Sad Spaghetti

Buon Giorno brings sorrow, Italian-style

Osteria I Nonni
Buon Giorno Italia

981 Sibley Memorial Hwy., Lilydale
651.905.1080

Like most Americans, I spend an inordinate amount of time these days examining the financial statements that come in the mail and wondering: Can this country, in a post-global, mall-saturated, FoodTV'd economy, survive the inevitable class-action lawsuit from Tuscany?

I expect legal papers any day.

It is seriously depressing.

Obviously, Tuscany has a clear and compelling reason to sue each and every one of us for nearly limitless damages. Not just for those damn yellowish walls that have so obviously come to signal overpriced pasta. Not just for the little drawings of plaster crumbling away to expose underlying brick that have become the universal signifier for olive oil that tastes like vegetable oil. But mainly for taking an entirely appealing culture and cuisine and repeating it artlessly and endlessly until it has come to mean nothing except the mask you assume when you want to sell cheap and meaningless things to people who are generally aspirational, but otherwise uninformed and undiscerning.

Does Betty Crocker offer a Web recipe for "Tuscan Turkey Torta" that "will remind you of both delicious deep-dish pizza and quiche"? Yes, she does (failing to note that anything that reminds one simultaneously of quiche and pizza also reminds one of catastrophe and death). Are the "Tuscan Villas" of Irvine, Texas interested in wooing you with their "garden bathtubs" and "beveled mirror accent walls"? Of course. Does the Infiniti luxury SUV, the QX4, come in "Tuscan Beige"? Need you ask?

Of course, as with all social ills, the Tuscan delusion/dilution doesn't damage only the Tuscans; it damages us all. It especially damages anyone trying to sell Italian food.

How else to explain the heartbreaking specter of Buon Giorno Italia, and especially Osteria I Nonni, now open in Lilydale?

I hardly know where to begin with this one. Perhaps with a little local history?

Back in the day, the first members of the Marchionda family came to St. Paul from Italy, and they opened what would eventually become the Buon Giorno market, on the industrial northern edge of downtown. The place was famous for rough-hewn Italian sausages, great made-to-order sub sandwiches, and aisles that were stuffed to exploding with everything from cans of oil-packed tuna to pricey bottles of Barolo. This past summer, after years and years of dreaming, scheming, and saving, the Marchiondas left downtown and opened a vast new complex in Lilydale, one of the first suburbs south of the river from St. Paul. The new complex contains a catering operation, a fancy new deli and grocery store, a wine shop, and an ostensibly Roman restaurant called Osteria I Nonni, the "Inn of the Grandparents," named for those first pioneers.

Only the wine shop has profited from the move. What was once a few crowded aisles of bottles jammed together is now a handsome library of Italian wine. There are bottles from recent vintages, as well as hard-to-find older bottlings. This is a satisfying place to contemplate, design-wise, though probably really thrilling to shop only if you're rich. Italian wines nowadays tend to be dizzyingly expensive, but Buon Giorno Italia is doing everything it can to combat that. In fact, the restaurant is likely one of the least expensive places in the country to try the liquids collectors go insane over: Nothing on the dazzling 300-plus-bottle list is priced at more than $10 over retail, and there are Barolos that should draw connoisseurs from all over the country. If you're in the neighborhood, a bottle of wine and plate of olives in the front of the house is a national-caliber treat.

Once connoisseurs wander into the restaurant, I can't imagine what they will think. My first impression of the food at Osteria I Nonni was that it was merely another nobody in the not-so-thrilling trend of restaurants I call PazzaCiaoLo (because it takes too long to say Pazza-Ciao-Campi-Zelo-Cha-Cha-Tirami-Too-Too-Too-Me-Too!). The place features the signature contemporary Italian art-glass chandeliers and McMansion design that just screams Birthdays in Suburbia. But after a number of visits I have had to conclude that the restaurant is actually worse than most of its feel-alikes, for two reasons. One is that it is absurdly expensive-with $7 salads, $19 primi, and $29 entrées, prices easily top those at Aquavit or Goodfellow's. And the other is that after spending and eating more than I ever cared to, I found only two cooked dishes I'd ever want to see again.

They were the oxtails ($19), a rich, gelatinous, long-cooked version of the dish--succulent and glistening, tender as distant thunder, just lovely. And the corvina, a slab of fish baked in parchment with black olives, capers, and tomatoes, which tasted like good-quality olives and, um, you know, capers and tomatoes. Otherwise, everything was pretty bad. Calamari ($10) was oily, the breading falling off in clumps. Gnocchi ($13) were mealy and stuck to the teeth like glue; spaghetti allo scoglio ($19), seafood with pasta and new-harvest oil, was a horror of leaden bits of past-prime seafood lying upon greasy noodles. Pasticcio lasagnette ($16), a meat lasagna, was sweet and cloying and made the leap from rich to unctuous without ever hitting pleasure.

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