Colossal Cafe lives up to its name

From small digs in Minneapolis to a big place and bigger flavor in St. Paul

Colossal Cafe lives up to its name
E. Katie Holm
Colossal Cafe is a family business, owned and operated by daughter Elizabeth Tinucci along with her parents John and Carrie Tinucci. Take the tour...

In addition to the Saintly City, Capitol City, and Pig's Eye, nicknames that residents of St. Paul use to refer to their star on the map also include St. Small. That's particularly true for those who grew up there. Neighborhoods often contain a circle of people who have known one another from diapers to Depends. It's a tight-knit city that holds on to its history. Just look at the difference in Twin Cities downtowns: In Minneapolis, the once shiny new Block E is already dated and garish, while the rise of Lowertown has retained many of its stately buildings while breathing new life into the community.

When Colossal Café expanded from its adorably tiny space in south Minneapolis to St. Paul, it might on the surface have seemed like a surprising move. The new space wasn't tiny, like the ironically named original, or expansive enough to make the Colossal name make sense. However, owners Elizabeth Tinucci and her father, John, have some deep St. Paul roots; expanding their business eastward made sense.

The Tinucci family's involvement in the restaurant business goes back generations. Elizabeth grew up in St. Paul, so the move was a homecoming of sorts. In turn, the neighborhood has embraced the new café.

A homey cafe serving hearty food: The lamb burger
E. Katie Holm
A homey cafe serving hearty food: The lamb burger

The breakfast food that diners fell in love with in Minneapolis remains hugely filling and much the same — the yeasted pancakes are just as tasty no matter the zip code. Recently, the owners announced that the St. Paul location would expand into dinner service. They acquired a wine and beer license, hired a successful young chef, and kept the lights on a little later.

In accordance with their philosophy of all scratch cooking, they found a chef who is no stranger to the concept. Andy Lilja was most recently the sous chef at Heartland, having worked with its acclaimed chef-owner Lenny Russo at both W.A. Frost and Cue at the Guthrie. Lilja has worked in the industry since he was a pup, beginning by washing dishes at age 13 in the former Village Bistro in Highland Park.

I was curious to find out how a cafe known for its breakfasts would handle the evening meal and what Lilja's Heartland experience could bring to the table. The chicken liver pate my group started with one night tasted very much like something a fine diner could expect to order at Heartland. It was buttery smooth, with a jazzy black pepper kick tempered by tart dried cranberries enveloped in honey. Served with charred slices of house-made bread, it's a delicious way to begin a meal or to simply graze while sipping an icy cold beer.

Colossal's beer list is modest but wisely selected, highlighting local craft breweries. A Fulton Lonely Blonde is a perfect accompaniment to a sunny afternoon on the patio. They also offer Crispin Hard Cider, which is a gluten-free beer lover's best friend.

The beet salad arrived like a plate of little jewels, three varieties of beets in three preparations, tied together by a mint yogurt sauce and meaty little pistachio nubs. Raw or roasted, the earthy beet flavor shined.

A dish that chef Lilja hopes will open the door and invite new diners in is the seared scallops. The modest-size mollusks are dressed with a shallot-studded citrus vinaigrette atop a roasted cauliflower puree and beside wood-ear mushrooms. It's savory, sweet, and bright tasting — a perfect small dish to share with friends.

Another dish the chef described as a great introduction for new diners is the pork belly. An unctuous, lovely cut of meat, it fell a little flat in flavor. Perhaps it's just that the belly has been done by so many people that the bar has been set in the stratosphere. Also, it's so fatty that the pork flavor requires some coaxing.

Entrees arrived with similarly mixed results. The mozzarella-filled risotto cakes are tender, creamy grains of rice wrapped around deliciously gooey, milky cheese and tossed in breadcrumbs before being fried. Unfortunately, the breadcrumbs left a tinny aftertaste, and the cakes needed a bit of salt.

The house-made gnocchi was surprisingly gummy, landing with a thud in the gut. The tomato basil sauce was fine, and the Italian sausage (for an additional $3) was perfectly cooked, juicy, and packed with sweet fennel-seed flavor.

The spare ribs obligingly abandoned their bones. They were tender and smoky but seemed to lack something, either more sauce or more flavor in the rub. The collard greens they were served with were cooked perfectly, tender with a little bit of chew, mixed with porky hunks and a zing of vinegar. The corn on the cob was just lightly charred and accompanied by a sweet, herbed Parmesan butter, making for some sloppy, fun summer eating.

The sandwiches we sampled were all hits. The lamb burger was a manageable yet hearty size, full of coarse-ground, highly flavorful meat topped with slivers of homemade pickles, creamy mint yogurt, red onion, and arugula. Not a tidy sandwich. The cloth napkins got a workout, but oh, it was worth it.

The BLT was served on house-made, mildly sour bread, stacked with of-the-moment tomatoes and perfectly cooked, chewy bacon.

The pork sandwich was another messy stunner. Provolone cheese lined the chewy baguette bun, which was topped with tender shaved pork, sautéed spinach spiked with a hint of red pepper flakes, and an extra helping of natural juices that dripped down the edges, soaking into the bread and pooling on the plate below.

All the sandwiches are served with mostly small, irregularly cut fries. Seasoned with salt and pepper, they are crispy, crunchy, and hard to stop eating.

Most servers seemed happy, warm, and attentive. It was hard not to get the feeling that they were all genuinely happy to see each customer, though on one visit, we did have the misfortune of being the table stuck with bad luck. Forgotten requests piled up, as did the dirty, lingering dishes. By the end of the evening the flies and bees were a hindrance to conversation and only aggravated the fact that the bill was wrong.

As for desserts, for now the Colossal Café is making do without a full-time pastry chef. While the owners hope to fill the position someday, their bread baker is pulling double duty. Desserts are familiar options like chocolate cake and tiramisu that are mostly skippable, but it would be a mistake not to order the tres leches cake. You may seem full, it may be getting late, but crank open your dessert compartment and make room for this one. Tres leches translates to "three milks," and the concoction is traditionally made with heavy cream and condensed, evaporated milk soaked into a sponge cake. Getting the right balance of liquid to cake is an art not easily achieved. The Colossal's version is a double-decker, triangular slice of what looks like cake but tastes like heaven. The key is that it isn't overly sweet, and there's a little salt in there to balance everything out. Between the two tender, creamy, lush layers of cake is a swipe of strawberry Chantilly. It whispers bright berries, fresh cream, and summertime.

What Elizabeth and John Tinucci have created with chef Andy Lilja and the entire staff is a lovely little neighborhood café, welcoming of the surrounding area and sweetly reflective of a town like St. Small.

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