Justin Grecco creates a mini food dynasty

Bellanotte's former chef runs Roman Anthony's, Grecco's, and Chef In A Box

Next time you hear a waiter say, "If you want to, go all caveman on the head," I suggest you heed his advice. That's how I ended up with my lips pursed around a sardine's eye socket, sucking. The fish's eyeball resisted for a second, then dislodged, and I felt something like a small tapioca pearl roll across my tongue. The piscine peeper was chewy and contained a hard bit, like a kiwi seed. I swallowed it as fast as I could.

The second-best bit of advice I heard that night at Roman Anthony's in White Bear Lake was offered to a table of four middle-aged women seated to my right. "Have another bottle of Riesling," their server advised. Relaxed inhibitions, loosened tongues, and eavesdropping offered insight into the plight of the suburban wife. "I don't actually want him to sacrifice for me," one woman lamented. "I just want him to want to sacrifice for me."

The new Roman Anthony's is owned and operated by chef Justin Grecco, who opened Bellanotte and spent several years at the Afton House Inn. It's Grecco's second restaurant, named after his young son and tucked into a nondescript strip mall. (The large parking lot tends to empty in the evenings; one night I pulled in to find a group of unathletic-looking 40-somethings inexplicably running sprints.)

New- and old-school Italian: the lobster gnocchi at Roman Anthony's
Kris Drake for City Pages
New- and old-school Italian: the lobster gnocchi at Roman Anthony's

Location Info

Map

Grecco's on the Saint Croix

115 N. Washington St.
St. Croix Falls, MN 54024

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Wisconsin

Details

Chef in a Box
www.greccos.com
meals for two cost $38-$64,
plus shipping

Grecco's on the St. Croix
115 N. Washington St., St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin
715.483.5003; www.greccos.com
appetizers $6-$11; entrées $19-$29

Roman Anthony's Italian Restaurant
Birch Lake Square Mall, 1350 E. Highway 96, White Bear Lake
651.414.9613; www.romananthhonys.com
appetizers $7-$15; entrées $10-$31

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The restaurant has a vintage Italian-American look. It's dimly lit, with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, and tapered candles jammed in wine bottles dripping white waxcicles. While my friends and I checked in with the hostess, a waiter pushed a Caesar salad cart past us, setting off a chain reaction of orders from half the parties in the area. Within half an hour, diners of all sorts—old guys, dates, and parents who permitted their young son to wear a Hooter's baseball cap at the dinner table—were crunching on croutons and romaine.

"You don't mind if I take off my jacket, do you?" our server asked, as he stripped down to a black dress shirt. He stretched his arms and rolled his neck, as if conducting an athletic warm-up. This was tableside Caesar, salad-making as sport: a once-popular practice that's fallen as far out of fashion as hoop rolling.

First, our waiter mashed the garlic cloves into the bottom of a wooden bowl with the tines of a fork, then added an anchovy and pulverized it to a paste. He cracked a whole raw egg into the bowl and gave it a whirl. Next, he added aged balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper, before squeezing in the juice of half a lemon and whisking it all together. He tossed a bottle of Worcestershire sauce from one hand to the other, à la Tom Cruise bartending in Cocktail, then tossed in the lettuce, croutons, and Parmesan cheese. Portioning the salad onto chilled plates, he offered a historical tidbit—the first Caesar salad was created in Mexico by an Italian-American restaurateur—and admitted that, while the tableside prep looks cool, the dressing probably emulsifies better in a food processor.

In the end, it was more fun to watch the salad than to eat it; the balsamic tends to overpower all the other ingredients save the garlic. The Arancina Fried Risotto Cakes, three mandarin-size balls of saffron risotto, stuffed with porcini mushroom and house-made mozzarella, are perhaps a better appetizer. They're coated in egg wash and panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried to create a crust as satisfying as that found in a Korean stone pot bibimbap.

The entrée options are fairly extensive, including basics such as spaghetti and meatballs and more experimental dishes, such as fennel pollen-crusted sea scallops with pesto, chili butter sauce, faro, and broccoli raab. There's a classic osso buco, or veal shank, tender enough to eat with the same spoon you'll use to pry a few bites of buttery marrow from the center bone. Creamy gnocchi are served in a lemony beurre blanc that brightens up melting spinach and thick hunks of lobster.

The night I ordered a plate of grilled sardines, the waiter looked at me—askance at first, I thought—and then broke into a wide grin. "Is that okay?" I asked. He said that it was a dish ordered only by those in the know: Despite sardines' fishy reputation of funky, tinned pungency, their merits are legion. And the method with which they are served at Roman Anthony's, on a fried polenta cake with puttanesca sauce and gremolata, perfectly complements the fish's bold musk.

If the prospect of eating a whole fish seems intimidating, the waiter can helpfully demonstrate a technique for removing the flesh from the bone. Using a fork to hold the body in place, make a slit behind the head and slide the knife along the spine, toward the tail. Without flipping the fish, repeat the same motion on the other side. And the head? Well, you already know what to do with that.

IF YOU FIND YOURSELF in the mood for a road trip, Justin Grecco's first restaurant, Grecco's on the St. Croix, just across the river from Taylors Falls, is worth a visit. Not necessarily for its looks, though, as the divvied-up space, which includes three small dining rooms, a bar, and a back patio, resembles a pack rat's estate sale.

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