Does Frascati Come In Kegs?

People-pleaser: Shari and Jon Emerson enjoy La Grolla's accessible upscale Italian dishes
Trish Lease
La Grolla
452 Selby Ave., St. Paul

The first time I walked into La Grolla the night was cold and wet, and inside the room was hot with laughter, bodies, the smell of garlic, and all the steam a good time generates. If there were a dictionary of restaurants, La Grolla could have been the picture under the definition of "ideal upscale neighborhood Italian." Over time, I've determined that sometimes you can judge a book by its cover: La Grolla is a good time, with a little red wine and a little garlic.

And, you know, a few duck pot stickers and some beef tenderloin in a pineapple teriyaki glaze. Which is to say that La Grolla isn't too orthodox about the whole Italian thing. And if you are, if you choose to be one of those sticklers who can't forget that, say, panzanella means "bread salad," and find it odd to order panzanella and get instead a salad of mixed baby greens topped with a few cucumbers and a chopped tomato vinaigrette, well, if that's the kind of uptight schoolmarm you are, you can just go suck on an egg. Because La Grolla knows what people want more than you do, and they've got the packed tables and happy jolly dining room to prove it. So why don't you just crawl into your parched bed with your copy of the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, mmm? Why don't you? There, that's what you deserve. The rest of us will be over in St. Paul eating rib eyes in Gorgonzola sauce, washing them down with bottles of rich California Zinfandel, and pitying your stick-in-the-mud heart.

That rib eye in Gorgonzola sauce ($24.95) was the best thing I had at La Grolla, and it was truly wonderful: ultra-tender, caramelized all over and all around until the exterior had absorbed a hundred flavors of onion and garlic, all of which enhanced the rich red beef. The pool of Gorgonzola sauce to one side provided tang, aroma, and interest, making the dish more exciting than the steakhouse version.

The daily special of pasta cartoccio ($21.95), was another charmer, in which shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, and squid were cooked in a garlic-rich tomato sauce, tossed with linguine, and finished in a parchment-paper package such that when the darling bundle is opened at the table a cloud of perfumed steam poofs! out of the bowl, giving you the rich essence of American Italian restaurants, both real and beloved and imagined and beloved, or as seen in Lady and the Tramp.

Another great thing from the La Grolla kitchen was their light and airy calamari ($9.95), smartly served on the kind of big, beautiful platter that makes you feel like the star of a foodie photo shoot. Squeeze the accompanying lemon wedges over the frothy cloud of seafood, raise your glass of wine and enjoy. When I think about the huge summer patio at La Grolla opening, and I think about these calamari, the only question that I'm interested in is: Does Frascati come in kegs?

I hope so. It would be a good thing for the quality of life in St. Paul.

Which La Grolla certainly is. While I could find fault with almost everything on the Italian menu here--well, come to think of it, let me do that for a moment, would you? The gnocchi, particularly, are nigh inedible, gummy as school paste, lumpy, and served in something that tastes like Campbell's soup made with half a can of butter. The frozen-to-the-plate beef carpaccio had about as much flavor as old baloney. The osso buco was served with a tomato sauce that was so acrid, fresh, and bright it seemed like it had been decanted from the tomato can seconds earlier. A special lamb shank was tender but bafflingly dry and lacking the potent flavor the dish should have. Both osso buco and the lamb shank are supposed to be peasant dishes in which low-cost cuts of meat are infused with flavor and elevated by hours of cooking, and neither of these are that.

But I doubt that most of the people who order them know that, or care. Some of the most popular dishes at La Grolla are more restaurant-luxe, photo-fabulous concoctions, such as the very attractive appetizer of two nests of angel hair pasta bunched around two big, tender sea scallops and deep-fried so that when it arrives at the table you have festive pompoms of crisp and tender splendor. It's one of those dishes that doesn't taste like much, but lets you know from 10 paces that you are out at a restaurant celebrating, doing things you could not do at home--and that is certainly one of the things that a restaurant meal should do.

In fact, La Grolla excels at all sorts of things that restaurants should excel at. The bar when you walk in feels both intimate and festive, the hosts keep agile track of guests and give them little freebies when tables get delayed, the servers are cheery, chummy, jokey, cheery, attentive, and--did I mention cheery? Many are old hands from the former incarnation of La Grolla, the west-metro Tiramisu restaurants, and their comfort in the restaurant, with the menu, and with the customs of service, is a joy to experience.

The wine list too is a crowd-pleaser, though not a connoisseur-pleaser. While it's both woefully overpriced and rather unadventurous, it does indeed offer something familiar and something good in every single category, and, if you are acting as host at the table, it's really just T-ball to find something your guests will recognize and like. Personally, I prefer wine lists on the Solera model (everything unusual and unknown, everything wonderful, prices rock-bottom), or in the style of Chiang Mai Thai (critical darlings, artisanal rarities, prices rock-bottom). But if you've got a clientele that doesn't know too much about wine, a list like this is good enough, and, in its way, gracious.

It's odd for me to consider how much I liked La Grolla when on the whole and in each of its parts it is so much more of a crowd-pleaser than a critic-pleaser. But I assure you, for me to like a restaurant so much in spite of gnocchi that drive conversation inevitably toward the future of biodegradable adhesives, they must be doing something right.

They are. They're serving the one thing that straight A's in cooking school never can--the je ne sais quoi, the ambience, the feel, the verve of a real restaurant--and that, I think, is exactly what St. Paul needs if it's ever going to have a real restaurant scene. To have that, people have to feel relaxed and excited about going out, which, I am sad to report, a lot of people don't.

Some of you might know that I talk a little bit about restaurants on the radio once a week, on KS95 on Thursday mornings, and as part of this I have gotten baskets of e-mails from people asking for restaurant recommendations, and the thing that has shocked me the most about these is the anxiety with which so many people regard fancy restaurants. They don't want to be frowned on for dressing wrong, they don't want to feel embarrassed about their inability to pronounce words in foreign languages, they don't want to be scared and intimidated.

At first, my reaction to this flood of anxiety was bafflement. First of all, there is no restaurant in Minnesota, not one, not a single one, anyhow, anywho, or anywhere, with a jacket-required policy. In fact, and sadly, there are only a very, very few restaurants where you might not be comfortable wearing the clothes you wore to paint the garage.

But over time, I have concluded that the facts about the restaurants around here are not always the issue. Sometimes the feelings about the restaurants are more important, and in this case, I think St. Paul needs about a dozen fun, nice, je ne sais quoi restaurants before it will ever have a real restaurant scene. I mean, eating out isn't supposed to be some pious experience where one goes and worships at the altar of correct cooking--and this I say as someone who is just crazy nuts for correct cooking. It's supposed to be fun, comfortable, cheery, hearty, and likable--just as it is here.

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La Grolla

452 Selby Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55102


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