Minneapolis is currently as flush with Italian as the prom queen is with suitors. And we love so many of them it is hard to choose: Il Foro for the architecture and chef Joe Rolle's playful way with high-end Italian American creations; Parella for its keen eye toward true regional cooking, the way it's really done in Italy; Bar La Grassa for its stranglehold on a million pastas done a million ways and done properly a million times.
But what downtown has been missing is the sort of Italian place that just gives the people what they want, nice and easy, no big challenges, no need to employ the iPhone to find out what guanciale or Robiola or passatina or sapori are. Nothing that's more flourish or fanfare than nourishment. Good, starchy, cheesy, tomatoey things for when you're good and hungry — the reasons we all know and love Italian the way we do, right? Right.
Prior to their makeover back in August, Foreign Legion was a mysterious annex to sister restaurant Brasserie Zentral, which was itself an Eastern European answer to Russell and Desta Klein's beloved St. Paul French bistro Meritage. Brasserie Zentral offered, and still does, an erudite and assertive menu of meticulous takes on schnitzel, kavelierspitz, foie gras, and holishkes. It's beautiful, and has good potential to intimidate.
Meanwhile Foreign Legion was all scholarly wine lists and sophisticated imported charcuterie and cheese to pair with them. But the whole thing was challenging. "I might have had the best charcuterie program in town, but people just didn't care," said chef Klein, just prior to the remodel. (Cheese and charcuterie is still available on the menu. It's still great, and we do care).
So the Kleins were wise to flip FL to a more open, welcoming, friendly place serving the pitch-perfect simple anecdote to all the rest of their excellent work.
Top-notch pizzas, which contrary to their aroma, bite and appearance, emerge not from a wood-fired pizza oven, but an ingenious radiant- heat countertop contraption called TurboChef that produces wood-fired crisp, beautiful bubbly pies in about 90 seconds. Sous chef Jason Englehart says they're using a "straightforward Neapolitan-style dough," and we like it. A pepperoni pizza is made with a house-made meat that eats more like sausage. It's great.
Pastas are equally direct: a spicy and forthright puttanesca, pappardelle with basil pesto and summer squash, duck bolognese.
They've got chicken wings, an Italian chop salad with salami, provolone and chickpeas; and even an olive oil-poached salmon that's a sleeper hit. Big-time chefs almost always hate putting salmon on their menu, the way they hate putting a burger on the menu because then people will just sit around eating burgers and salmon and never order the skate wing or the tartare. But hey, this is a place for the people, remember?
And the price points are as likable as the menu: nothing over $15, and plenty of stuff under ten. Get in and out with a light meal plus a cocktail for under twenty bucks. What else do you want in this cold, mean world?
A curve ball: the spaghetti is served with garlic and olive oil only. No red sauce.
"That's been a bit of a challenge, but people are coming around," says Englehart. Because, you know, people like their spaghetti with a red sauce. But we're coming around. Compromise is a two-way street, remember?
Pro tip: Free delivery within the neighborhood. Soo Line Building and Nic on 5th. Call 612-333-0505 ext. 300 to place an order.
101 South 5th St., Mpls.
612-333-0505 ext. 300