In Rome, Thursday is gnocchi day. And if you're serious about this delicious but labor-intensive dish -- which involves peeling, boiling, and ricing potatoes and mixing them at exactly the right moment with exactly the right amounts of flour and egg -- then trying it once a week is enough. Unfortunately, many restaurants in Italy (and everywhere else) ignore this sensible Praetor's edict. They cut corners with dehydrated potato flakes or semolina and, by doing so, they transform perfectly airy pasta pillows into deadly, mushy gut bombs. Fortunately, there are two Minnesota restaurants that make great gnocchi every day.
The Venue: Located in a Nokomis strip mall, First Course hides in plain sight. But the tattoo parlor next door and the neon Pabst Blue Ribbon sign glowing in its window belie this restaurant's casual sophistication. On one recent sub-zero evening we were delighted to find a pleasant fire, two talented teens playing guitar, and a well-rounded list of beers ready to warm us up. In contrast, 112 Eatery in downtown Minneapolis is tough to miss once you find it; it needs little introduction after years atop numerous Best-Of lists. It also offers a kind of ersatz Soho experience, complete with the upstairs annex, exposed brick walls, and huge abstract canvases, though its upstairs sound system could use an upgrade.
The Weigh-in: There is no other way to spin it: Going into this fight, First Course is definitely the underdog, as would be any place pitting their food against 112 Eatery. But it has plenty of south Minneapolis charm to complement its intriguing ancho-gorgonzola gnocchi dish. 112's atmosphere is good for a formal dinner, quick after-work bite, or late-night snack. Its gnocchi have been a menu staple as long as we have been eating there.
Round 1: The texture First Course gnocchi are legit. On one side, they have the traditional "ribs" which come from taking a small bit of dough and rolling it down a fork. On the other side, they have a dimple for catching the sauce. Light and tender, they offer a pleasing contrast to the beef tips included in the sauce. 112's gnocchi, which look like small, smooth parallelograms, are lightly sautéed, giving them just a hint of resistance on the outside before giving way to the tender potato inside. [page]
Round 2: The flavor Potato is potato is potato, right? Wrong. Anyone who has ever had bad French fries can gripe about poor spud quality for days. The best gnocchi offer a magic combination of starch, fat, and salt, and neither of these dishes disappoints. First Course uses their gnocchi as a kind of sauce delivery system: Each one sops up creamy bits. 112's gnocchi showcases the potato as well, and like great fries, they are almost impossible to stop eating before the plate is clean.
Round 3: The sauce First Course pulled us in with the description of the sauce, using three magical words: ancho/Gorgonzola/cream. Its sauce is rich and satisfying, though it lacked that smoky ancho bite. The beef tips were perfectly cooked and almost as tender as the gnocchi they accompanied. Paired with a Caesar salad, this entrée is a meal for a big appetite. 112's take couldn't be more different. Like those brazen Texas BBQ maestros, their gnocchi eschews sauce entirely. There's just a bit of grated Parmesan over the top that's salty enough to bring out the potato, but not enough to make this a meal in itself. (In fact, the gnocchi is listed as a side on their menu.)
And the winner is... 112 Eatery, but not by as much as you might think. If you order their gnocchi with a radicchio and duck salad, then you'll have a perfect light meal that pairs soft and salty with crunchy and savory. Who could ask for more? But like few other places, First Course takes their gnocchi seriously, and they should be watched closely and avidly while they continue to tinker with and refine this dish.