Cheesecake at Brianno’s in Eagan

James Norton / Heavy Table

The photo above depicts a slice of cheesecake from Brianno’s Italian deli in Eagan. It’s not much of a photo — it was taken quickly, as an afterthought, to serve as a reference in case the cake turned out to be remarkably good. Not much other than fried catfish or tacos looks good on styrofoam, and the pale color of the cake plays particularly poorly here.

Nevertheless, this slice of Brianno’s homemade cheesecake ($3.50) quickly popped into our top five reasons to drive out to this stellar deli, one of the last true bastions of Italian-American deli deliciousness in the state.

That list:

5. All the Italian cookies/dried pasta/pizzelle you could possibly want.

4. High-quality frozen pasta sauce for a reasonable price; we really dig the house-made Bolognese, but the classic Meatless is just what you’re looking for, too.

3. The cheesecake. We’ll get into this a moment.

2. The Sloppy Hot Dago ($8.50). Is this the best hot dago sandwich* in the state, and therefore the world? You be the judge, but we think it might be. Tons of tasty melted cheese, high-quality red sauce, legitimately spicy sausage patty, and even a pepperoncini on the side. (*Yes, we know that the name is offensive to many people, and we actually wrote a book that dove into the history and etymology for about two full pages.)

1. Muffuletta ingredients. All the high-quality, reasonably priced Italian meats and cheeses you need to make a huge, killer muffuletta and feed an army of people. Plus! Spicy, delicious muffuletta olive salad in a jar to save you a tremendous amount of hassle and expense on your sandwich crafting.

Anyhow, back to the cheesecake. It’s as tangy as you could possibly desire, and sticky to the point of being almost cream-cheese-like in consistency. The balance of sugar and dairy zing is spot on, and the graham cracker crust is a great counterpoint in terms of sweetness and crunchy texture. We’ve had cheesecakes with a more elegant texture (lighter, firmer, overall better), but this slice gets the tangy vs. sweet balance right in an important way, and really delivers on the “cheese” side of things.

Brianno’s Deli-Italia, 2280 Cliff Rd, Eagan, MN; 651.895.1174

Martina in Linden Hills

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

We made a last-minute decision to go to Martina (4312 Upton Ave S, Minneapolis) on a Saturday night one month after it opened its doors. Bringing up the tail end of a line of hopeful patrons on the sidewalk as the doors were unlocked didn’t bode well for our chances. We patiently waited our turn, expecting to eat at Tilia (not a bad backup plan), and despite some mixed signals from the hosting crew, we were thrilled to be graciously escorted to a table in the side room.

In the still-recognizable former Upton 43 space, Martina would fit right into the North Loop with its high ceiling, weathered timber, angled leather booths, full bar, and one of the most open kitchens in town. The space is something of an anomaly for South Minneapolis, but the Linden Hills crowd, comprised of young couples, old couples, and families with children, is already wearing the space like an old hat. Which is to say that anyone who eats will feel comfortable at Martina.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

We adored the food, which felt familiar yet intriguing enough to leave us excited to return and further explore Chef Daniel del Prado’s Argentine/Italian hybrid creations. We started with Charred Avocado Wheatgrass Bruschetta ($13), in which one of the most hackneyed dishes of the hipster foodie era (avocado toast) gets its groove back. In Martina’s version, toothsome chunks of savory pickled shrimp steal the show, with an assist from bunches of fresh parsley and a black, smoky char on both the bread and avocado, neither of which were burnt, by some miracle.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

The Seared Scallops ($16) were equally lovely. Four thin, half-dollar-sized mollusks with a crisp brown sear were stacked in a pyramid resting in a pool of sweet saffron cream alongside charred cherry tomatoes. The dish was flecked with tiny flying-fish roe that gave the dish an otherworldly texture, popping with each bite, leaving behind a hint of marine aroma and nothing else.

Always a sucker for chimichurri (and chermoula, and schug, if you can find them), the Half Grilled Chicken Chimichurri ($18) was among the finest birds we’ve eaten in town recently (Saint Dinette’s was the last finest example we can recall). The chicken, boneless except for a handle of a wing bone exiting the breast, had a crisp, brown exterior that concealed an interior as tender as any sous vide bird. The vivid green chimichurri brightened up the dish with herbs and garlic.

Spaghetti Fra Diavolo With ½ Lobster ($19) was the weak link, if there was one. The house-made pasta was cooked al dente and was perfectly chewy, holding its own with the sweet, mildly spicy sauce that was as Middle Eastern as it was Italian. Sadly, the half-lobster was too chewy overall, a common pitfall for lobster pasta dishes. On another night, this dish could be a home run.

Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

For our vegetable, we ordered the Charred Cucumber ($7). Seedless green crescents, charred on one side are tossed, with feta, in a generous amount of chili oil, colatura (Italian fish sauce, made with anchovy), and rice wine (almost a brine more than a dressing). It made for a smoky, salty, crunchy, sweet combination that like everything else we ate was exploding with bold flavor and texture. The char was a major part of the appeal of Chef del Prado’s food. Having worked at Burch, where steak and pizza are cooked with open flame, his fire worshiping continues here, applied to vegetables and meats alike.

From the space, which at capacity evokes festive late nights in a big city (bigger than Minneapolis, with our 5 p.m. suppers and 2 a.m. bar time), to the food, which was remarkable without exception, to the hustle of the staff, Martina makes a bold and impressive statement. It’s been open for just about a month, and the staff — which seemed to number in the thousands for all our water refills, tableside check-ins, and the sheer number of arms carrying plates — were on their best behavior. We’ll certainly be back, but next time, we’ll make a reservation.

Argentine and Italian food in Linden Hills

4312 Upton Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55410
CHEF: Daniel del Prado
Sun-Thu 5 p.m.-11 p.m.
Fri-Sat 5 p.m.-midnight
Sat-Sun 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
BAR: Full
PARKING: Street and area lots

Geno’s in Southeast Minneapolis

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Parella Shuts its Doors

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

After offering dining that was (in the words of owner Michael Larson) too fine for the tastes of Uptown, Parella has shut its doors. The restaurant got warm reviews in Mpls.-St. Paul Magazine and City Pages, but our reviewer found a number of dishes in need of fixes (such as the $27 brick-pressed chicken). Parella announced a new bar menu (including a hot dago and a giant 1/2 pound meatball) a few days ago, and we regret not making it over to the restaurant to give them a try. Parella was in the front ranks of ambitious Italian restaurants opening in the area, along with Monello, Il Foro, Italian Eatery and others – it will be interesting to see if its closure is a one-off or if other Italians tumble in the months to come. (It may also just be that the old Figlio space is well and truly cursed.)

Homemade Limoncello for the Holidays

Mike Mommsen / Heavy Table
Mike Mommsen / Heavy Table

Despite its complicated flavor profile, limoncello, the Italian lemon liqueur, is simple to make. The majority of “prep” time is spent sitting and watching the bottles of liquor-soaked lemon peel. For the holidays this year, a bottle of DIY limoncello may be the answer for those hard-to-buy-for friends. For about $50, you can make eight 10-ounce jars of this crowd-pleasing digestivo.

Your project begins at the liquor store, where you should purchase a liter of Everclear (151 proof, about $25-$30) or 100-proof vodka. Eighty-proof vodka will work in a pinch, but the stronger the better for leaching the flavor from the citrus. The stronger the spirit, the more water and sugar you will have to add later.

Next, buy a bag of about 10 medium-sized organic lemons, and if you’re feeling adventurous, a few grapefruits. With a potato peeler, gently remove the rind from the fruits, trying to get as little of the pith (the spongy white part underneath the peel) as possible — it can add an unwanted astringency.

Mike Mommsen / Heavy Table
Mike Mommsen / Heavy Table

Watch out for your fingers — a pen-style peeler will work better than the Y-shaped style. Go slowly and carefully, and your fingers will remain intact. To avoid wasting peeled lemons, juice them, and use the juice as a mixer for cocktails, or add it to soda water in a 50:50 ratio for a spritzy lemonade (add a little simple syrup to balance the sourness).

Put the peels into a glass jar of at least 1.5-liter capacity that can be sealed effectively. A jar with a wide mouth is easiest to work with. Pour the grain alcohol over the peels, seal the jar, and shake it a little to eliminate any air pockets. Store the jar at room temperature, away from direct sunlight, checking every few days to enjoy the increasingly yellow coloration.

It can take anywhere from four days to a month for all the citrus flavor to be extracted from the peels, so if you’re planning to make this for gifts for the holidays, get on it soon. The majority of flavor transfer occurs during the first four days, so that is the bare minimum for letting the mixture sit. In the meantime, find some cute jars or bottles to hold the final product, and as a finishing touch, get some festive labels.

Parella in Uptown, Minneapolis

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Editor’s Note: Parella is now closed.

The restaurant scene in the Twin Cities is booming. A few new excellent places seem to pop up every couple of months, and if you can’t get into one dynamite spot, there are plenty of others. Along with putting out delicious, interesting food, restaurants are upping their service game. Professional, friendly, and informal (read: not stuffy) service is becoming the norm. Local eateries, bars, and coffee shops routinely show up on national “best of” lists, win prestigious awards, and garner national press. It is within this context — this bounty of deliciousness — that we found Parella wanting.

Located in the old Figlio space in Calhoun Square, Parella strives for Italian chic. The space is well lit and airy, but lacks character. Perhaps aware of this paucity of personality, a server during our first meal explained that the gray mark on our wobbly table was a sanded-down bullet. He failed to mention, however, the gap between the booth’s bench and back. We learned of it when our credit card slipped into the abyss. After a failed extraction attempt, we informed the manager of our problem, and he said he’d dive in at the end of the night. Perhaps he didn’t make it out, because we never heard from him.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

On all three of our visits, the staff was enthusiastic and friendly, which compensated somewhat for middling service. The same server who eagerly highlighted the table-bullet and took us on a long-winded “tour” of the menu (in which he strongly recommended a few sub-par dishes) didn’t describe components of dishes or ask why we took only a few bites of several items. With only two or three tables, a frazzled lunch server forgot us several times, seemingly because a patron sent back a flatbread. Still, we likely wouldn’t have focused so much on these (and other) service mishaps if the food had bowled us over.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Cured meats from Red Table ($6 each) and a sunny plate of thinly sliced raw scallops, lemon, and pepper ($15, above) grabbed and held our attention until our plates were cleared. A fresh, creative dessert featuring silky panna cotta, granita, and lychee ($8) kept us nearly as engaged, while a few other items piqued, but didn’t hold our interest.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

A refreshingly simple salad of greens and herbs ($8) was bright and flavorful, but suffered from too much dressing and not enough pecorino. We also enjoyed a dish of calamari, shrimp, fava beans, and chicory ($14), even though it lacked the smoke from the wood oven that our server had promised. Baked goat cheese and tomato sauce was tasty, but tiny for $13.

Romolo’s in Payne-Phalen St. Paul

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Editor’s Note: Romolo’s is now closed.

If you’re inspired to visit a restaurant in St. Paul and travel through time by way of its menu and interior design, Mancini’s may well leap to mind. But if Mancini’s modest 1950s-inspired supper club pomp exceeds your budget or patience, head out to the Payne-Phalen neighborhood, and eat at Romolo’s Restaurant.

Unlike Cook St. Paul, Ward 6, or Tongue in Cheek, Romolo’s is no charming upstart — it has been planted near the intersection of Arcade and Sherwood for more than 40 years, and it wears its history with pride. The exterior combines a drive-in-style roofed parking lot with a vintage gondolier sign that screams “classic, unadulterated Italian-American fare served here.” The interior delivers on the exterior’s promise. Romolo’s features large portions, low prices, and simple, classic flavors.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Pizza ($9-$19) at Romolo’s is square cut with chewy, aggressively browned cheese and a crust of almost cracker-like crispness. The sausage and green peppers pie we ordered was charmingly old school, with a nice, even distribution of toppings.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Better still was the menu’s featured hot Italian-American sandwich. The Rom Special ($8) builds on the Hot Dago concept (marinara, sausage patty and cheese between slices of bread) but makes some important tweaks. The menu describes the bread as “Italian toast,” but you might know this thick, buttery stuff as Texas toast. Whatever you call it, it could easily swamp the fillings of a less-aggressively stuffed sandwich. The Rom Special’s crispy bacon, thick, classic sausage patty, onions, and two types of cheese (American and mozzarella) speak up loud and clear. Marinara and hot peppers are served on the side, but both are needed to take the sandwich from “good” to “great.” The marinara moistens the texture and mellows out the flavor, while the mild heat and acid of the peppers brighten the whole package and serves as a counterpoint the cheese.

The food of Romolo’s is not world-changing nouveau anything. It’s simple, humble, classic fare. And at $8 for a sandwich big enough and substantial enough to feed two, it’s food worth coming back for.

Romolo’s Restaurant
Italian-American in Payne-Phalen
1409 Arcade St
St. Paul, MN 55106
Sun 8am-9pm
Mon-Thu 11am-9pm
Fri 11am-10pm
Sat 8am-10pm
BAR: Beer and Wine
PARKING: Lot and street
ENTREE RANGE: $6.50-10

Trattoria Tosca in Linden Hills

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Editor’s Note: Trattoria Tosca is now closed.

If restaurants were trains, think of Trattoria Tosca as the Little Engine That Could. Since Harvey McLain, who also owns the adjacent Turtle Bread bakery, opened this Linden Hills restaurant two years ago, patrons have witnessed a revolving door of chefs pass through its Italian kitchen — Landon Schoenefeld, now of HauteDish, who left before its official launch; Adam Vickerman, now executive chef at sister restaurant Cafe Levain; and Ryan Zander, who departed for Duluth’s JJ Astor Restaurant after just a few months. But now under the leadership of chef Ian Gray, Tosca’s longest-serving head chef with 11 months on the job, the cozy and comfortable neighborhood spot has settled into a groove and boasts a menu that should draw in fastidious diners from the greater metro area.

Should is the key word here, because on several recent visits, despite the top-notch food coming from Gray’s kitchen, Tosca’s dining room wasn’t nearly as full as its menu merits. This is a shame, considering most of the dishes sampled rivaled the quality at Broders’ Pasta Bar and Parma 8200. Yes, it’s already April, but let’s make a collective resolution as food lovers in 2011 to put Trattoria Tosca on our must-go-there-now lists.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Because when you go, you’ll get to experience one of the rarest dishes in fine dining — the properly dressed salad. Whereas so many restaurants — good restaurants, not just the Olive Garden and company — drown their salads in vinaigrette, Tosca offers three that barely glisten with dressing but still pack the necessary flavor punch to make the vegetables dance. The green salad ($7, lower right), featuring goat cheese-topped dates and almonds, benefits from a careful drizzle of sherry vinaigrette, which ties together the crunch of the nuts with the sweetness of the dates. The vegetable salad ($8, upper left) offers the promise of a long-awaited spring with its fresh-tasting combination of fennel, celery root, frisee, red onion, and caraway vinaigrette, as does the kumquat salad ($7, upper right) with hazelnuts and aged goat cheese. Also drawing raves was the beet carpaccio ($9, lower left), with a sprinkling of sea salt balancing the sweetness of the tender spheres of blushy beet, the tang of the pickled onions, the creaminess of the avocado, the crunch of the arugula, and the soft bite of the pecorino.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The justified restraint in dressing carries over to Tosca’s pasta dishes, available as half and full orders. When alfredo sauce is listed as an ingredient, many times diners can expect a platter full of noodles swimming in gloppy sauce, which makes the tagliatelle with chicken confit ($8 / $15) even more of a revelation. With just enough sauce swirled into the pasta to coat each strand and a sprinkle of buttery breadcrumbs, the dish is just rich enough to make you swoon but light enough that you won’t feel like you ate a brick after your plate is whisked away. The arugula fettuccini ($6 / $11) barely sports a sauce — just a splash of fruity olive oil, which nicely offsets the bits of green dotted throughout the pasta and the generous shake of black pepper and grana padano atop it. The spice of the tomato sauce that accompanies the green orechetti ($9 / $16, above) would overwhelm the palate if not for the cooling dollops of lemon mascarpone that slowly melt into the bowl and add a luxuriousness to a vegetable-driven dish.

Va Bene Berarducci’s Caffe in Duluth, MN

Jena Faust / Heavy Table

When it comes to Italian food in Duluth, Va Bene has lead the way since 2006, on the strength of a menu focused exclusively on dishes originating in the Apennine Peninsula and Sicily. Antipasti, insalate, zuppa, pasta, panini and pizze are served on small tables overlooking Lake Superior or inside overlooking Superior street. The atmosphere is quaint and the space small, reminiscent of a busy little Italian cafe where there are more people than there are tables.

Ingredients and fresh, evident from the vibrant colors and full flavor. The bruschetta ($7) is made with juicy chunks of tomato, finely chopped garlic, and basil. A sweet balsamic is also used, bringing balance to the basil and garlic. The crostini are also available with honey goat cheese with pear ($9), portabella mushroom ($8.50), proscuitto and gorgonzola ($8.50), and Sicilian tuna ($7.50).

Jena Faust / Heavy Table

Among the panini, the P.L.P. ($8.75) stands out as the most creative blend of Italian food and good old American favorites. Made with pancetta, lettuce, and Pomodoro (tomato) the P.L.P. feeds the craving for a B.L.T. while still making you feel cultured. The pancetta is tougher than bacon and the flavor has more spice with a depth that is similar to prosciutto.

Jena Faust / Heavy Table

Alongside the regular menu, Va Bene offers gluten-free pasta for any of their pasta dishes. With over 19 pasta dishes available (including angel hair, gnocchi, spaghetti, and fettuccine) the gluten-free options are competitive with those at the Duluth Grill. The regular pasta isn’t made fresh, but all of the sauces are homemade and San Marzano tomatoes are used in all of the tomato-based sauces.

The patio at Va Bene is the only enclosed patio overlooking the lake in Duluth. The view is unbeatable, but before noon the sun shines directly on the patio making lunch in the enclosed porch uncomfortable. There is a limited, but comfortable seating area on an open porch connected to the enclosed porch that catches the lake breeze as well as the smells from the kitchen.

BEST BET: The unique and tasty P.L.P. is a great go-to.

Va Bene Berarducci’s Caffe

734 E. Superior Street
Duluth, MN 55802

Sun-Thu 10am-9pm
Fri-Sat 10am-10pm
Mary Kay and Jim Berarducci
Yes / Yes

Five Observations on Il Gatto in Uptown

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Editors’ Note: Il Gatto is note closed.

The Parasole restaurant group’s newest eatery (built on the final resting place of the long-doddering Figlio) is proudly describing itself as “Uptown Italian,” a designation that makes an experienced diner worry a bit. Uptown’s a charming place, but not something that necessarily makes a good adjective for a new restaurant. After all: What does “Uptown” mean in this sort of a context? Overpriced? Too cute by half? Watered down for the cheechakos? An Italian menu that manages to work steaks, hamburgers, and french fries into the mix also sets off quiet alarm bells.

It’s not, however, possible to ignore Parasole’s impact on the local scene, so we went, and entrusted our meal selection to the advice of our opinionated waitress. This turned out to be a wise decision.

Here then, are five observations from the meal:

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

1. Get the Sausage Sandwich

Our actively helpful waitress (see “The Staff’s Terrific,” below) pushed a sausage grinder on me as a staff favorite. Lo and behold, it’s the kind of thing you’d expect restaurant staffers to dig: rich in punchy flavor, simple to make, and easy to eat. A thoroughly toasted bun contains a house-made sausage that’s rich in spice and heat, topped with a spreadable Italian cheese called stracchino that packs its own pepper and herbal kick. Asparagus gives the sandwich a bit of vegetal balance and a pleasant textural snap. The overall package is great — balanced, flavorful, filling, and a mere $10 — including about a pound of decent fries covered in herbs and grated parm.

2. Some Boorish Branding Choices Were Made

The humor that pervades the staff T-shirts and overall branding of the restaurant never gets beyond wordplay alluding to whores and whorish behavior, which, har har, gets old after you spot the second or third reference to “cheap” wine and rooms being rented by the hour. Yes, slutty women are funny. Yep. Got it. Prostitution. Har. The “Ah, Phuket” T-shirts at Chino Latino are Thurberesque by comparison.

A menu reference to non-alcoholic drinks as “spayed” was a particularly fratty touch. Having thoughtful non-alcoholic options for designated drivers, the underage, and the habitually sober is a nice gesture, but it loses some of its charm when you imply that the person who skips alcohol is having a partial experience drained of pleasure.

ilgattobomboloni3. The Bomboloni Are As Much Fun As They Sound

A paper sack full of house-made spiced doughnuts (“bomboloni” on the menu, $7) is a bit of an odd way to end a meal that might normally be followed by panna cotta or spumoni, but it’s also really entertaining. The bomboloni come out with three dipping sauces including a decent caramel, a somewhat underpowered chocolate, and a strawberry coulis. Best of the three was the strawberry option, which popped with bright flavor and proved to be the liveliest counterpoint to the warm spicy doughnuts.

4. Wine is Central

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Visually, wine bottles dominate the room and set the mood for your meal — good luck staying away from the wine list, particularly after a basket of the adequately crusty bread arrives along with a saucer of herbed olive oil. Il Gatto works on a carafe-served “glass and a half” system for its house wines, which is a charming way to do business (and a fine deal at $5 per serving.) Its other wines are priced at $7, $9, and $11 per glass — and neatly organized by price on the menu. Italian wines dominate, not surprisingly, but choices from Australia, California, Argentina, and Germany also make appearances.

5. The Staff’s Terrific

Before we headed out to Il Gatto, we’d heard from other Heavy Table staffers that the staff was really on its game. This turned out to be true. From the hostess to our waitress to the busboy who boxed up our food, the Il Gatto team was cheerful, focused, competent, and, in a word, welcoming. Whatever training or hiring program that’s in place seems to be working; kudos to the team for a job well done.

Il Gatto
Italian in Uptown

3001 Hennepin Avenue S
Minneapolis, MN 55408
OWNER / CHEF: Parasole / Matt Kempf
Sun-Thu 4:30pm-1am
Fri-Sat 4:30pm-2am
BAR: Full

Dara Digs on D’Amico

A detailed dispatch on the doings at D’Amico via Dara. The closing of D’Amico Cucina, the opening of a new Italian (not “Northern Italian,” not “Southern Italian”) mystery project, the fate of chefs and staff — much is disclosed, more still is speculated upon.