Barbaresco in the Barrio
819 W. 50th St., Minneapolis; (612) 825-3201
Hours: Daily 5:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m.; cash or checks only
When Pane Vino Dolce opened last May, the buzz in the air was immediate and furious. Everyone wanted in to the restaurant without a sign, without a wine list, without a reservation policy. The inevitable result: Two-hour waits, a constant camp-out on heretofore sleepy West 50th Street, ordinarily staid south Minneapolitans sipping Barbaresco--Barbaresco!--on the curb--the curb!--before sitting down to dinner at 11:00--11:00!
Eleven? I heard that and figured I'd wait for the buzz to burn off on this small, dim, super-romantic storefront that is the newest venture of chef David Hahne and his partner Carlo Macy, a pair of Giorgio veterans. I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, I gave up and put in some doorway, bench, and curb time myself, and now I think I can pretty confidently report that the buzz--and the wait--are going to be permanent. This place is magical.
The magic starts out front when a server or someone approaches your little group: Red or white? Dry? Sweet? There's no paper wine list at Pane Vino Dolce, the servers just know what they have in their constantly changing selection of a dozen or so predominantly Italian bottles, and you have to tell them what you like in order to get anything. Of course, when someone asks me sweet or dry, I have to answer "round," which netted me a glass of 1997 Bertani Catullo, a nicely structured, very pretty blend of cabernet sauvignon and corvina, the amarone grape ($6.50 a glass/$35 a bottle.) Out on the curb, you also learn to appreciate the budget wines the restaurant prides itself on, like a jammy, snappy '98 Calatrasi primitivo (Italy's version of the zinfandel grape $4/$17.50). A glass of wine or two also livens up the betting on whether the Bryant Avenue bus will make the traffic light.
Once you've made it inside, the rabbits start flying out of the hats. The room itself is terribly romantic: limestone tile floors, artsy mottled walls, tin ceilings, a candle-holding chandelier, and candlelight generally. In fact, the flickering shadows rather blur the line between romantic and flat-out dark, but once you're inside, you're inside and it's bad taste to point out the bunny leg sticking out of the breast pocket, isn't it? Well, as long as I've pointed out that wrinkle, I might as well go on: The restaurant is also painfully noisy. All those hard surfaces and all those pinot grigio-soaked patrons means you'll be shouting too. Bring your friends with hearing aids, and they'll never forgive you.
But if you don't bring your friends without hearing aids, they may never forgive you either. Once the food begins to arrive, the ruckus ceases to matter. An appetizer special of "crustoni" (bigger and more tender than a crostini, $6) was one of the best things I've had this year: Two slices of house-made bread topped with sautéed kale and big, chewy pink chunks of pancetta. The bread was lush from a glaze of fruity olive oil and smoky from a meeting with a hardwood fire, the pancetta was resilient and salty, the kale was simply stunning, bright green, holding its mineral-fresh taste but gaining silky subtlety in the preparation. Mussels ($6.95) with tons of garlic and lots of red-pepper flakes, were a rugged pleasure, all ocean and fire. Cod croquettes ($5.95) were fantastic, crisp-crusted and not at all oily, tender, salty, perfectly finished with a sweet, vinegared raisin-and-red-bell-pepper sauce. I can't remember the last time I was so uniformly impressed with a restaurant's starters.
The pizzas I tried were truly lovely, and I'm sure one of the main reasons the restaurant has attracted something of a cult following in its neighborhood. A tender yeast-dough crust is seared till dark, bubbled, and paper-crisp, and then topped with either roasted portobello mushrooms, onions, and sweet nuggets of roasted garlic topped with mozzarella ($7), or a gorgeous, spicy tomato sauce with capers, garlic, and dollops of goat cheese ($7.50). Salads were good, too. A mixture of baby greens was spruced up with marinated melon ($5.25). A plate of cold, sliced roasted beets and cucumber ($5) was attractively unfussy, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette and studded with a few clumps of Gorgonzola.
Actually, if you're a cheese-eating vegetarian, there's a lot to argue for Pane Vino Dolce being one of the best vegetarian restaurants in town. As evidence I offer the spaghetti in tomato sauce--yes, the lowly spaghetti in tomato sauce. Order that humble standby here and you get a big bowl of perfectly al dente noodles--chewy, resilient, springy--served with chopped, oven-roasted tomatoes, fresh basil and about two dozen cloves of browned, nutty, roasted garlic, which gives a toasty perfume to the whole dish. It's absolutely wonderful, and at $6.95, with a glass of $4 primitivo, I could see eating this every night. Assuming of course, that Hahne and Macy don't change the menu and drop the spaghetti altogether--which they may well do, since they're planning to break out a fall menu about a week after this hits the streets. Hahne says the upcoming fall and winter menus will feature richer sauces, and more stews and fricassees.
Meat and fish entrées change nightly, and they were good, but not as uniformly wonderful as the simpler dishes. Sliced rare leg of lamb ($18) was served in an overpowering mustard sauce. Pork tenderloin was far better ($16), served in a simple reduction of balsamic vinegar and honey, accented prominently with black pepper. Hahne's cooking can best be described as very, very simple but also very lush. For example, consider those masterful crustoni, with kale finished at a low temperature with very fruity, distinct olive oil. Hahne made the chewy pancetta that graced it from scratch, spicing and drying it in his own kitchen.
Hahne says his style evolved at two local kitchens: At D'Amico Cucina he learned the value of top-flight ingredients. But then he was hardened in the fires of the many Giorgios, opening the Hennepin, Lake Street, and Edina locations. And from Giorgio Cherubini he learned the importance to customers of food that was both simple and cheap. At Pane Vino Dolce he aims to fuse the best of the two worlds: Great ingredients, inexpensive pricing, simple combinations. Is it any wonder pasta-craving neighbors are stacked up?
The only things I found to quibble with from the kitchen were the desserts. The restaurant is trying to do simple desserts, such as a free-form pear tart ($5) and an individual cheesecake ($5). Sad to say, the crust of the tart I got wasn't fully cooked, and the individual cheesecake was ruined by an oversweet, crumbling crumb crust and too strong fruit sauce. If it had been all alone on the plate, like a panna cotta, it might have been something. It's not a bad sign, though, when the only thing I can find to complain about at a restaurant is the desserts.
Speaking of signs, Pane Vino Dolce has none--the face of the storefront is nothing but glass. Hahne says they regularly get phone calls from people who claim they've been driving up and down the street for an hour, and simply can't find the joint. (What, the big crowds waiting out front didn't tip them off?) So, I asked, any plans for a sign? "When we took over this space there was a big, incredibly ugly awning out there, and we thought we'd do our own awning, but it was just too expensive, so we didn't do anything," he replies. "Now--now what do we need a sign for? We've already got more business than we ever dreamed of....We have plans for lunch--and Sunday brunch, hopefully sometime before the snow flies. That's the only way we'll ever fit in everybody who wants to eat here."
I guess that's one of the rules of magic: Make a big showy fuss wherever you want people to look. At Pane Vino Dolce look at the spaghetti, look at the ever-changing wines, but don't bother searching for the sign over the door, because that's the one thing that may never come out of this magic hat.
WINEY TUESDAYS: Want to help the folks who run the Modern lose their butts? All bottles of wine are half-off on Tuesdays at the Modern, and will be for the rest of the year. "We are kind of losing our butts on this deal," admits Modern owner Jim Grell. "But this is what we want to do, to let people know that more and more the Modern is about wine." Just how about wine are they? Last spring they sent their sommelier, Amy Roland, on a tasting adventure in California, and this fall Grell and chef Scott Pampuch spent two weeks at Robert Sinskey's Vineyard in Napa Valley--that's pretty about wine for a place with a lunch counter that fries eggs all weekend mornings. What did they do in Napa? "We did a little picking--and a lot of spraying out the picking bins. That was our big job, spraying out the picking bins. But we were mainly cooking for the cellar crew, and so we were given the run of the whole vineyard. We got to taste tons of things, drank lots, it was great." Over the course of the next year, as the 2000 vintage comes in, "we're going to be buying it like crazy," Grell notes. "I have a lot of personal interest in all of those wines." Until then, there is one Sinskey wine on the Modern's list (and there will be more in another month), namely a pinot blanc that the Modern sells for $30 ordinarily. I'll let you do the math to figure out the bargain price. "The pinot bianco is a really nice, really nice, wine," says Grell. "It's got this incredible nose, literally a gewürztraminer nose, very floral," and then it's very crisp, very fresh.
Of course, if you get the pinot bianco, you ought not get the pot roast--I know, it's hard not to get the famous pot roast. But getting you to order something besides the pot roast is part of the plan: "We're getting kind of sick of doing the pot roast," he confesses. Not that they're going to take it off the menu--don't panic! But if the wine-curious order things they wouldn't ordinarily, so much the better. With the Sinskey pinot bianco, Grell recommends the walleye eggrolls ($6.50) to start, and, as an entrée, the white-bean ravioli with corn and sage ($10). Modern Café, 337 13th Ave. NE (just off University Avenue Northeast), Minneapolis; (612) 378-9882.
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