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.
Sometimes you want fra diavolo and sometimes you just want red sauce. In the latter case, consider Mama’s Pizza (961 Rice Street, St. Paul) to satisfy your classic Italian-American cravings. Sitting for nearly half a century on the corner of Rice and Front, it’s a North End neighborhood institution, though one that you likely haven’t heard of unless you’re from the neighborhood.
You walk in the front door of the old brick building, past a counter behind which flour dusted dudes work the pizza ovens, and into the compact dining room, booths line the sides and tables are packed strategically to achieve the room’s maximum capacity. There is a second kitchen in the back. Murals depicting Italian scenes cover the walls. A television broadcasts the latest sporting news, and a photograph of a woman, ostensibly Mama, stares down approvingly.
Squeeze in and seat yourself among the servers weaving through the narrow spaces, delivering pizza from the front kitchen and everything else from the back. The service is quick, so let’s get to business.
The pizza is traditional Minnesota style: thin crust, square cut, served on cafeteria trays. The crust itself is utilitarian; the sauce offers a little kick and some sweetness. The cheese and toppings are where the Mama’s namesake pizza excels. The special deluxe ($16 for 12”) was piled high with spicy pepperoni, sausage, veggies galore, and a glistening blanket of high quality cheese. As a frame of reference, imagine one of those cross sections of the earth that demonstrates how thin the atmosphere is compared to the size of the earth. The pizza crust is the atmosphere and the toppings and cheese are the earth. Or maybe the toppings and cheese are the infinite reaches of space. Either way, the crust is the atmosphere and it is exceedingly thin, but nevertheless does its job protecting us from being scorched.