Everybody loves good old-fashioned, red lead Italian-American food — in theory, at least. It’s the cheese! The pasta! The pizza! The red-and-white-checked tablecloths, the generally clogged parm and hot pepper flake dispensers, the cheap chianti in the straw basket. In short, the comfortable atmosphere that takes you back to your childhood, whether you grew up in a small town with a single Italian joint or in a major city with dozens.
The Achilles heel of this perfect dining setup is that the food at these places tends to range from “nostalgia-inducing and decent” to “accursed by Baal.” One-note, overly sweet sauces, low-grade cheese, “tiramisu” decanted from freezers and plastic bags, and a general sense of fatty, gloppy, decrepitude spoil or at least dampen our enthusiasm for most of the Italian-American restaurant meals we trudge through. Sure, there are a number of happy exceptions: among others Cossetta’s, DeGidio’s, and (the pre-decline) Fat Lorenzo’s, but even these largely coast on simple (albeit well-executed) re-creations of canonical dishes.
Thus, a massive but largely invisible niche in the scene: Italian-American food familiar enough to be comforting and “real,” presented with warmth and hospitality, but made with a serious culinary eye. Scratch-made food, no corners cut. Simple, affordable, and comprehensible — something Grandma and Grandpa would recognize and love, but done with care, patience, and top-grade ingredients.
Enter Mucci’s. Utterly unpretentious, warm and welcoming, this new St. Paul neighborhood outpost may be the boldest move yet by restaurateur Tim Niver. Yes, The Strip Club Meat and Fish and Saint Dinette are (rightfully) critical darlings, wowing guests with forward-looking takes on supper club and New World French cuisine. But Mucci’s is ballsier than that.
It dares to be simple.
Mucci’s fronts as a quiet little neighborhood place with a warm, attentive staff and a menu of classic favorites. It’s not trying to sell you on anything, at least up front. But when it comes to the food, the uncut corners dazzle.
Here’s the thing about Mucci’s: We couldn’t stop talking about our House Salad ($4 / $8). This dish was dead simple: greens, pecorino Romano, a hot pickled peperoncino. But it was bright; it was fresh; it was light; it was soulful; it was perfectly integrated. Salad would be a throwaway in just about any other Italian-American place, even some of the better ones, and diners wouldn’t complain or even necessarily notice. But Mucci’s killed it, proving my aphorism that where there’s good salad, there’s a great meal. (The reverse isn’t true, by the way; a percentage of good or even great places foolishly phone it in when it comes to the salads.)
Similarly, the humbly named Meat & Pickles plate ($8 / $15) offered a tremendous value for the money. Terrifically balanced house pickles, a classic mostarda, an earthy pate, some of the simplest (and best) deviled eggs we’ve eaten around here (right up there with Tiny Diner‘s), and — again with the details — stellar pickled peppers. Normally such a forgettable thing, but here so snappy and savory, earthy and elegant. The last time something pickled so thoroughly impressed us … oh, that’s right! It was the Dilly Beans at Saint Dinette.
Our Rigatoni Arrabbiata ($15) with white beans was creamy and substantial with a well-calibrated spice kick, and tender but not overcooked noodles. It wanted for a bit of complexity or acid, as the white beans amplified rather than balanced the soporific embrace of the pasta, but that only knocked the dish down from “great” to “good.” Other pasta dishes we tried were similarly good-but-compromised; an order of Devil Hair ($16) featured tasty cubes of guanciale and juicy mussels but suffered from a surplus of chili oil and overcooked pasta. An order of Spaghetti ($15) was stellar on every front except for its lukewarm temperature. A little more focus and the pasta portion of the menu will catch up with the remainder of the restaurant.
The potato Croquetas ($6) are heavy on the spuds and (good) cheese, but are so exquisitely fried that the straightforward flavors are a blessing. The accompanying sauce is bright enough to complement and elevate the dish, and for $6 this is a strong value in an era where mediocre $10 and $11 starters aren’t rare.
A quick aside: Mucci’s serves something called Mucci Juice, a mix of wine and Fanta. This may seem sacrilegious, but if you’ve been to Spain and enjoyed a glass of tinto de verano while dining outdoors, you’ll find it’s an absolutely magical thing to sip while sitting in St. Paul. It’s not fancy; it’s not fussy; it’s merely awesome.
Our Beazy pizza ($14, pictured above) came with meatballs, sauce, and fresh ricotta, and it was just what we were hoping for. Made like all the pizzas at Mucci’s in the montanara style, it had a thicker, more substantial crust than that found at many of the newer, Neapolitan-inspired places around here. The difference comes in part from the frying of the pizza dough before it’s baked, which amps up the puffiness and adds to the richness of flavor. This substantial crust was complemented ably by tender, full-flavored meatballs and a rich ricotta. And while all the flavors were big, they worked as a unit, like family members at harvest time.
Our Chicken Parm ($16) was the closest thing we encountered to the classic, lovably meat-headed Italian-American staple, entombed as it was in spaghetti, red sauce, and mozzarella. A thinner chicken breast would’ve made the dish sing, and it could have used a bit of heat, acid, and / or salt. But all of the elements were well executed, and we dug the dish, happily finishing off the leftovers the next day.
More refined was the Lasagne Mucci ($15). You actually don’t see many lasagnas in restaurants. It’s a home dish, so unpretentious as to nervously flee the spotlight at dressier locations. But that’s a shame, because it can be delicate, flavorful, and lovely, as the version at Mucci’s was.
Finally, dessert. We’ll dispense quickly with the Warm Chocolate Budino ($8), which was merely spectacular: a warm, homemade hot-fudge evocative dish made still better with the judicious use of pistachios. Normally this would be the dish we’d walk out of the restaurant talking about.
But no, the house-made tiramisu is a modern wonder of the world. Our hopes hit the ceiling when the dish arrived, because the tiramisu looked a little wobbly and off center, almost as if, you know, somebody actually made it rather than unsealed it from a container. And indeed, it’s made honestly and with care rather than being birthed at a factory. What’s the difference in flavor, you might ask? It’s ineffably tender, the rum and coffee flavors natural and fully perceptible, the house-made ladyfinger cookies (!) lending, no doubt, yet another layer of seriousness to this fantastic, trifle-like dessert. If you try this tiramisu and don’t like it, give up on the stuff — you won’t be persuaded.
Joshua Page contributed to this review.
Italian-American in St. Paul
786 Randolph Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55102
OWNER: Tim Niver
Tue-Thu: 5-10 p.m.
Fri-Sat: 5-11 p.m.
Sun: 5-9 p.m.
Doughnuts on Saturday and Sundays at 8 a.m. until they’re gone
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $11-$26
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Neighborhood street parking