Pasta the Way It's Meant To Be
Broders' Southside Pasta Bar
5000 Penn Ave. S., Mpls.; 925-9202
Broders' Cucina Italiana
2308 W. 50th St., Mpls.; 925-3113
Whenever I feel blue I cast around for things to be grateful for, and I'm always cheered by the idea that I'm on the good side of history as far as food is concerned. My ancestors probably counted themselves lucky to be sitting around caves stuffing handfuls of raw grain into their gullets, while I get to flit around in a world with spaghetti, fettuccini, pappardelle, maltagliati, and tagliatelle. If I think about if for another few moments I can grow even more profoundly thankful with the realization that even with my lucky birth-timing I'd probably be limited to spaghetti and macaroni--were it not for people like Marcella Hazan, who took it as her mission to globally disseminate the pasta arts, and people like Molly and Tom Broder, who embraced the cause and ran with it.
Hazan is the Julia Child of Italian cooking, author of groundbreaking works like The Classic Italian Cookbook, in which she explains the basics of Italian regions and Italian cooking--like how factory-made pasta is best with oil-based sauces and fresh pasta is best with butter- or cheese-based sauces, and how to make fresh pasta with nothing but flour, eggs, a rolling pin, and a knife.
Husband and wife Tom and Molly Broder traveled to Bologna in 1980 to learn the essentials of pasta making from Hazan. "She had a whole kitchen set up in a hotel there," remembers Molly Broder. "She started out the class by opening a huge parmigiano reggiano, and we could just whack away at it whenever we liked. In the middle of the night we'd go down there and snack on a piece. She accomplished her mission at making us slaves to parmigiano reggiano, but it was also a revelation in so many ways. She changed the way I cook, because she taught me how simple Italian cooking is, just the freshest of ingredients done in the simplest of ways."
When they returned home to Minneapolis, the Broders opened their Cucina Italiana, specializing in the fresh pasta they'd learned to make in Marcella Hazan's kitchen and selling imported olive oils, olives, cheeses, vinegars, and other high-quality ingredients that were nearly impossible to find in markets at the time. Business at first wasn't all it could be, drawing chefs, gourmets, and, mostly, customers in search of the Broders' very good pizza. Too many people still didn't realize the difference between a box of Flavorite spaghetti covered with a jar of Ragu and a plate of fresh pasta done right. So when the Amoco across the street closed its doors in 1994, Tom and Molly saw the opportunity to serve their pasta the way it was meant to be.
"We designed the restaurant in such a way that we could make the pasta fresh right in front of people's eyes and get it to them steaming hot right out of the pot," says Molly Broder. "Fresh pasta starts to lose its qualities very quickly; every minute makes a difference." Four years later those bowls of pasta--prepared by chef Michael Rostance--have built up such an avid following that customers stack up two hours deep many nights.
On a series of recent visits, many of the dishes were outstanding. The Quadrucci with fresh greens, chicken, prosciutto, almonds, asparagus, balsamic vinegar, and mascarpone ($11.50) featured tender handkerchiefs of flat, square pasta floating in a toss of those delicate ingredients that was as rich and extravagant as it was unfussy. The fettucine con branzino siciliano ($11.25), an excellent dish in which the pasta combines with fresh sea bass, pesto, tomatoes, roasted eggplant, capers, and salted ricotta, seemed to embody spring, and it's a testament to the speed in the kitchen that the dish's bed of greens arrived unwilted, providing a nice counterpoint to the soft textures and earthy flavors of the rest of the dish.
The Broders' lasagna al forno di verdure ($8.25) is far and away the best vegetarian lasagna in town--the noodles are buoyant, the blend of spinach in a mellow bechamel sauce bright and fresh, and the crisp pieces of asparagus contribute crunch and grassy contrast to the rich mellowness of the fontina cheese. The simplest, least expensive dishes shine just as brightly as the more complicated ones: the fettuccini alfredo ($7.50) is a fresh lemon-juice-infused preparation of the classic creamy sauce, palate-lightening and delicious. The trenette con pesto alla genovese, very thin noodles served with pesto, cubes of potatoes, and crisp green beans, was elementally satisfying the way a full-blossom sunflower is--exactly the way it's meant to be. My only pasta complaint was with the spaghetti con vongole ($10.95): The tomato-based sauce with fresh clams in the shell was a bit gummy and too dominated by the red pepper, though the grouping of tiny clams on the surface of the pasta looked so happy, their little wings spread like butterflies.
Across the street at the Cucina, the Broders still sell just-made fresh pastas daily, including pappardelle (half-inch-wide, long noodles), fettuccini, linguini, and cappellini (about half the size of spaghetti) in either egg, spinach, or herb and garlic flavors; tomato pasta can be ordered at special request. For $2.75 a pound you get bunches of pasta that boil up quickly into lush, silky ribbons: If you've ever heard people rhapsodizing about the joy of a plate of plain pasta dressed with nothing but a sprinkle of fine olive oil or a dab of butter and a few shavings of parmesan, this is the stuff they were talking about. For those who want a restaurant-quality and restaurant-easy meal at home, the Broders sell a selection of homemade refrigerated sauces such as pesto, tomato sauce, a fiery, caper-heavy puttanesca, and my favorite, aromatice--an oil-based chopped sauce made of kalamata olives, olive oil, lemon juice, tiny slivers of red bell peppers and green onions, and a whole mash of spicy bits of basil, garlic, parsley, anchovies, capers, and crushed chili peppers.
The wine list at the Pasta Bar is another high point with about 20 bottles priced from $16 to $30, all picked for their ability to stand up to the strong flavors of the food. The Antinori Santa Cristina sangiovese ($20) is a refreshing, crisp option; sangiovese is the primary grape used in chianti, and the wine has all the food-friendly acidity of chianti but is lighter. Romantics might note that the cheapest red, Villalta's Superiore Valpolicella Classico ($16), probably resembles the wine Romeo and Juliet quaffed: It's a juicy, soft wine that comes from the area just north of those lovebirds' hometown, Verona.
Salads are reliable, too, perfectly bright and green and authentic, without funny chemical notes or fussy flavors. The village salad ($6.95) with Broders' imported olives, feta, and a zingy lemon-olive-oil dressing is big enough for three as an appetizer. The Caesar ($5.50 large, $3.50 small) is snappy with garlic and comes with shavings of excellent parmesan.
When your meal is limited to pasta, salad, and wine, Broders' can seem a downright deliverance, but a few off notes should be acknowledged. The bread basket arrived cold on all of my visits and some of the contents, notably the focaccia and the French loaf, tasted papery and flat, way below the quality of the rest of the restaurant's offerings. (The Broders' deli offers a dozen sandwiches at $4.50 a pop, and I think it's the same focaccia and French bread that keep them from being very good.) Perhaps the bread basket comes under extra-heavy scrutiny because it's the first thing you encounter after an unpredictable, but usually long wait resulting from the ever-popular, ever-annoying no-reservations policy.
But the desserts I sampled were largely lackluster, too--aside from the very good gianduia cake ($4.25), a composition of rich chocolate and hazelnuts served in a buttery, dense wedge. The triple-berry pie, a jam-like filling in a handsome rough pastry crust, was gummy and on one of my visits so undercooked that the dough was still translucent. The tiramisu was the biggest disappointment--not lush strata of coffee- and marsala-soaked cake alternating with chocolate and rich mascarpone cheese, but merely a dry, chalky layer cake.
Then again, Molly and Tom Broder never set out to create a full-service, fine-dining restaurant. They simply wanted to provide a spot where their family and community could gather over the boiled miracle of ingenuity and simplicity that is pasta. What Molly Broder likes best about the restaurant is the low-key neighborliness of the enterprise: "It's not slick, it's not rolled out, I think people appreciate that. We have three sons, we're raising our family here, everything's very tangible. Everyone knows exactly what we do and where we are, and we like that in our lifestyle. We live just two blocks from the restaurants, and we think, 'Wouldn't it be nice if it all could go on for generations?'" She laughs. "Not to put pressure on the kids or anything."
Broder knows that pressure doesn't go well with pasta. Witness the fact that, when Marcella Hazan was in town last year to promote her newest cookbook, she met with Tom and Molly, but neglected to make the trip to 50th Street. She was content to let the seeds she planted bear fruit unwatched and unconstrained.
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