Editor’s Note: Sopranos Italian Kitchen is closed.
A recent Chowhound post singled out Sopranos Italian Kitchen in St. Louis Park as being “worse than Olive Garden,” a charge that’s about as incendiary as it gets in the world of Italian cooking. It seemed worthwhile to check (the restaurant’s detestable name* suggested that there could be some truth to the charge), so we dropped by for lunch last week.
Charge debunked. Not only did Sopranos Italian Kitchen float effortlessly above the low bar of Hospitaliano!, it offered a couple highly enjoyable moments that suggested that this suburban outpost could become destination dining.
It’s well-known that Chef JP Samuelson (formerly of Solera and jP American Bistro) is serious business, and his skill came through in three of the four dishes we ordered during our recent visit. We tried the spaghetti and meatballs ($13 for lunch, $17 for dinner) because at this preposterous price, it seemed likely to be the restaurant’s Waterloo, and proof that the joint’s anonymous detractor had a valid point.
But no. This was a good rendition of spaghetti and meatballs. In fact: This was a great rendition of spaghetti and meatballs. The fresh house-made spaghetti noodles were a toothsome, satisfying delight — and unusual, to boot. I can’t remember having eaten fresh spaghetti before; ravioli, sure, linguine, OK, rough rustic noodles, sure, but not delicate spaghetti. The sauce had a real depth of flavor (herbal, funky cheese, a bit of heat) that made it scrape-off-the-plate tasty, and the meatballs had a savory lightness to them without being breadballs.
An appetizer called piadina ($11) sounded like a straightforward flatbread-and-ham-type deal, but when it arrived at the table, the bread element was fried and crispy as the dickens, and kissed with liquid honey. (My wife compared the flatbread in flavor and concept to scalidi, Sicilian holiday cookies traditional to her family.) With the saltiness of the prosciutto and restrained creamy funkiness of the accompanying blue cheese, the piadina managed to be familiar yet exotic, and balanced yet a bit provocative.
We ordered a sausage and pepper grinder ($11) because we figured it would be a bulletproof hit; surprisingly, it was a flyweight loser. Insubstantial bread, low-wattage sausage, and a lack of heat made this grinder more suited to Subway than a serious Italian joint. The giardiniera on the side, however, was zippy and flavorful, and helped step the sandwich up. A bit.
Dessert undid any bad feelings created by the grinder, however. The tiramisu torte ($8) that we tried had real cocoa depth without being chocolate-syrupy or overly sweet, and various textures (including a crispy thin chocolate layer) gave this sometimes pudding-like trifle some backbone and interest. Even better: An accompanying piece of candied cocoa nibs was a graceful, novel touch, lending a sophisticated bonus hit of chocolate flavor and more satisfying crunch. (Accompanying jellied chocolate cubes looked swell, but didn’t taste like all that much… and they were easily ignored.)
As an added note: The service at Sopranos was almost absurdly gracious. A hostess ran up to open the door for us on the way in; our waiter was chatty and informative without being obsequious; the restaurant manager popped by to check up on us and welcome us to the restaurant; and all this before our “uh oh, are they food-bloggers?” camera had even emerged from its bag. This hospitality may wear off as the months grind by and the novelty of opening wears off, but as of now, the staff seems to be 100 percent on the same extremely welcoming page, which is a real pleasure. The decor deserves comment, too — the chic and lush light fixtures and wall treatments, with varied textures and tasteful, deep dark tones, were reminiscent of an Italian interpretation of the interior at Barrio. It serves the double trick of making guests feel both comfortable and “out” for something celebratory.
Beyond the grinder, in fact, my only beef with Sopranos Italian Kitchen is the name (see below). But blot that from your mind and give Chef Samuelson’s venture a shot — he has pulled off something interesting here.
*Postscript: Why You Should Not Give Your New Italian Restaurant a Name That Alludes to Organized Crime
Italy is rich in culture and history the way other parts of the world are rich in coal, or hardwood forests, or gold. From the world-altering scope and vision of the Roman Empire to the art, science, and intrigue of the Renaissance to the complicated history (and present) of the Catholic church to the village-by-village sophistication and diversity of Italian food and wine, you almost can’t go wrong when naming your Italian or Italian-American restaurant. Throw a dart. The board is crowded with winners.
And then there’s organized crime, a cynical, deadly, horrifying institution with deep roots in Italy and numerous still-active and still-destructive chapters (beyond the Sicilian Mafia, there’s the Neapolitan Camorra and Calabrian ‘NDrangheta). Even where not active, the Italian model for organized crime has been an inspiration and model for others, making organized crime a truly international problem.
Why, then, is there a pronounced trend of naming Italian restaurants in ways that allude to mobsters and mob-related entertainment? Speaking on strictly local terms, we’ve got the newly opened Sopranos, Casa Nostra, and Godfather’s Pizza, for starters. (And I’ve never been thrilled with the natty spokesmobster for Rocky Rococo Pizza.)
The disconnect is easy to blame on popular culture. Say “mobsters” and many people think, “tough wisecracking guys from the neighborhood who do a little gambling and other funny business, but basically just want to make a living and be the coolest dudes around.” ‘Ey! Good times! Red sauce! A little bootleggin’ and secret hooch! Card games! One of da guys!
In reality, not so much. Organized crime is typically focused on wacky stuff such as trafficking underaged prostitutes, corrupting the justice and medical systems, distributing heroin, shooting innocent people (by mistake or on purpose), using massive car bombs to kill judges, and dumping toxic waste in violation of environmental protection laws.
Ironically, if you watch all six seasons of The Sopranos, you get this picture very clearly: The series is ultimately a clearheaded look at the destruction caused by organized crime. Nearly every recurring character ends up in jail or dead; innocent lives are regularly destroyed (often without a second thought); and the major take-home lesson is how selfish, brutal, and often stupid most of the people involved in organized crime actually are.
In short: Naming your Italian restaurant something that makes a coy allusion to organized crime is roughly as appropriate as naming a Cambodian restaurant “Pol’s Pho Pot” or a Russian restaurant “Comrade Stalin’s Borschteria.” Don’t do it.
BEST BET: Get the fresh, house-made spaghetti — the noodles are delicate, the meatballs light and savory, and the sauce features a real depth of flavor.
Sopranos Italian Kitchen
Italian in St. Louis Park
5331 W 16th St
St. Louis Park, MN 55416
OWNER / CHEF: Kaskaid Hospitality / JP Samuelson
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for Weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $14-26