The makings of a really good restaurant can often be found in the margins. The coffee, the French fries, the salad — these are the minor elements that tend to get lost, and can be substandard without necessarily ruining a diner’s meal. They’re usually the first things to get replaced with the prepackaged, the frozen, and the mediocre alternatives.
With that in mind, we had an excellent meal at the newly opened Red Sauce Rebellion in Excelsior, and we were particularly impressed with all the minor elements that started, finished, and filled in the cracks of our meal. Our coffee was richly flavored without being too acidic or overpowering. Our fries tasted freshly cut and quite crispy. And our House Romaine Salad ($13, above) was a lovely example of the form — not too heavily dressed, with a preponderance of greens supported by just the right ratio of toppings including Sweet Drop peppers, burrata, tender cubes of salami, and crispy chickpeas that ably took the place of croutons or nuts. We mentioned to our waiter that we’d be sharing the salad, and rather than bringing us a spare plate (standard operating procedure at most restaurants) he brought the salad out on two plates, perfectly split. That’s good service.
The space itself was thoughtfully organized, crisp, clean, bright, and airy, a minor update from the decor of the previous occupant, the relatively short-lived Victor’s on Water. Our two-top was parked close enough to our neighbors that we were treated to a fairly rich dose of their conversation, but the overall noise level was reasonable.
When a restaurant touts “Red Sauce” in its name, you feel compelled to try some of the stuff at some point during your meal. We tried it on the Meatball Hoagie ($14, top), and we weren’t disappointed. Many restaurant red sauces have two notes at most: bright but flat tomato acidity and a pile of sugar. Red Sauce Rebellion’s red sauce, which was generously ladled over our sandwich, was a deep, brownish red and contained layers of flavor including what we’re guessing was the mellow, sweet richness of properly caramelized onions. It placed nicely with our meatballs, which were neither too greasy nor too generically bready, but were a light, balanced mix of both meat and breadcrumb elements. The hoagie’s bread was crispy, and its cheese fully flavored and pleasantly stringy. In short, even if this hoagie had fed one person, it was so good that the price tag seemed like a fair deal. But this thing would easily feed two hungry diners, so we’re firmly in the realm of great value here.
Our Trofie pasta (fennel sausage, sweet peas, fresh herbs, vodka cream sauce, $15, top) was a more conservative portion (it fed one without much, if anything, left over), but the quality was equally evident. The pasta was tender and toothsome, the peas and herbs lightened the balance, and the dish managed to be fully seasoned without tasting overly salty, no small challenge when it comes to indulgent pasta dishes.
We closed our meal with a cannoli served on a little bit of cherry gastrique. We’re cannoli fanatics. We’ve tracked down the best cannoli in Boston’s North End, made the shells ourselves from scratch, and tried dozens of variations over the years, ranging from the excellent to the thoroughly bad. Red Sauce Rebellion does a wonderful cannoli with a joyfully brutal crispiness to the shell that can only come when the cannoli are filled to order. The filling was sweet but not tooth-shatteringly so and had a pleasant creaminess to it.
This quality of food and service puts Red Sauce Rebellion neck and neck with the likes of Mucci’s, another restaurant that does classic, soul-satisfying Italian-American fare with a freshness and thoughtfulness you won’t get in most of your red lead neighborhood joints. There’s nothing minor about keeping your eye on all the little details.
Red Sauce Rebellion
Italian-American fare in Excelsior
205 Water St
Excelsior, MN 55331
OWNERS: Eli Wollenzien and Deacon Eells (also of Coalition)
Sun-Thu 11 a.m.- 9 p.m.
Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Not so much
ENTREE RANGE: $14-$27
NOISE LEVEL: Reasonably sedate, with some tightly packed two-tops
PARKING: Street parking