More Maria, Less Luigi

Dining at the schizophrenic Totino's Italian Kitchen

Totino's Italian Kitchen—open since 1951 in general, and for the last couple of months in its new Mounds View location—is the kind of place that can start a fight when it's mentioned. Love it? You're probably a fan of what you'll call a traditional approach to Italian food: lots of red sauce, an emphasis on meatballs and spaghetti and garlic bread—essentially unreconstructed Midwestern Italian-American food from the 1960s. Hate it? You'll probably pan the lack of imagination, the bland flavors, the weirdly retro and monotonous approach to a cuisine that, in the old country, has more ins and outs than the New York City subway system.

In short, there are factions among the dining community.

Dine at the restaurant's new, sanitized, TGI Friday's-like location, and you'll wonder if there are factions in the kitchen as well.

Faction No. 1—let's call it Aunt Maria, for the sake of illustration—is dedicated to doing stuff fresh and onsite. Thus, a house-made sausage ($2) that packs a nice, mellow, fennel kick. Or a delightful and subtle Italian wedding soup ($3.50) with small, delicate meatballs drifting amid a sea of broth and incredibly tender spherical noodles. Or an elegantly executed homemade tiramisu ($4.95) that brings together delicate sponge cake, a substantial but manageable whipped top layer, and an attractive dusting of cocoa.

We'll refer to faction No. 2 as Uncle Luigi.

Aunt Maria: Luigi! What are you doing with that gas station pump in my kitchen?

Uncle Luigi: Are you kidding? This thing is perfect for dispensing my super-sweet, mostly flavor-free red meat sauce from its 1,000-gallon tank. Bring over that garlic bread. [GLOMP]

And, hey, that spaghetti. People are paying $8.95, they deserve a gallon of sauce. [GLOMPGLOMPGLOMP]

Of course, the ravioli you worked so hard on. [OMPAGLOMPAGLOMP]

And, why not, that homemade sausage link. [GLOMPA] Now that's Italian!

Aunt Maria: Keep. Away. From the tiramisu.

Luigi's heavy hand made its presence particularly felt when it came to the slice of pepperoni pizza ($3.25) we ordered, which my normally easygoing wife deemed "an insult to humanity." Too harsh? The relatively thin crust was actually uncooked—raw, not undercooked—and the predominant flavors were oregano-ish and something between soap and the inside of an old freezer. The mozz had no stretch to it. While this may not be the typical pizza experience at Totino's, it does seriously call into question both the overall quality of the ingredients and the procedure that goes into making the stuff.

Whatever the true story behind the schizophrenic approach to food, the civil war doesn't seem to be taking a toll on Totino's business—the place was packed on a Tuesday night.

The challenge for Totino's, then: Reinvent the place enough to attract a new clientele without alienating the old guard by getting too crazy with the innovation. Just breaking up the red sauce into marinara and amatriciana varieties might be a good start that wouldn't rock too many boats. Punching up the pizza with better ingredients wouldn't hurt, either. But there's no need to tinker with the sausage, meatballs, or tiramisu; they're the baby in this bathwater-disposal scenario.

 
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