Prima in Minneapolis

This story is part of our ongoing Lyndale Avenue Checklist, available in full to all of our Patreon backers. It ran as part of our fourth installment, alongside reviews of Aroma Indian, Mac’s Fish and Chips, Lakewinds Food Co-op, and Eddie Cheng.

Prima has been a neighborhood Italian restaurant since 1999. It says so on the awning and it comes exactly as advertised.

But what does that mean in terms of experience? 

It means you’ll be surrounded by the familiar sponge-painted walls and rustic Tuscan decor you remember from all those pasta places from the 90’s. It means you will be seated amongst a sea of salt-and-pepper-haired regulars who have been coming since before before they sprouted their first gray hair because it’s comfortable and close-by and “I’ll be damned if they still don’t have my favorite pasta on the menu.” It means the service staff will treat you with the overly familiar demeanor of a friend who has gotten to know you over the years, even if you’ve never met before.

Prima is not out to be the next hot spot. They’re not looking to draw in a younger, hipper crowd. They don’t need to. As one of the staff told us, they actually did better during the pandemic. (And having driven by the place often enough, we can verify the curbside pickup was regularly as busy as a runway at La Guardia.)

Prima knows their regulars. They know exactly what the neighborhood wants. And they provide. Think Cheers in the form of a 90’s Italian restaurant. – M.C.

Walking into Prima blind, we were concerned that we were going to get hit by a worst-of-all-worlds situation: an old-school upscale Italian menu, creaky with age and far more expensive than we’d like. And while the check wasn’t small and the menu was, in fact, a blast from the past, the restaurant’s chefs acquitted themselves with grace and skill, leaving us remarkably happy at the close of the meal.

When you dig into Prima online, there’s a surprising amount of buzz about the restaurant’s Roasted Garlic appetizer ($13) – and there should be. The appetizer brings together a mix of the sweet (a pear chutney), the savory (a mild, creamy Italian blue cheese) and the warmly earthy (perfectly roasted, tender cloves of garlic), making a tripartite topping for toast that honestly can’t be beat. This is one of our favorite sorts of foods: a multi-component dish that’s more than the sum of its parts, where each distinct taste makes a contribution that hits you with the power of multiplication, rather than mere addition.

The restaurant’s Hand Made Meatballs appetizer ($12) was equally good – a bit salty to be sure, but covered with a rich tomato and roasted pepper sauce and a slice of perfectly toasted bread custom-crafted for scooping sauce and carrying tender, full-flavored pieces of meatball to a diner’s mouth. 

We tried three pasta entrees and liked them all – all three were cooked perfectly al dente, they arrived at the table piping hot, and in every case flavors and seasoning were big without being unbalanced. The Bucatini Amatriciana ($21) with bacon, pancetta, tomato, sage, and Pecorino Romano was a lot lighter than it sounds – big bold flavors but with a thoughtful proportion of meat to pasta to sauce, making the dish a joy to eat.

Rigatoni Alla Rustica ($23, above) was even better, with a big hit of oregano, caramelized onions, and creamy Ricotta Salata making this the very definition of comfort food. 

And Squash Ravioli ($22) was just what we’d hoped: a sweet, mild, nostalgia-rich throwback to a simpler time (the late ’90s) when this particular dish was omnipresent and inescapable. Our one complaint – and it’s a minor one – is that the caramelized pears in sage brown butter in the center of the plate were so big in flavor and resolute in texture that they overwhelmed the pasta they were meant to support.

After all of this, if dessert at Prima had been a disappointment, we would’ve written it off with a shrug. But no: It’s legitimately stellar. The housemade tiramisu is (nearly) on par with the stuff at Mucci’s, veering in a more chocolate, less coffee-forward direction than we’d like but otherwise perfect: light, supple, delicate, creamy, basically downright damned delightful.

The creme fraiche in the restaurant’s Butterscotch Budino ($10) keeps this dessert remarkably light on its feet and balanced in terms of sweetness – yes, it’s a dessert, and yes, the caramel / butterscotch flavors really bring it, but your overwhelming impressions are: “This is miraculously smooth and creamy” and “this is the perfect amount of sweet – not cloying, not sugary, but definitely firmly in the category of ‘dessert.'” The weird, wonderful long-stemmed novelty spoons that Prima provides so that guests can scoop out every last bit of this stuff are just an added bonus to a dessert that’s easily among our favorites of 2022. – James Norton