trifle some backbone and interest. Even better: An accompanying piece of candied cocoa nibs was a graceful, novel touch, lending a sophisticated bonus hit of chocolate flavor and more satisfying crunch. (Accompanying jellied chocolate cubes looked swell, but didn’t taste like all that much… and they were easily ignored.)

As an added note: The service at Sopranos was almost absurdly gracious. A hostess ran up to open the door for us on the way in; our waiter was chatty and informative without being obsequious; the restaurant manager popped by to check up on us and welcome us to the restaurant; and all this before our “uh oh, are they food-bloggers?” camera had even emerged from its bag. This hospitality may wear off as the months grind by and the novelty of opening wears off, but as of now, the staff seems to be 100 percent on the same extremely welcoming page, which is a real pleasure. The decor deserves comment, too — the chic and lush light fixtures and wall treatments, with varied textures and tasteful, deep dark tones, were reminiscent of an Italian interpretation of the interior at Barrio. It serves the double trick of making guests feel both comfortable and “out” for something celebratory.

Beyond the grinder, in fact, my only beef with Sopranos Italian Kitchen is the name (see below). But blot that from your mind and give Chef Samuelson’s venture a shot — he has pulled off something interesting here.

*Postscript: Why You Should Not Give Your New Italian Restaurant a Name That Alludes to Organized Crime

Italy is rich in culture and history the way other parts of the world are rich in coal, or hardwood forests, or gold. From the world-altering scope and vision of the Roman Empire to the art, science, and intrigue of the Renaissance to the complicated history (and present) of the Catholic church to the village-by-village sophistication and diversity of Italian food and wine, you almost can’t go wrong when naming your Italian or Italian-American restaurant. Throw a dart. The board is crowded with winners.

And then there’s organized crime, a cynical, deadly, horrifying institution with deep roots in Italy and numerous still-active and still-destructive chapters (beyond the Sicilian Mafia, there’s the Neapolitan Camorra and Calabrian ‘NDrangheta). Even where not active, the Italian model for organized crime has been an inspiration and model for others, making organized crime a truly international problem.

Why, then, is there a pronounced trend of naming Italian restaurants in ways that allude to mobsters and mob-related entertainment? Speaking on strictly local terms, we’ve got the newly opened Sopranos, Casa Nostra, and Godfather’s Pizza, for starters. (And I’ve never been thrilled with the natty spokesmobster for Rocky Rococo Pizza.)

The disconnect is easy to blame on popular culture. Say “mobsters” and many people think, “tough wisecracking guys from the neighborhood who do a little gambling and other funny business, but basically just want to make a living and be the coolest dudes around.” ‘Ey! Good times! Red sauce! A little bootleggin’ and secret hooch! Card games! One of da guys!

In reality, not so much. Organized crime is typically focused on wacky stuff such as trafficking underaged prostitutes, corrupting the justice and medical systems, distributing heroin, shooting innocent people (by mistake or on purpose), using massive car bombs to kill judges, and dumping toxic waste in violation of environmental protection laws.

Anti-Mafia protest sign commemorating murdered magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino: “You did not kill them: their ideas walk on our legs” / Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, if you watch all six seasons of The Sopranos, you get this picture very clearly: The series is ultimately a clearheaded look at the destruction caused by organized crime. Nearly every recurring character ends up in jail or dead; innocent lives are regularly destroyed (often without a second thought); and the major take-home lesson is how selfish, brutal, and often stupid most of the people involved in organized crime actually are.

In short: Naming your Italian restaurant something that makes a coy allusion to organized crime is roughly as appropriate as naming a Cambodian restaurant “Pol’s Pho Pot” or a Russian restaurant “Comrade Stalin’s Borschteria.” Don’t do it.

BEST BET: Get the fresh, house-made spaghetti — the noodles are delicate, the meatballs light and savory, and the sauce features a real depth of flavor.

Sopranos Italian Kitchen
Italian in St. Louis Park

5331 W 16th St
St. Louis Park, MN 55416
952.345.2400
OWNER / CHEF: Kaskaid Hospitality / JP Samuelson
HOURS:
Mon-Thu: 11am-10pm
Fri-Sat: 11am-11pm
Sun: 4-10pm
BAR: Full
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for Weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $14-26

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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29 Comments

  1. EddieP 04/11/2011 Reply

    Mr. Norton, thank you for calling out the idiotic and deeply cynical naming of this restaurant by the Crave owners. It’s a pathetically condescending act to Italian food culture. If I were Italian, I’d be PO’d. And it shows a true critic who is able to get beyond that and complement what they succeeded at.

    In regards to the posting on Chowhound, or even the narcissistic whiners on YELP for that matter, why do you, an accomplished editor of 1 of the two places that actually matter in this town in terms of food criticism (along with Rick Nelson), even give credence to these self-absorbed “posters”?

    If you spent 30 minutes reading the majority of the crap on Urbanspoon, ThriftyHipster, YELP, etc., you’d think that each one of the contributors have opened and successfully run a 3-Michelin star restaurant for 10 years already. Yeesh.

  2. You didn’t mention Pizza Mafia in St. Paul. And don’t get me started on the local custom of naming hot Italian-American sandwiches with a term (d*g*) which would get you clocked in areas with an active Italian-American population which is NOT “Minnesota Nice”.

    But I’m really writing because this article inadvertantly brings up an issue which occurs quite frequently these days — the power of people to spread their opinion — however informed — widely with few checks or balances. Someone thought SIK was “worse than Olive Garden”. You thought it was decent to pretty good. Is SIK batting one-for-two? I’d go a little higher because I KNOW your food cred; I don’t know anything about the other poster.

    Maybe more importantly, though, it looks like both of you issued your verdicts based on ONE visit each. A single visit in which you or the waitstaff or the kitchen could have been having an exceptional night (good or bad). A single visit during a time when the resto still could be shaking itself down.

    Is it fair to extrapolate and commit for the ages in silicon — good or bad — the results of such a small sample?

  3. The name doesn’t bother me and I suspect it won’t bother most people. But I do have to ask one question – did you bother even asking them why the restaurant is named that? Or did you just want an excuse to go on a half blog rant on all things mafia?

  4. @sd that’s funny cause one look over at Yarusso’s menu confirms my suspicions regarding the sandwich that shall not be named.

  5. Author

    SD: I’d love to go to every restaurant we talk about on this site more than once (and we do in fact adhere to that standard whenever we give out stars). That said: can you tell anything important from a restaurant from one visit? I’d maintain that you absolutely can. You’ve tasted a range of food, observed the hospitality and decor, and gotten a feel for the menu and prices. And for what it’s worth, now that I’ve been to somewhere in the high hundreds (maybe low thousands?) of restaurants, I believe I have a decent ability to correctly size a place up. I put my reputation on the line every time I write a review, and I wouldn’t have written kind things about SIK after one visit if I feared that they wouldn’t hold up in general. The place exuded a clear sense of competency, both in terms of food and service. And if it had been more mixed, I would’ve gone again to get more data, or scrapped the piece.

    The truth about reviewing restaurants is that any place can change at any time — a chef can leave, ownership can change, ingredients can be up or downgraded, so you’re always (at best) getting an estimate of the situation. More data is better, but sometimes a single serving can be enough to write a brief report — or so I’d argue. Your mileage may vary.

    Re: the Hot Dago — that was actually one of the sandwiches I wrote about in my new book (“Minnesota Lunch”), so I’m well-versed in them. They’re a different story than mob-themed restaurants, as they were created in (and are still largely served in) Italian-American communities, and represent a “taking back” of a once-hateful term as opposed to a celebration of thugs and murderers. You’re right that “dago” is still a nasty term when used pejoratively, but it’s a word that has lost some sting as Italian-Americans have fully integrated into the American mainstream. But at one point (turn of the 19th/20th Century) it was as toxic as words can get.

  6. Author

    Oh, and to Tim — it doesn’t matter in the slightest what reason Sopranos gives for their name. What would you — or 9/10ths of the population — think when you say “Sopranos” and “Italian”? Gangster series on HBO. Name your restaurant “Sopranos” and you take advantage of that marketing bump — period.

  7. Author

    Ah, and to EddieP (as long as I’m answering all my reader mail this morning — you’re all making really good points):

    I led with a Chowhound post for two reasons. One, to make the general point that when someone posts a nasty slur (or fawning praise) without any backing evidence, disregard it — there’s no reason to give it any credence. You’re already well aware of that point, but others don’t give it as much thought as they might.

    Two, I wanted to publicly dispute this post because there’s isn’t a great deal out there about Sopranos at this point, and that kind of unsubstantiated negativity is just plain destructive — to the restaurant specifically, and to local food culture overall.

    I won’t make a general habit of referring to Yelp / Urbanspoon / Chowhound when I write (when I consult those sites, it’s as a starting point, to figure out what’s being talked about, and what’s new on the landscape), but in this case I thought it would be interesting to engage with one particularly irresponsible self-appointed critic.

  8. Re: Chowhound bashing (which is not what JN did, but what one commenter seemed to engage in): Chowhound opinions are inherently no better or worse than asking a friend what they thought of a particular restaurant. Except that when one reads CH, one gets dozens of (sorta) friends’ opinions. And if one reads CH regularly, one gets a sense of which posters share one’s tastes, which ones are generally reliable in their perceptions, etc., etc. Our local CH community is generally pretty darned good, and I think one will find a pretty accurate view, in the aggregate, of the best and worst restos in town there. The Soprano’s review was by one CH user and did not contain much detail. So any regular reader of CH would not tend to give it much weight…

  9. Author

    Yep, what Eric said, precisely. I really enjoy reading Chowhound and often find useful / well-informed stuff there. I also try to keep an eye on Yelp and Urbanspoon. (Disclosure: I write for Chow.com, which is part of the same company as Chowhound.)

  10. Thanks, James.

    I agree that you can learn a fair amount about a restaurant in just one visit. I don’t even mind when someone recounts their experience (good or bad) based on one visit.

    But I’m concerned that too many people unfairly make “I’ll never go back” decisions based on nothing beyond that one experience. And I’m concerned that many people reading reviews on sites like CH, Yelp, and Urbanspoon simply accept that experience as gospel when the original poster doesn’t make clear their credibility and/or state of mind at the time — and doesn’t even put their real name on the story. Sure, after a while you figure out which are the posters talking out their backsides. But it’s hard for casual readers to do this. And I think restos are unfairly undersold or oversold on sites like those as a result.

    As for the d-word, the jury’s still out for me. Maybe it is Italian-Americans “reclaiming [the word] as their own”. But I don’t think there’s a nice way to use that word if you’re not Italian-American, any more than African-Americans or Jews or Latinos can use certain words that non-members of those groups can’t use.

    Keep up the great work, James! This blog is a must-stop for me every day, and I appreciate the effort you (and the rest of your staff) put into it.

  11. I would like to amend my second sentence to read: “I don’t even mind when someone recounts their experience (good or bad) based on one visit when they make that limited exposure clear.”

  12. Author

    SD, appreciate the kind words. Even more than that, the thoughtful nature of your comments (this goes for the other commenters here, too). I really dig it when people raise good questions about the whys and hows of food writing — it helps me a lot as a writer, and I think it helps readers appreciate (and be more thoughtfully critical of!) the stories they read.

  13. Sue Kruskopf 04/11/2011 Reply

    I went to the restaurant because of JP and how much I like his cooking. It is too bad the name doesn’t do the place more justice given the great food!

    Despite the mafia connection, it’s tacky name–and equally tacky logo–would give people the first impression that it is a chain restaurant that should be at MOA. So I guess if people went there expecting that, they may be pleasantly surprised. Or make a beeline to Tucci Benucci to get what they were expecting. Our lunch was great, and I am glad there is a chef-driven restaurant in that West End area to go to. I hope they don’t ever dumb it down, and that the owners (who also own CRAVE) eventually start putting some more proper brand personality into their restaurants.

  14. James, you state: “when someone posts a nasty slur (or fawning praise) without any backing evidence, disregard it — there’s no reason to give it any credence.” But I seem to recall that your site posted a link to the Olive Garden comment. Unless I’m incorrect about the previous post, isn’t that inconsistent?

  15. EddieP 04/12/2011 Reply

    Here’s a small proposal: “foodies” begin their YELP/U-Spoon/Chowhound/Etc. posting with a simple “NOV:1”, i.e. “Number Of Visits: 1”. I would venture to guess that most would start their posts with a “1” or “0” if they’re on the honor system.

    It’s interesting how these YELPers, C-Hounders, etc., routinely engage in narcissistic or uninformed posts. Yet, if you dare to criticize them, you are now engaging in Chowhound-, YELP-, Etc- BASHING.

    Thin. Skin.

  16. SarahinMinneapolis 04/12/2011 Reply

    In my view, giving a restaurant a name that’s better known for something else is bad news. Kind of like a guy driving a bright orange or red Corvette. You know he’s trying to compensate for the lack of something (size?) else!

    As for reviewing a restaurant after one experience dining there, I’m all for that, because that’s the experience of the consumer. If the first experience isn’t worth it, you’ll take your hungry self elsewhere.

  17. Yes, Eddie, because referring to a website with thousands of users as “narcissistic” and “uninformed” is clearly not bashing.

  18. Tried it, was terrible, this review now smells fishy.

    • Author

      OK, not only are you posting anonymously, you’re posting anonymously with a false email address. You’re not in a great position to be questioning either my judgment or my ethics, and anything else under this alias will be deleted. If you want to post under a real name with a real email, please feel free.

  19. Author

    How about some specifics, Dave? I was pretty precise about what I liked about my food, so why not share your observations?

  20. Karl G. 05/12/2011 Reply

    Where’s the beef in the bio of JP? JP’s Italian cred comes from many years at the helm of Cucina. You don’t learn this genre at your personally named bistro, or at Solera. You knew this.

    It is a waste of a well regarded Chef’s name to call it Sopranos. But then again, Samuelson’s doesn’t really make you thin bella Italia. May I suggest “Samuele’s” plus a traditional categoric name indicating the level of the fare (Trattoria, Osteria, Ristorante, Pizzeria) or regional emphasis, or American/Italian designation. Food culture in Italy, and in St. Louis Park, a little different.

    On the same note, can’t wait for Mill Valley Kitchen to capture the essence of Northern California cooking in yes, you guessed it, St. Louis Park. Since we’re all lovey with the Mediterranean climate perhaps we should rename St. Louis Park. St. Mediterranean Park, yeah that’s it. Mill Valley is not a noted food town BTW. Fresno, that’s a foodies paradise.

  21. Karl G. 05/12/2011 Reply

    I got it, it’s a Back to the Future brand association, cause we’re from the Midwest, and we love Deloreans.

    Less coffee for me, next time I climb up on this interweb horse.

  22. The biggest lesson to come out of that reality TV cooking show with Rocco DiSpirito was to never name a restaurant after a chef unless the chef owns it.

  23. Let me start by saying I really trust your taste in food and think your reviews are the best in town. Based on your fairly positive review of SIK, I went with a friend last night before a movie. We tried the spaghetti and meatballs. The spaghetti was touted as being made fresh, from the texture, it was obvious that it was made fresh quite number of days ago. The meatballs were dry and leaden. Also sampled were the beef cheek ravioli, which had been sitting under a heat lamp and were dry and tough, the sauce over reduced and salty. We also had a couple of salads which were decent. Also, everything was insanely overpriced. Perhaps they are not doing well and things have gone way downhill since your meal. I won’t ever go back. Next time I am in the mood for Italian, it is Bar La Grassa for me.

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