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BEST ITALIAN RESTAURANT (NOT CHEAP) Minneapolis 2003 - Pane Vino Dolce

Readers' Choice: Buca Di Beppo

Recently at Pane Vino Dolce, we had chard. Chard magically transformed into cloth and folded around little packets of cheese and ham in such a way that it looked like nothing so much as a wee little shirt whisked off a wee little shelf. And it sat there on the plate in a dark sauce, offering that signature Italian combination of rustic, simple, and utterly soul gratifying. It sat there for upward of two seconds before we devoured it. Then it lived only in memory, and the memory reminded us of what we like about Italian food: the conviviality, the robustness, the realness. We moved on to lemony seafood risotto, made with saffron that rendered it as yellow as sunshine on a Venetian postcard. On the table there was also an elegant square of lasagna, made with chewy sheets of pasta, filled with wild mushrooms, and surrounded by the cleanest, plainest, and hence most luxuriant béchamel in recent memory. Before us, too, was bubbly Pellegrino, and glasses of sangiovese chosen by a waiter with a sparkle in his eye. In our ears were the laughter and fun of all the other diners at nearby tables, the noises of them echoing off the plaster walls and mirrors, whipping the candles in the chandelier into a flickering frenzy. And as we pulled apart a pignoli tart it occurred to us that while there may be fancier Italian restaurants in town--and ones with more Tuscan steaks and more extravagant wines--there is none that makes you feel so very much like you live in Rome, in a world where the appetizers are like Gucci shirts, the laughter like air.

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