Bar La Grassa has Italian galore for under $12

To kick off 2012, we're highlighting 12 of the best dishes under $12 in the Twin Cities. Scroll down to view the complete list.

It's big. It's boisterous. It's a little bit of Manhattan's Mulberry Street brought to the Midwest. Welcome to Nancy St. Pierre and Isaac Becker's Bar La Grassa.

"Bar La Grassa is the Italian version of 112 Eatery, but they have the same foundation and philosophy," Becker explains. "We focus on execution--doing something simple with three to four ingredients. But you have to execute it right, or those three to four ingredients are really boring."

His chef de cuisine, Erik Sather, couldn't agree more. When we ask, "what's the secret to preparing pasta?" we anxiously wait for the tablets to come down from the mountain. But instead, we get this...

"Salt the water." Seriously? He nods, laughing. No, really. Seriously?

"It's of course about the pasta itself and cooking it al dente," says Sather. "But the one thing people overlook is a well-seasoned water. Ask 100 people if they've ever tasted their pasta water to make sure it's salty enough, and 90 of them probably say no."

Or maybe closer to 99.

But that's how things operate at Bar La Grassa: The fine points are critical--and that's how it's been since 2009, when Sather helped Becker open the kitchen.

Sociable yet focused, and sporting some killer ink, Sather is exactly the type of guy you'd expect to be directing traffic at a hip hot spot like BLG. And even though it's a far cry from the hog farm he grew up on, there's one common bond: food done right. "I was spoiled," he says of his childhood, just south of New Ulm. "We had terrific ingredients, and my family was full of great cooks, especially my grandma. Holidays always tasted really good."

After graduating from high school in Lakeville, Sather went to Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis, and then took jobs at Bobino, Nicollet Island Inn, Clancey's Meats & Fish, and Corner Table--where he met his wife. When La Belle Vie moved to 510 Groveland in 2005, he joined Tim McKee for several years (also working at Solera) before eventually signing on with Becker.

It's been a natural fit for a variety of reasons. For starters, Becker was intrigued by Sather's charcuterie expertise, a craft he honed while working at Clancey's. "Isaac was really open to the house-made meats I did, so he wanted to bring them into the restaurant," Sather tells us. And his handiwork now shows up on the menu in the form of sausages, terrines, and the like.

Bar La Grassa's lively and convivial vibe also suits Sather. As we snap his photo, one of the guys calls out from the kitchen, "Is it senior picture day?" He cracks a smile: "We have a good amount of fun. We work together and everyone's very professional, but we also enjoy being here." And so do their guests. The atmosphere is electric and Bar La Grassa is still one of most sought-after tables in the metro.

But Sather hopes that doesn't scare potential diners away: "People always ask me, how do you get in?" he says. But it's easier than you think. Although you need a reservation in the dining room, it's first-come, first-serve in both the taproom at the front of the house and the pasta counter in the back.

Plus, if you belly up to the pasta bar, you'll have a front row seat for the theatrics in the open kitchen. Being on display certainly adds extra pressure for Sather and his crew, but it's a challenge he welcomes. "I'd rather be out in the open and be part of the action, compared to just hiding in the back," he says. And selfishly, we love it because it means we can watch him assemble our favorite eats.

This being a $12-and-under schtick, we're not allowed to speak of the $18 divinity on a plate that's listed under "Bruschetta." No discussing its absurdly rich scrambled and seafood baubles.

Instead, we'll do some serious carbo loading. Bar La Grassa features 20 pastas, most of which come in satisfying half-portions under $12. First up: Cavatelli with Braised Rabbit.

"Cavatelli is thicker and has some tooth to it," Sather says. For a visual, think oblong bowl with the sides curled in, and ridges underneath for style points. Sather pairs it with a braised rabbit ragù (made with porcinis, pancetta, and tomatoes) as well as butter and parsley. It's hearty as all get out, and top-notch comfort food. Just what we need now that winter's here for real.

If you like stuffed pasta (more elegantly referred to as "filled"), give the Mushroom and Taleggio Agnolotti a try. While you may not be familiar with agnolotti, you've probably heard of its more popular cousin, ravioli.

Ravioli is made by laying out a flat piece of dough, topping it with a mixture of meat or cheese or whatever your heart desires, and covering it with another layer of pasta. Then it's sealed and cut into individual pieces.

Agnolotti is very similar, except it's one sheet that's been folded over. And while we usually see ravioli in squares, agnolotti can come in half moons or rectangular shapes too. Bar La Grassa's adaptation is long and narrow--which we like, because it means more room for the wild 'shroom and cheesy mousse filling.

Once the agnolotti is ready, its preparation is relatively straightforward. Sather sautées it with shallots and another handful of mushrooms. Then it's sprinkled with chili flakes, and shuttled to your table. The taleggio and toadstools make for a deep, woodsy combination, and the chili flakes give it just the right amount of heat. Mushroom magnifico.

But for our $12-and-under pick, we've gotta go gnocchi. And at Bar La Grassa, that means the Gnocchi with Cauliflower and Orange.

Every day Sather plucks potatoes from obscurity to fulfill a much higher purpose. They're made into charmingly misshapen spheres and then browned with butter and cauliflower. It's all deglazed with freshly squeezed OJ, given a dose of heavy cream, seasoned (with salt!), and finally garnished with orange zest and chives.

It's not wildly complicated. But every element hits its mark. The gnocchi, soft and pillowy, has small traces of color on its otherwise vanilla exterior. The cauliflower, sliced thinly, is more delicate than the usual chunky florets. And the orange, bright and citrusy, adds an unexpected yet clever tangy twist.

It's a dish that's not overwrought, overthought, or over-anythinged. It simply is what it is, beautifully done. Impeccable execution an excellent meal makes. Buon appetite!

Top 12 dishes under $12 112 Eatery: Tagliatelle with Foie Gras Meatballs Bar La Grassa: Gnocchi with Cauliflower and Orange Haute Dish: Biscuits and Gravy Heartland: Cheese Course La Belle Vie: Pappardelle with Rabbit Bolognese Lucia's: Farmers' Salad Meritage: Crispy Roasted Chicken Thighs Piccolo: Scrambled Brown Eggs with Pickled Pig's Feet Restaurant Alma: Chard Soufflé Saffron: Fried Cauliflower and Slow-Cooked Green Beans Sea Change: Arctic Char Tilia: Potted Meat

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Bar La Grassa

800 N. Washington Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55401


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