Never underestimate the power of a properly made meatball sandwich. It’s not a sexy sandwich, as it’s pretty much designed to explode, wilt, and melt into your mouth. But with the right components — a bright marinara, light but rich meatballs, enough melted cheese to cover but not smother, and a properly toasted bun — it’s inhalable magic. The meatball sandwich at the newly opened Geno’s is properly made. At $10 on a roll or $12 on a hoagie, it’s a little pricey on the face of it, but the flavor justifies the outlay.
Geno’s, a new shop from the owners of the Lyndale Tap House, seems to be ripping a page right out of the Mucci’s book: Serve up old-school Italian-American favorites using good ingredients, and reap all the goodwill and nostalgia that exists for a much-degraded, much-abused classic cuisine that has in recent years been a repository for laziness and straight-from-the-food-service-bag cookery.
Let’s play with a metaphor for just a moment: If you think of St. Paul’s newly renovated, 40,000-square-foot Cossetta’s Italian market complex as a massive, economically significant cannoli, then its newly opened Pasticceria is the sprinkling of miniature chocolate chips on either end of the pastry.
It’s the eye candy that sells the whole package; the sweetness atop the sweetness that equals luxury; and it’s that little bit of something extra that seals the deal. Amid the comfort food of meatball hoagies and the daily staples like salami and olive oil in the market, the colorful cakes and innumerable butter cookies of the Pasticceria sparkle and focus the newcomer’s attention like a laser: This, says the marble-clad space, is a place that you want to visit.
“There’s nothing in the Twin Cities that compares to this — we’ve taken the pastry shop to a whole new level,” says Cossetta’s Chef Ryan Caulfield (above). “In my mind, that’s the coolest part of the whole thing. I watch people’s faces when they walk in the door and it’s … amazement.”
Stepping through its doors, and gazing like a stunned idiot at the arsenal of sweets, the Pasticceria newbie is transported: to Italy, perhaps, or perhaps somewhere a bit closer (this visitor was taken instantly to Cafe Vittoria in Boston’s North End, but your mileage may vary). The marble, wood, and chandeliers are all imported from Italy, and when multiplied by the force of all the sugar and pastry dough, the space packs an emotional wallop.
We were recently guided through the space (and its edible inhabitants) by owner Dave Cossetta (top) and Caulfield, the former proud (and besieged by congratulations offered by his regular customers) and the latter visibly weary, having not so long ago opened up Louis Ristorante & Bar, the complex’s new sit-down dining destination.
Explaining the rainbow of baked goods in the Pasticceria takes some doing. At the heart of it all, there’s the basement kitchen and bakery — a bunker of bread, a fortress of fondant — that was dug out of the rock at considerable expense.
“If we were going to make pastries, building a basement kitchen became necessary,” says Dave Cossetta. “[It] was quite costly, but by doing that, we’ve made the first floor into kind of an Italian food mecca.” He isn’t overstating the fact: in terms of square footage, the Cossetta’s complex is 80 percent the size of Mario Batali’s internationally heralded Eataly project, and, on top of that, it serves a metro area far smaller than the five boroughs.
“We felt that the bakery and the pastry shop were a good complement for the market,” Cossetta adds. “There really isn’t an Italian bakery left in the Cities … or even in the state, so it just seemed to be a natural thing to do.”
One quick elevator ride later, we’re walking through the warrens, past ovens and blast coolers, and gazing upon row after row of mug shot style photos of the dozens (perhaps hundreds?) of baked goods that the pastry shop is able to produce.
The consulting mind behind this array is New York’s “cannoli king” (he bested Bobby Flay in a Throwdown, so his notoriety is legit and considerable): Biagio Settepani (above). Settepani, of New York City’s Pasticceria Bruno, is spangled with medals and accolades. And when we bump into him in the basement, he’s midway through making a batch of croissants. As we’re speculating on how beer (and the elaborately proofed Italian panettone cakes) must have been created by a series of fortunate accidents, he jumps into our conversation.
“You have to give the chef credit, too! And his imagination!” Settepani chimes in, insistent upon the role of genius (and hard work) when it comes to the origin story of good food.
Our tour of the basement complete, we pop back up to the Pasticceria for a guided tour of some of the shop’s most unusual eats. We start with a rum-kissed Baba Savarin (below).
“Traditionally in Italy, it’ll be in a jar soaking in rum, and when you order one they’ll pull it out and it’ll drip and drip and drip,” says Caulfield. “We cut ours open and fill them with pastry cream. The breakfast of champions, right?”
He’s not kidding — the Baba tastes like a Twinkie made by God, the liquored-up cake embracing the velveteen, gently sweet filling. It would be easy for this to go wrong: too boozy, too sugary — but it really walks the line.
We move on to the dazzling Cassata (below). “It’s a traditional dessert from Sicily, real popular around the holidays and it’s filled with mascarpone — well, a cannoli filling, basically,” says Caulfield. “So it’s got the cake, the filling, and the marzipan wrap, and candied fruit on the top.”
The gritty taste of almond-forward marzipan almost but not quite drowns out the bright spike of the candied fruit and the soothing, slightly boozy creaminess of the sponge cake. The Cassata looks like a dream, but evokes a flavor experience that will be nearly 100 percent shaped by your feelings about marzipan.
We finish up with a Lobster Tail (below), a cream-filled dreadnought of a dessert. “It’s layers upon layers of dough shaped in that traditional way,” says Caulfield. “It’s like phyllo dough, sprinkled in powdered sugar and filled with pastry cream.”
When we bite into the Lobster Tail, we fall immediately in love with the contrast between the exterior and the filling, the chewy, salty pastry pushing back against the unctuous, creamy center.
After all the flash of the front-of-the-line desserts, we leave Cossetta’s having purchased a pound of the shop’s Italian cookies, the kind we know (and miss) from our days in Boston. At $16 a pound the cookies aren’t cheap, but they stand a cut above the New Jersey-made Italian cookies sold over at Broders’, the closest thing we previously had to a local fix for our old obsession. Cossetta’s Italian cookies are made with care, molto buttery and not too sweet, perfect with a cup of coffee or tea. They’re a point of pride for the new bakery.
“You take something like the checkerboard cookie — it’s a small item, but it shows that we take the time to create those unique products,” says Caulfield. “It’s a big statement to have something like that on the menu.”
Marta Lindsey’s pitch was persuasive: She’d bring over a box of the cannoli that her stand, Ole’s Cannoli, will debut at this year’s State Fair. I’d try them. We’d talk cannoli.
Lindsey’s background is less-than-traditional for a cannoli smith — she’s a Roseville Area High School grad of Scandinavian descent living and working in Oakland, CA, but still missing home. “The Fair is part of my Minnesota heritage — my kitchen is decorated with Minnesota State Fair stuff … it’s a serious thing,” she says. “I always fly home for the Fair; I’ve been to the Fair every year of my life.”
Lindsey and I share a common point of reference: we both lived in Boston in the early aughts and fell in love with the cannoli of the city’s still heavily Italian-American North End, where vendors like Modern and Mike’s nightly sling thousands of pastries for the throngs that crowd Hanover street. (My own favorites hailed from Capone Foods in Somerville, but when I brought out-of-towners to the North End, a trip through the crowd at Mike’s was a mandatory experience.)
Ole’s Cannoli do justice to their Boston brethren and are the best I’ve had in the Upper Midwest. I tried two varieties: One was the classic pistachio-dusted variety, the other was sprinkled (in neo-classical style) with mini-chocolate chips. The shells had a pronounced, lightly fried crunch to them — neither overly brittle nor soggy like cardboard. In both cases, the shell complemented the creamy, cheesecake-evocative filling of ricotta, vanilla extract, and powdered sugar. In short, Ole’s classically stuffed, filled-to-order cannoli dodge two typical stumbling blocks: cheap, gummy, over-sweet pudding-like filling, and pre-filled shells that sog out and turn nasty.
At the Fair, Ole’s will nod to the Scandinavian half of its name by serving a strong, dark roasted coffee imported from Sweden. And thus will the Italy / Scandinavia / Minnesota loop be closed. “I still love Minnesota, and it was like: How can I still have a relationship with it?” Lindsey says. “They’re beautiful things — cannoli, the State Fair, and we can have them together. And wouldn’t it be cool if I had a reason to come to Minnesota for a little bit longer every year?”
Ole’s Cannoli, available at Heritage Square at the Minnesota State Fair