Attack of the Killer Sandwiches

An Italian deli in Eagan makes subs fit for a Jersey cop

Of course, you have to order a full one. While the Brianno's special is also available in a half size for $4.50, which is all you'll be able to eat, you still should get the whole anyway. Why? Because if you're at Disneyland you should ride the Matterhorn, and if you've got a Ferrari you should break the speed limit. There are times in life when the need to go all the way is more important than the requirements of law and sense.

The definitive Italian sub has been a holy grail for me in all my years in the Twin Cities: The two other crown-holders in the area are the South Jersey Hoagie at Broder's, which is great, but somehow a little highfalutin, and the versions at the two Buon Giornos. The next time I go to Brianno's I'm going to try to get them to shave a little bread out of their massive country-style loaf, and then I think I might have a personal favorite. But I think this level of persnickety is actually beyond the realm of criticism, and into the realm of the indecipherable intimate, like how one likes one's bed pillow to be positioned. In any event, this is the real deal, and definitively worth the pilgrimage to Eagan. (Speaking of which, Brianno's is essentially 14 miles due south of downtown Minneapolis, on Cedar Avenue, a.k.a. 77, right at the Briar Cliff Road exit, tucked behind the SuperAmerica at the southwest corner of the junction.)

I tried a number of the other dishes on offer at Brianno's, and can report that a lot of them are very good. The Caesar salad is made with fresh romaine, a real house-made dressing, actual imported Parmesan, and delicious house-made croutons. The tiramisu is as light as a cloud up top, dense and liquor-soaked down below, and, like the Caesar, far better than many versions I've tried in local Italian restaurants for twice the price. The only thing I don't heartily recommend is the pizza, the cracker-crust of which tastes floury and thin, and could stand a little more proofing, rising, and depth. The hearty, hearty lasagna bears a close family resemblance to the eggplant parmigiana: It's brimming with browned sausage and meatball bits, it's rib-sticking, it's not fancy, and at $5.95 a portion, it just about seems to squint up at you from its takeout box and holler, "Yo! You think you're not gonna get value for your dollar, Pally? You think you're gonna walk outta here hungry? Fuhgeddabouddit!"

The deli case at Brianno's brims with the best domestic and Italian meats and cheeses, including six kinds of Genoa salami and four kinds of provolone. The grocery shelves are full of unusual artisanal balsamic vinegars, special olive oils, and all the boxed Italian cookies you could ever want. The freezer cases are full of homemade sauces and soups, including minestrone and a version of Italian wedding soup that is thick with real chicken, rich with pastina (the tiniest pasta), and robust with fresh vegetables, spinach, and plenty of top-quality pecorino Romano cheese. (The wedding soup is $6.95 a quart.)

So, why on earth is all of this Italian-American bounty perched in an out-of-the-way corner of Eagan? Turns out that Brian Mangine, one of 10 children in the Mangine family, has deep roots in the old Italian neighborhood of East St. Paul. Both his parents grew up within Frisbee-flinging distance of such East St. Paul landmarks as Yarusso's restaurant and Morelli's market. Brian spent the first part of his working life in the pharmaceutical industry, but then, in 1993, decided to stake his claim with the recipes and tastes of his childhood, and thus Brianno's was born. The bread recipe is his mother's, handed down over the generations from her family in the Italian region of Campania; most of the other recipes are hers too, blended over the years with the tastes of her husband, who came from Abruzzo.

"When we were growing up, we had people over night and day," remembered Brian Mangine when I interviewed him. "No one would invite us over. Who would invite 10 kids? But my mom was a fabulous cook, she could make things out of nothing. All the things we're selling here are what my mom would make, or better. It's all pretty fundamental, but it's good."

Nowadays Mangine has a house in Italy, and goes over a few times a year, searching out goodies for his store. He credits the venture's success to his employees, many of whom have been with him since the beginning, and all of whom take the repetitive making of sandwiches, pizzas, lasagnas, as a point of pride and an everyday challenge. "When a bunch of good people all work together on the old recipes it becomes more than food, it's a social deal," says Mangine. "It's that Italian thing: You offer something to eat, and you make it good enough so it's impossible to refuse."

And if the fact that such old-world heart is thriving in Eagan isn't enough of a shock for you, I look forward to waiting on line with you at the next hot spot serving rehydrated monkfish balloons.

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