5067 France Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 285-7444
Hours: lunch Monday-Friday 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.; dinner Sunday-Thursday 5:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:00-10:00 p.m.
Piero della Francesca and me, oh, we go way back. Misty, rose-tinted memories, that's what we've got: Helling around the slide room in the art history department; marveling at the particular combination of lambency, order, and pathos that marks his art; wondering when he was born--1420? 1422? It brings a tear to my eye just to think of the good times--and they were all good times, really--this Italian Renaissance painter and I shared. So it was with a certain amount of bewilderment that I was seated one night at Arezzo, a new mid-price Tuscan restaurant, and looked up to see that the main dining room is dominated by full-wall-size reproductions of details from Piero's fresco cycle Legend of the True Cross.
Why, I love the Legend of the True Cross! As legends go, it's like, totally legendary. So, the legend, wood-fired pizza, and a really nice (if a tad pricey) Italian wine list? Baby, where've you been all my life? Um, right there in the part of the brain reserved for Fantasies You Never Knew You Had, Better Left Unexplored.
It's hard to admit, what with all Piero and I shared, but what the Tuscan kitchen at Arezzo really specializes in is botching the details, be it an undercooked pizza, overdone pasta, or totally inconsistent salads. Three times I tried the Insalata Novella ($6.95), a combination of chopped endive, arugula, and sliced button mushrooms. Once the thing boasted a solid pound of undressed, chopped mushrooms up top--exhausting to contemplate. Once it was made with mixed greens and boasted big hunks of black, wilted leaf-goo. Once it was perfect, big soft hunks of good quality Parmesan filling out a plate of perfectly dressed, lemony arugula scattered with chopped endive and a few mushrooms. But seriously, who other than a restaurant critic would have kept ordering it?
Beef carpaccio ($9.95) was once served frozen solid to the plate, and once was pretty good, dressed with plenty of lemon juice and olive oil and topped with that nice Parmesan. The meat was still oddly spongey, though, and not as good as other beef carpaccios I've had. The best appetizer I had was spinach sautéed with garlic and pignoli ($6.95); a plain thing, but good. Pair that with the very good, plain, complimentary bread--pizza dough, topped with rosemary and baked--and you've got something special.
Get the specials, and you've got something else entirely. There are daily specials on a separate menu at Arezzo, and for a good three months one of them was a caprese salad ($9.95), that standard combination of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and olive oil. Arezzo makes theirs without basil, but with imported Italian mozzarella di bufala, the real-deal stuff you're supposed to go nuts over because, you know, it's the real-deal stuff, made from the milk of free-roaming water buffalo, which creates a wild, fresh herbaceous flavor that you could never get from cow's milk. Or that's the hype, anyway.
For whatever reason (likely preservation of a highly perishable cheese), this mozzarella di bufala is mostly just salty, boasting the right texture, but the wrong flavor. It made me long for the hand-pulled mozzarella at St. Paul's Ristorante Luci, which has the right flavor, even if it's made with milk from the wrong animal. If nothing else, this salad becomes an interesting intellectual exercise: At what point does the pursuit of authenticity guarantee inauthenticity? Turn your eyes to some of the decorative faux painting which graces Arezzo, like the sort of crumbly cutaways that pretend to reveal old-fashioned bricks: Wouldn't it be more authentic to reveal sheetrock, or studs, or the old Pasqual's restaurant that used to be in the space?
These are the kinds of conversation topics you should have programmed into your Palm, particularly if you're going to order any pastas, which I feel confident damning with broad strokes: Pasta + Arezzo = Yikes. Black ink fettuccine with clams and asparagus ($15.95) was greasy and overcooked, contained moss-brown asparagus, and smelled fishy. Fettuccine ($12.95) with chopped cherry tomatoes and artichoke hearts was so overcooked it clumped together like risotto on the plate, and tasted so starchy, bland, and salty, it might as well have come out of a can. The cherry tomatoes in it weren't so much fresh-chopped as long-stewed--an unfortunate choice.
So, actually, pardon me for interrupting this review, but where are we, nowadays, as a city, on the topic of unripe tomatoes? Personally, I feel I am done with this topic; I have beaten it to death over many years. The basic outlines of the discussion are: Unripe tomatoes taste like slightly sweet cellulose, and are foul. Yet, for several years, after an Italian way of cooking became the dominant preparation style for upscale American food, bad tomatoes became pervasive--indeed, normative. Then, about three years ago, everyone started bitching about them, and all the food cognoscenti seemed to get in line on the topic: Tomatoes should be served ripe, or not at all. Good, ripe cherry (and smaller) tomatoes can often be used instead of bad romas, and when there are no good tomatoes they should be pulled from the menu entirely. I had many tomatoes at Arezzo, all of them bad, one of them during the last week in July. Why? Arezzo seems to be able to constantly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and I just don't get it.
Witness the restaurant's pizzas. When I first heard about Arezzo, the buzz ran: There's going to be a Punch Neapolitan Pizza knock-off in Edina. "Wow," I said to myself, "and I thought only governments were allowed to mint money. Can't wait." But out of four pizzas I tried at Arezzo, only one was good. The prosciutto di Parma ($13.95) was crisp and smoky from the wood oven, and coated with a layer of excellent sweet and silky prosciutto. I think it was just luck, though, because all the other ones I tried arrived soupy and sodden in the middle, the crusts underdone, the toppings overplayed. The quattro stagioni ($13.95) is a traditional pizza made for indecisives: prosciutto in one quadrant, olives in another, and artichoke hearts and mushrooms filling out the other quarters. Yet, at Arezzo, it all comes piled up in a big mound smothering the entire crust, making soup in the middle.
I did try a couple of the more ambitious entrées from the daily specials menu; these tended to be slightly more successful than the regular menu. Slices of grilled pork tenderloin ($17.95) were arranged prettily on a cylinder of cooked spinach, the plate dotted with pools of truffle-cream-sauce. The meat was good and tender, the sauce rich and creamy, the spinach nice and fresh, and even with all that, it was, at best, pedestrian. Rolls of chicken breast stuffed with porcini mushrooms and ricotta cheese ($14.95) were pretty good, but super-salty; the chicken was accompanied by broccoli so overcooked it was brown. It seemed like chafing-dish food that would have been better if served fresh.
Desserts weren't especially distinguished: Panna cotta ($5.95) was light and had a very nice fresh raspberry sauce, better than the average frozen-tasting raspberry coulis you see so often; and the well chilled tiramisu ($5.95) was fine, but never extraordinary.
Which makes the wine list and the room so much more baffling, as they seem to bear evidence of so much intelligent thought. The list of wines available by the glass boasts a modest seven offerings, but they're not just good enough, they're good: The Montellori Chianti ($6.50) is so pretty and well-balanced, it almost makes you overlook the food, and the list of three dozen Italian reds (mostly Chiantis, super-Tuscans, Barberas, Barolos, and Barbarescos) is so smartly chosen you can just feel a brain throbbing behind the list.
So maybe the big life lesson here (yeah, I get my big life lessons from fancy new Edina-area restaurants--what, you don't?) is something about big super-smart human brains getting undone by details. I mean, just look past your plate to the Legend of the True Cross, an elaborate medieval myth. It is, at base, the story of a piece of wood, a piece of wood which started life as a branch clipped from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and planted on Adam's grave. It grew, and eventually got turned into a large beam that was part of a bridge that the Queen of Sheba tried to use, but she had the gift of prophecy, and so she recognized it, ripped it out and had King Solomon bury it. (The queen's part is what's on the wall at Arezzo.) Years pass. The wood gets dug up, used just like everyone feared and hoped it would, then buried again, then dug up again. Off to perform miracles. Lost. It goes on to figure prominently in several wars, helping emperors first consolidate, then defend through crusades, Christian political power in southern Europe. More to the point, it's a touching sort of Where's Waldo? of God's love for medieval storytellers, found in nearly every historical or biblical situation known to them.
For restaurant-critic storytellers, it's an interesting example of the ability of the human mind to work big-picture wonders, connecting everything imaginable from the Garden of Eden to the Queen of Sheba to the Crusades, details be damned. But it's also a cautionary tale about how you can't disregard the details, because at Arezzo they've got all this great big-picture stuff in place--imported ingredients, a wood-fire oven, a great room, a great wine list--and yet they are undone by the details at every meal.
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