Sad Spaghetti

Buon giorno, Lilydale: Osteria I Nonni
Craig Lassig
Osteria I Nonni
Buon Giorno Italia

981 Sibley Memorial Hwy., Lilydale

Like most Americans, I spend an inordinate amount of time these days examining the financial statements that come in the mail and wondering: Can this country, in a post-global, mall-saturated, FoodTV'd economy, survive the inevitable class-action lawsuit from Tuscany?

I expect legal papers any day.

It is seriously depressing.

Obviously, Tuscany has a clear and compelling reason to sue each and every one of us for nearly limitless damages. Not just for those damn yellowish walls that have so obviously come to signal overpriced pasta. Not just for the little drawings of plaster crumbling away to expose underlying brick that have become the universal signifier for olive oil that tastes like vegetable oil. But mainly for taking an entirely appealing culture and cuisine and repeating it artlessly and endlessly until it has come to mean nothing except the mask you assume when you want to sell cheap and meaningless things to people who are generally aspirational, but otherwise uninformed and undiscerning.

Does Betty Crocker offer a Web recipe for "Tuscan Turkey Torta" that "will remind you of both delicious deep-dish pizza and quiche"? Yes, she does (failing to note that anything that reminds one simultaneously of quiche and pizza also reminds one of catastrophe and death). Are the "Tuscan Villas" of Irvine, Texas interested in wooing you with their "garden bathtubs" and "beveled mirror accent walls"? Of course. Does the Infiniti luxury SUV, the QX4, come in "Tuscan Beige"? Need you ask?

Of course, as with all social ills, the Tuscan delusion/dilution doesn't damage only the Tuscans; it damages us all. It especially damages anyone trying to sell Italian food.

How else to explain the heartbreaking specter of Buon Giorno Italia, and especially Osteria I Nonni, now open in Lilydale?

I hardly know where to begin with this one. Perhaps with a little local history?

Back in the day, the first members of the Marchionda family came to St. Paul from Italy, and they opened what would eventually become the Buon Giorno market, on the industrial northern edge of downtown. The place was famous for rough-hewn Italian sausages, great made-to-order sub sandwiches, and aisles that were stuffed to exploding with everything from cans of oil-packed tuna to pricey bottles of Barolo. This past summer, after years and years of dreaming, scheming, and saving, the Marchiondas left downtown and opened a vast new complex in Lilydale, one of the first suburbs south of the river from St. Paul. The new complex contains a catering operation, a fancy new deli and grocery store, a wine shop, and an ostensibly Roman restaurant called Osteria I Nonni, the "Inn of the Grandparents," named for those first pioneers.

Only the wine shop has profited from the move. What was once a few crowded aisles of bottles jammed together is now a handsome library of Italian wine. There are bottles from recent vintages, as well as hard-to-find older bottlings. This is a satisfying place to contemplate, design-wise, though probably really thrilling to shop only if you're rich. Italian wines nowadays tend to be dizzyingly expensive, but Buon Giorno Italia is doing everything it can to combat that. In fact, the restaurant is likely one of the least expensive places in the country to try the liquids collectors go insane over: Nothing on the dazzling 300-plus-bottle list is priced at more than $10 over retail, and there are Barolos that should draw connoisseurs from all over the country. If you're in the neighborhood, a bottle of wine and plate of olives in the front of the house is a national-caliber treat.

Once connoisseurs wander into the restaurant, I can't imagine what they will think. My first impression of the food at Osteria I Nonni was that it was merely another nobody in the not-so-thrilling trend of restaurants I call PazzaCiaoLo (because it takes too long to say Pazza-Ciao-Campi-Zelo-Cha-Cha-Tirami-Too-Too-Too-Me-Too!). The place features the signature contemporary Italian art-glass chandeliers and McMansion design that just screams Birthdays in Suburbia. But after a number of visits I have had to conclude that the restaurant is actually worse than most of its feel-alikes, for two reasons. One is that it is absurdly expensive-with $7 salads, $19 primi, and $29 entrées, prices easily top those at Aquavit or Goodfellow's. And the other is that after spending and eating more than I ever cared to, I found only two cooked dishes I'd ever want to see again.

They were the oxtails ($19), a rich, gelatinous, long-cooked version of the dish--succulent and glistening, tender as distant thunder, just lovely. And the corvina, a slab of fish baked in parchment with black olives, capers, and tomatoes, which tasted like good-quality olives and, um, you know, capers and tomatoes. Otherwise, everything was pretty bad. Calamari ($10) was oily, the breading falling off in clumps. Gnocchi ($13) were mealy and stuck to the teeth like glue; spaghetti allo scoglio ($19), seafood with pasta and new-harvest oil, was a horror of leaden bits of past-prime seafood lying upon greasy noodles. Pasticcio lasagnette ($16), a meat lasagna, was sweet and cloying and made the leap from rich to unctuous without ever hitting pleasure.  

Yet the thing that put me over the edge was the time I was obviously recognized and yet nearly every dish remained aggressively incompetent. I still received osso bucco ($26) that was so undercooked and unforgivably tough that it tasted like it had come off a prison cafeteria line; bracciole ($23)--rolled beef that's stuffed and stewed and should have the fork-tender texture of pot roast--was as tough, flavorless, and obstinate as a shoe. To say nothing of the mussels on the half shell, which were dry as stones and covered with ashy breadcrumbs. Or the awful zuppa di pesce ($29), a dish I had the misfortune to try twice: Once it was overcooked and smelled like a profoundly troubled aquarium, and on my final visit it was only very salty and very lifeless. Service ranged from obnoxiously absent (nearly a 40-minute wait for wine one night) to merely inexperienced. The desserts are nothing special. The room is chilly and drafty. I have been told repeatedly that the restaurant is Really Roman, but everything I experienced told me it was Tritely Tuscan.

But the olives are fantastic. Big, fresh green ones as bright as limes; wee, cracked herb-covered brown cuties; meaty, resonant black fellows so rich they echo in the mouth. Oh, those olives. They come complimentary at the table, they beguile from the middle of the meat and cheese plate ($12 for a small one, which is big enough for four; $23 for a large one)--marvelous. That plate of cured meats and cheeses is lovely, itself: sweet mortadella, spicy salamis, cured sorts of pork and prosciutto. A dream. The plate of cheeses ($15 for five) is also great--noble aged sheep's-milk pecorino, smooth and creamy Taleggio, lovely sharp Gorgonzola, and many more. It should be: Anything cold and ingredient-based should be near perfect, as Buon Giorno is supposed to be one of our finest resources for Italian ingredients. That is the least I, or anyone, should expect from the place. I also expected more from the pastas, from the appetizers, and, frankly, from everything.

Why anyone would eat in the restaurant when the best things there--the wine, the cheeses, the cold cuts, the bread--can be found on a quick trip through the market is beyond me. Except for the fact that, if possible, the market is even more depressing than the restaurant.

The place is distinguished by large, stone-like floor tiles that make the room feel like a covered piazza; vast, glittering glass cases full of meats and cheeses; and enough marble and rich-looking woods to furnish a jewelry store. Yet where the meat cases used to look like they were crammed full of more bounty than the earth could contain, they now look less exciting than Byerly's. And now this former southern Italian showcase showcases specimen cups of mini-carrots and spinach dip. Spinach dip! The sandwiches, once made to order and worth driving across town for, even in a snowstorm, were, when I tried them, pre-made, wrapped in plastic, softened by the treatment, and thus no longer anything special. Everything that seemed so vital now seems tacky. Everything that seemed like a rare treasure now looks like conspicuous consumption. Did Buon Giorno always sell $30 napkin holders?

Does it matter?

Maybe not: If any other multimillion-dollar Italian restaurant opened that far out from either of the core downtowns, I wouldn't even think of reviewing it. More crap in the suburbs? I am appalled! Why, surely the local residents won't line up for the lowest-common-denominator worst food in town--because every other aspect of their existence has been marked by an unwavering commitment to taste, aesthetics, and the cultural pinnacles of Western civilization, right? I mean, it's not like people move out there because of white flight and the opportunity for untrammeled materialism. Everybody knows that 99 percent of people in third-tier suburbs live there to be closer to their horses. And to get more square footage in their homes. So they might be stranded in them, like chimps in space.

After years of delighting in the old Buon Giorno, I wanted so much more for these cities, for the Marchiondas, for us all. Yet I simply can't recommend that a single one of you take the long, sad drive to Lilydale. Unless you're an Italian wine collector or connoisseur. Or a Tuscan attorney gathering evidence for the coming troubles.

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Osteria I Nonni

981 Sibley Memorial Highway
West St. Paul, MN 55118


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