It might be a three-hour drive to the Iron Range, but these days you only need to stroll over to St. Paul’s comely Grand Avenue to sample what Tom Forti, owner of the freshly opened Iron Ranger restaurant and pub, calls “the three P’s: porketta, potica, and pasties.”
Are you drawing a blank on all three? Here’s a brief crash course on the Iron Range and its surprisingly global delicacies.
The mythic region north of Duluth and west of Lake Superior has always been a world away. In the late 19th century, when the first extractions of iron ore put the Mesabi and Vermilion iron ranges in business, overnight boomtowns like Virgina, Hibbing, and Eveleth sprung up around the mines. As legions of immigrants from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Slovenia, and nearly every corner of Europe came to work backbreaking shifts in the underground pits, a unique melting-pot cuisine was born.
If that all sounds awfully hardscrabble, and you’re wondering, “Do I have to descend into a dark underground mine shaft to drink a beer?” know that Iron Ranger isn’t a sooty miner’s saloon (although that would be weirdly cool) but rather a nostalgic homage to one of Minnesota’s most iconic landscapes, with enough contemporary charm to feel at home in its tony Summit Hill neighborhood.
6. It’s not a reboot of Forti’s original Sunrise Market & Cafe, but a reincarnation.
In 2015, Forti opened an outpost of his family’s beloved Hibbing institution, the Sunrise Bakery, at this same location. Iron Range transplants, foodies, and St. Paulites in the know flocked to stock up on the region’s multi-ethnic delights: Cornish pasties, Slovakian kolache, Italian biscotti. While some of the crowd-pleasing menu items remain -- like the slow-cooked porketta sandwich, served on a baguette with melted provolone -- everything else is new. As Hibbing native Forti explains: “This is a tribute to the Iron Range with a Grand Avenue feel.”
5. Their Minnesota roots -- and recipes -- go back four generations.
Rest your pint of Summit or Two Harbors-brewed Castle Danger beer on the gorgeous oak bar -- crafted by a Hibbing carpenter -- as you admire the stunning wood-paneled walls. Brought in from the Iron Range, the black ash, cherry, and maple grains represent trees indigenous to the region. Raise your glass to the portrait of Giulio Forti, Tom Forti’s great-grandfather, a Roman baker who moved to Argentina and eventually to Hibbing, where he founded the Sunrise Bakery in 1913. And yep, they’re Italian, so expect the wine to be good.
4. You’ll expand your culinary repertoire.
Have you ever tasted Croatian cabbage rolls with beef, ham, and pork? Me neither. What about the Slovenian potica -- a nutty rolled cake, pronounced pa-teet-sa? As Forti says, “Everyone on the Range has a potica story.” How about hand-tossed pizza with pesto and porketta, or a banana flip? (The latter is a retro classic from the original Sunrise Bakery.) You may also expand your pants size: My pasty -- a meat, potato, and veggie pastry pie that originated in Cornwall as a miner’s lunch -- was nearly the size of a frisbee, and much more tasty. Pasty aficionados, take note: These babies come with ketchup, but it’s served on the side.
3. This is an actual neighborhood pub.
Iron Ranger is not one of those oversized, impersonal sports bars dubiously masquerading as “neighborhood pubs.” (I shan’t name names -- you know who you are.) Case in point: On my lunchtime visit, two old friends were having a pint and a laugh at the streetside patio tables. Several other patrons arrived on foot. A couple of local residents passed by on their way elsewhere, and called out cheerful greetings to the owner. After lunch, I popped into a couple shops, and then ducked into Wuollet Bakery to buy a donut (for my little boy, not me -- you won’t be needing a donut after eating here). Yep, all the signs of an actual neighborhood pub are there. And that’s a beautiful, and increasingly rare, thing.
2. Grand Avenue seriously needs a place like this.
Oh Grand Avenue, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. That being said, the street is undeniably pricey, and there's a dearth of casual spots to grab a beer and some deep-fried cheese curds with a friend, catch a baseball game, or chill out at a sidewalk table at lunchtime with a sandwich and a book. For the neighborhood, it’s pretty affordable (most items are around $10-$15) and family-friendly, with kids’ meals like pizza and chicken nuggets coming in around $6.
1. The fun has just begun.
When it comes to future plans for Iron Ranger, “my customers are constantly giving me ideas,” laughs Tom Forti. He hints that this might include a “3 P’s” special, so customers can sample three of the Range’s iconic dishes at once. Stay posted for Iron Range trivia nights and, who knows… a Bob Dylan lip-syncing contest?
1085 Grand Ave., St. Paul