Pastry paradise at Cosetta's and Black Walnut Bakery
When Cossetta's unveiled its plans for a $15 million buildout of its existing location, the public discussion centered on two topics. One, would there be more parking? And two, what else could they possibly put in there? Downtown St. Paul was already well-served in the way of pizza by the slice, pasta salad by the pound, generously portioned cacciatore, and divine scoops of spumoni. What more could they have in store? Lots more, folks.
First on the to-do list was adding a fancy full-service, sit-down Italian restaurant on the top level of the tower. Done. Louis Ristorante & Bar opened near the tail end of 2012 and has been drawing in a chic new crowd ever since. Next on the docket was putting an Italian market next to the cafeteria on the ground level. Customers could pick up heat-and-eat family-style dinners (such as cannelloni con pollo and chicken marsala) on the way home from work or buy a gorgeously golden loaf of ciabatta. Check off that item too. The grocery area is up and running, stocked with salami, fontina, panettone, and hard-to-find shapes of dry pasta, making it an ideal place to get specialty items for your next Italian dinner party. But the piece of the puzzle that I was most anxiously awaiting was the pasticceria, or pastry shop.
One of the best and most memorable parts of my Louis Ristorante experience was the chocolate chip cannoli that we ordered for dessert and later lamented not getting a few more of to take home. Be careful what you wish for, because now they sell them individually (and in bulk) at the lovely little pasticceria, which officially opened this spring. The fully chocolate-dipped and plain cannoli, with their crisp, bubbly pastry shells and whipped, sweet ricotta filling, were highlights of the long and gleaming pastry case, but you'll only get to them if you can make it past the gelato section with its technicolor rainbow of flavors. There's fresh, fruity raspberry; nut-studded pistachio; nocciola — or hazelnut, which, when mixed with chocolate gelato, tastes like frozen Nutella; and the beautifully balanced zuppa Inglese, which pits light orangey citrus against spicy rum. The result is like a texturally perfect ice-cream version of buttery rum-soaked pound cake and is best enjoyed alone at one of the pasticceria's tiny marble-topped tables, staring at the selection of elaborately decorated whole cakes (available to take home for any special occasion).
Beyond just the sheer selection of stuff (everything from mini quiches to glossy pine nut tarts), the really impressive bit is that, unlike some of the other Italian markets in town, Cossetta's pasticceria makes just about everything it sells right in its basement. Pastry chefs go to work every day, cutting and toasting up anisette biscotti (crumbly and delicious but a bit lacking in flavor), whipping Italian meringue (for distinctive, sweet and salty peanut-covered meringue cookies), molding gold-flecked truffles, and expertly stacking tubes of dough for simple, buttery chocolate and vanilla checkerboard cookies. Where I used to associate Cossetta's with carbo-loading (remember when people used to do that?) before a big cross-country meet, it now occupies a much more elegant place in my mind, thanks in large part to the addition of this lovely pasticceria. Mangia indeed.
On the other pole size-wise is Black Walnut Bakery, a new pop-up vendor at the Thursday-morning Minneapolis Farmers Market on Nicollet Mall. The concept and goods come via Sarah Botcher, former pastry chef at Butcher & the Boar, who brought us such kitschy, revisited classics as grasshopper semifreddo pie and smoked s'mores. Those desserts fit the menu and always seemed to please her old clientele but sadly never really allowed her to flex her considerable pastry muscles. Lucky for Minneapolis, that's what she's doing now with Black Walnut. The baked goods lineup is succinct — about a dozen items are for sale — but everything is executed perfectly: structurally sound and shamelessly rich. When I asked, "What's in this?" as I pointed to almost every flaky golden or bready thing on her stall table, Botcher began each reply the same way: "It's just butter, sugar, and..." which is both an explanation of why baking is so difficult (it's all about the ratios and technique you use with those simple and few ingredients) and a testament to the level of skill and finesse Botcher applies to everything she makes.
I'd be hard-pressed to pick a favorite so early on, but I don't think I'll ever return to Black Walnut and not get the kouign-amann (pronounced "kween a-mon" — or just say "that ridiculously delicious-looking thing"), an item locals may be familiar with from Rustica. It's a Breton butter cake that Botcher describes as "kind of like a caramelized croissant," with puffy layers of pastry hidden beneath the crispy, slightly chewy top layer. It's just a little sweet, totally messy, and dynamite with a cup of coffee (there's a Dunn Bros. conveniently located a few steps away). For something that has a little more going on in terms of flavor, the beautiful cherry Bostock was also a hit. Made with a brioche base, soaked in brandy syrup, and topped with almond frangipane cream and sour cherry conserve, this is like the most sophisticated version of that French-toast bake everyone makes for baby showers. The edges are crispy, the flavors are subtle and play well together, and the brioche is just dry enough to soak up the boozy liquid.
There's savory stuff too, like the ham and cheese croissant that would make a great on-the-go lunch for the corporate crowd; glistening, golden Italian focaccia with olives and rosemary that was as chewy and pleasantly greasy as the slabs you get on the street in Genoa; and a fantastic take on a pig in a blanket that swaps in a spicy stick of chorizo for the hot dog and features meat-perfumed homemade, almost pretzel-y bread. Rich enough to share, but so good you won't want to.
These two bakeries are on opposite sides of the spectrum in temporality. One is part of a long-standing, stalwart St. Paul restaurant. The other runs on a "when they're gone, they're gone" model of supply and demand. And while it gives me comfort to know that I can count on Cossetta's pasticceria being around by the time I leave this earth, I hope that Black Walnut pastries are served for breakfast wherever it is that I end up. In the meantime, I'll be setting my alarm early for Thursday mornings.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.