Humming With the Spice of Life
211 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 222-3476
There's not a lot you can count on in the Twin Cities. You're having breakfast outside on a beautiful summer morning and--pop--it's raining on your toast. You leave for work early and arrive late because--pop--a major interstate has ground to a complete halt due to an extremely interesting overheated radiator. You take a small river port founded by a one-eyed river rat, develop it into a vibrant urban center quirkily arrayed around the meeting of several streets and trolley lines into an area of seven corners and--pop--someone drops a civic center down on it.
Dropping a civic center into the middle of a city is like dropping an 8-foot topiary into the middle of a round banquet table. One minute people are gabbing away, drinking, dining, and shouting, and the next you can only talk to your neighbor; you eventually forget what's on the other side of the table, and next thing you know you've packed up and moved to a cul-de-sac to live among people you don't know in a world circumscribed by Target, Jiffy-Lube, and the Olive Garden. It's a miserable state of affairs.
But then, just maybe, after 20 years or so, you look around and you realize that Pizza Hut makes terrible pizza. That Domino's makes terrible pizza. Papa John's. Rocky Rococo. Tombstone. Terrible, terrible, terrible. Then you realize that living in a handmade and personal world isn't a luxury, but a necessity for the care of the soul, and it doesn't even cost more. So you go around to the other side of the table and find that, lo and behold, the people there never went anywhere, that they simply dug in their heels and waited for someone to come back.
Anyhow, that's how I read the renaissance in interest in Cossetta's. And what a renaissance it is--if you show up on a Friday at noon it's like you're transported to another city: The restaurant is packed, people are lined up in front of the counters, and laughter and talking shake the whole building.
Those loud laughing people are there for the pizza ($2.25 for a cheese slice), a thin-crust, chewy delight topped with a rich, spicy sauce--I like it with nuggets of their wonderful fennel and red pepper-laced sausage. They're also coming for the Cossetta's Salad ($4.50), with fried prosciutto crumbles, chunks of zingy gorgonzola, and these fabulously big crusty croutons, all served over romaine tossed with a zippy vinaigrette. The Caesar salad (3.75) is very good--and you know how picky I am about Caesar salads--topped with freshly shredded Grana Padano Parmigiano, Pecorino Romano, and their own dressing. The Italian hero ($4.46)--crusty bread barely containing layers of cappaccola, mortadella, Toscano salami, prosciutto, provolone, veggies, and a zippy vinaigrette--is a sandwich worth reckoning with. But to judge from a recent crowd, the Veal Parmigian dinner ($6.75) is the hands-down fave: a thin fillet of veal fried 'til crisp and tender, then covered with their tangy marinara, and served with mostaccioli tossed with ricotta and tomato sauce. It's a crowd-pleasing menu, and Dave Cossetta loves the hum it generates.
Dave, great-grandson of founder Michael Cossetta, grew up when Seventh Street was in its prime: "I remember when seven corners was a hot bed, everyone in the city seemed to come there. There were eight movie theaters, lots of smaller stores, produce stores; down on Kellogg there were meat stores and a candy shop; there was Joe's Pool Hall, and the owner, Joe Santella, used to play his clarinet for everybody. My grandma was big into wrestling, and she would send me up to the Venice bar on Kellogg and West Seventh to get tickets from Joe Ganz, he was a boxer. I'd go in there and my face didn't even reach the top of the bar. We'd go to wrestling matches at the armory or at the old auditorium."
Dave started working at Cossetta's when it was a grocery store, sorting pop bottles and stocking shelves. Then he graduated to sausage-making, learning his grandfather Frank's secret sausage recipe: "Actually, the sausage is the thing this whole business is based on. They started selling sausage sandwiches from behind the counter, and one thing naturally led to another... My great-grandfather was Calabrese [from the toe of the Italian boot], and they like things a little spicier down there. My grandfather would make the sausage and he would always say: 'Frank you want it a little more spicy, a little more spicy.' One time Frank was making the sausage himself, and a friend was watching. He said, 'Frank, now I've seen everything, I know your recipe.' So Frank said, 'No, wait right here.' He went back in the back room, and poured a little water in his hands and mixed it in to the sausage. 'That,' he said, 'that's the secret ingredient.' Italians," Dave said laughing, "we've all got a secret recipe and a secret ingredient."
To prove it, Dave kept taunting me with some mysterious new development in Cossetta's future. As far as I could tell it has something to do with the riverfront and something to do with cannoli--though I could be projecting the last part. I never had Cossetta's cannoli until this year, and they are fabulous: pastry tubes filled with ricotta cheese and (I suspect) mascarpone, studded with chunks of dark Belgian chocolate--these are cannoli that are so rich, so creamy, and so good that your ears stop working, and you sit there in the hubbub of Cossetta's transported, deaf, and speechless, your tongue's pleasure centers having overridden all other brain functions. (Reportedly if you order through Eventi, Cossetta's new catering/"home-meal-replacement"/take-out arm, you can get them chocolate-enrobed--though I fear these may become state-regulated as narcotic. Now that we're this deep into parentheses I may as well mention that while you're exploring Seventh Street, you'll probably want to go down a few blocks to DeGidio's, on 425 W. Seventh St., 228-0118, an Italian restaurant and bar opened by famed bootlegger Joe "Kid Bullets" DeGidio in 1933. Now his son and grandkids run it--it's sort of a Buca for the working class--and their marinara, meatballs, and sausage are the best. I love the Linguini Frittata ($5.45), imported pasta topped with sausage and fried peppers, though the Italian Meatball Dip ($5.95) is pretty great too.)
While noon on Friday may be the best time to see Cossetta's at its most humming, there's a lot to recommend a visit on Tuesday at 3, when the tables are sparsely populated and the walls come to life. They're covered with photos of West Seventh Street as it used to be, when the streets were full--sometimes with shoppers, sometimes with families sitting out the heat, sometimes with kids on sleds, and sometimes with the floodwaters of the Mississippi--but they were always full. Hopefully, if things keep going the way they are, if people continue to seek out the best pizza, if Dave Cossetta reveals some great waterfront site, if Norm Coleman caters development to the city and not the city to development, if you choose joy over convenience, those streets will be full once again.
WRAP THIS: Everyone keeps coming up to me and saying, "You've got to try the new wraps. I love the new wraps. You'll like the new wraps. Don't you like the new wraps?" They're talking about Calhoun Square's Mighty Wrapps, and no, no I don't like the new wraps. I like the taste of them OK, particularly the salmon one, but I don't like the idea of them at all. And I'm not alone.
The guy at the Anti-Wrap Page explains: "Once again, the sanctity of our world has been threatened by the Forces of Total Lameness trying to make a quick buck off of public stupidity. They've opened burrito shops in many new locations, which would be an admirable contribution but for one hideous fact: They aren't calling them burritos! Why? Because they think you're stupid. They think you have no regard for the proud heritage of the burrito, and will not be offended by its co-option and exploitation. They think you'll be scared off by the ethnicity of 'burrito,' preferring the manufactured-trendy, whitewashed neologism 'wrap'..."
The Anti-Wrap guy also offers "Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Destroy the 'Wrap,'" which include "If a friend asks, 'Wanna go get a "wrap"?' tell them, 'I'll give you a rap!' and then strike them on the head with a wooden stick." With all this anti-wrap sentiment, is it any wonder that the Seattle Times asked in an April 22 headline: "Food-industry analysts wonder: Is the wrap over?" The story documents the decline of wrap chains Macheezmo Mouse, Todo Wraps, and World Wrapps. Well here's a clue for them: If you can't unload your tired old failing wraps out in Seattle just stick them on a truck going east--because we're dying for them.
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