They’ve scarcely been open a week, but you wouldn’t know it.
Occupying a prime downtown Excelsior corner -- the former home of Victor’s on Water -- Chef Eli Wollenzien and Deacon Eel’s new modern Italian joint already feels like a well-loved neighborhood spot. You know, the kind of neighborhood joint that secretly keeps locals hoping word-of-mouth doesn’t travel too far, so they can keep it all to themselves. During a recent weekday lunch, families and work colleagues were laughing and chatting and sipping wine over leisurely plates of ragu-sauced pappardelle like they owned the place.
Here’s what to know before you go.
1. The rebellion is in the red sauce.
According to Wollenzien, the American landscape of Italian dining has become off-kilter: full of casual chains (read: bland pasta in portions that favor quantity, not quality) and fine dining establishments where “people can’t pronounce half the menu.” Full of modern twists on traditional Italian dishes, this menu aims for the less-trodden middle path: approachable dishes that pique nostalgia for your Italian grandma’s (or at least Carmela Soprano’s) homemade lasagna, baked ziti, and chicken parm. A healthy dash of creativity keep things interesting -- have you ever eaten a biscuit-crust meatball pizza out of a cast iron skillet? What about a plate of strozzapreti? (That’s Italian for “strangle the priest.” Long story.)
2. You might feel like you’re on vacation -- if not in Tuscany, at least on Lake Minnetonka.
If you’ve ever glimpsed black-and-white photos of the Excelsior of yore, you know that it was the Twin Cities’ weekend pride and joy: a lovely little lake resort town connected to Minneapolis by streetcar. With locals arriving on foot from the nearby shops and movie theatre and a lively, spirited vibe, the restaurant feels firmly part of that old Excelsior tradition -- a place where city folks came to live it up and let down. “When I go out,” Wollenzien confesses, “I want to have fun.” How can we argue with that?
3. You’ll eat well, in the truest sense of the word.
Have you walked away hungry after ordering pasta from a mid-range Italian restaurant and secretly wondered if you were either a.) an incorrigible glutton or b.) a carbohydrate addict in need of an intervention? It’s happened to the best of us after skimpy $20 plates of lonely-looking ravioli. This won’t happen here. The flavors are spot on, and so are the portions and the prices, which mostly range from $14 to $18.
But while you'll be fed very well, you won't be fed so well that the only thing you’re good for after dinner is crashing out on the couch in a fettuccine-induced haze to binge watch Netflix. That plate of tender house-made strozzapreti with butternut squash, spinach, pecorino, and walnut-scented brown butter was rich and fragrant, but light enough that I felt I could safely drive back home.
4. Come summer, expect a hot patio dining scene.
Living in Minnesota is all about denial, and one glance at Red Sauce Rebellion’s spacious back patio and sidewalk seating area makes it hard not to delude oneself that summer is imminent. Winter has its consolations, though, and one is this: There’s a partial, but nonetheless lovely, view of snow-lined Lake Minnetonka from the restaurant’s western-facing windows. The interiors are pretty fetching, too -- lipstick-red lanterns, a vintage-inspired teal banquette, and glossy aqua tiles play against a backdrop of high ceilings, blonde wood, and exposed brick.
5. There’s a secret basement bar and party room.
Okay, it’s not exactly a secret per se, but it feels like one, and that’s what counts. Are you old enough to remember a time when your friends’ “cool parents” sometimes kept fully stocked bars in their basement rec rooms, where they let you “play bar?” (This morally ambiguous practice seems to have ended sometime during the Clinton administration.) Anyway, imagine your friend’s extremely cool parents opened up a cocktail bar in their extremely stylish rec room and invited you over, and you have the basic idea for the Rebel Room. Slated to open in Summer 2018, it’ll serve as a laid-back neighborhood hangout spot with live music, games, and, Wollenzien promises, “maybe even shuffleboard.”
Red Sauce Rebellion
205 Water St., Excelsior; 952-234-4646