Scusi Italian in St. Paul shows Blue Plate's ambition
See also, our slideshow of Scusi.
The meal hasn't even started yet and Scusi already owes us an apology. Why on earth would the server introduce dinner with...a doggie bag? No, no, she explains. The white paper sack contains house-made crackers to pair with a white bean purée, the restaurant's version of an amuse bouche or complementary bread. Surely there's an advantage to presenting the crackers in a bag—any leftovers are already conveniently packed—but its downside is evident once diners start awkwardly rooting around in its depths, manhandling each piece of flatbread in the process. I suppose we might have dumped them out, but what was wrong with a basket?
Nothing, except that the Blue Plate Restaurant Group wanted to do things differently at Scusi, a restaurant that departs from the "modern diner" model they've established at its sister eateries: Groveland Tap, Three Squares, and the Edina, Highland, and Longfellow Grills. Scusi is still an approachable neighborhood restaurant that serves fare as comfortable as it is timeless.
Scusi may be more focused, chef-driven, and upscale than the other Blue Plate eateries, but it still keeps things casual. Portions are meant to be shared, like Italian tapas, our server says, and dishes will come out to the table as soon as they're prepared—no timing or courses. The restaurant stacks its dinnerware—mismatched plates—in the center of the table in the same way the other restaurants used to set out the flatware in malt cups.
The lack of formality takes some getting used to for those who dined in the space when it was Heartland, the locavore's fine-dining temple. The two-room setup—open kitchen, dining room, and bar—is the same, but the vibe feels strikingly different. The pale blue walls have been painted white, the wood wainscoting stained darker, a banquette installed along one wall, and the art deco accents replaced by Italian ones, including checkered tablecloths and televisions playing muted European cinema classics. (One night, well after the family dining hour, I glimpsed a bare breast as part of a plot that appeared to involve peeping Toms and skinny dippers.) Heartland's famous alcove table is still intact and cozier than ever, as it's now outfitted with a plush red booth for side-by-side snuggling.
As far as the food goes, the kitchen should have little remorse about what it's serving, because much of it is pleasant and value-priced. Scusi isn't pushing any boundaries there—its biggest innovations are in its beverage program, apparent by the refrigerated cabinet hanging behind the bar where bottles of wine are hooked up to so many tubes they look to be in some sort of intensive care unit. It's actually a fancy storage system to keep wine fresh: The open bottles are fixed with a stopper and hose that removes the oxygen and replaces it with non-reactive argon gas.
The system allows restaurants to open bottles of wine that would be too expensive to sell by the glass. (Restaurants typically price a glass of wine at its wholesale bottle cost, so they have to sell at least two glasses before the wine goes bad to make any profit.) This way, Scusi drinkers can sip a spendy wine like Shafer One Point Five Cabernet in a $30 quartino (an eight-ounce carafe, which is the smallest pour available and fits in well with the restaurant's share-friendly concept), without having to commit to a $90 bottle. Unfortunately the machine can't do anything about the fact that, when it comes to wine, a more expensive price tag doesn't necessarily mean a better experience. One evening, everyone in my party preferred a $9 quartino of Morellino di Scansano to a heavily tannic $20 Barolo.
The restaurant is also the first in town to serve wine on tap in kegs—a more efficient and environmentally friendly option than bottling. Scusi offers two keg options, and just because they're house wines doesn't mean they're cheap or bad. I tried the red, a Frog's Leap Zinfandel, which was eminently drinkable at $15 a carafe. Diners may need to adjust to the idea of spending more on a glass of wine than their plate of ravioli, but they will likely appreciate having more access to pricier wines and treating them as an affordable luxury to be indulged in more often than just for special-occasion dinners.
The menu offers a nice assortment of cheese and cured meats to pair with the list of mostly Italian and Californian wines. The formaggi and salumi are priced individually or on a three-for-$9 plate. The selections are perfectly serviceable, but I would have gladly paid an extra few dollars to have the plate served with a dollop of two or three of the garnishes—tomato jam, ginger chutney, apple shallot compote, or red wine rattafia—instead of just one, even if it did arrive in a cute cast-iron pan tiny enough for a squirrel to sauté a gnocco.
Scusi is a good place to snack on olives. The portion of the $4 assortment of three is so generous you'd think you had scooped them out of a supermarket bar. Choose wisely, though. The Sicilian herb-flecked Mount Athos is a perky pick, but the other Italian options, Black Cerignola and Sicilian Oil Cured, are harder to love. (The Cerignola have a mild, milquetoast flavor that resembles canned California olives, though without the metallic aftertaste, and the oil-cured ones have a chewy texture and a flavor that suggests tar.) Better to go with the French Lucques or Mediterranean mix.
Once you've finished snacking, there are modestly priced, medium-portioned pastas, pizzas, and meaty entrées created by chef Alex Zuniga, promoted from his most recent position at Three Squares. The risotto with butternut squash and gorgonzola is creamy and slightly sweet. House-made pappardelle noodles are on the thicker side to stand up to a hearty lamb ragout.
Veal, an Italian classic, shows up in three formats—bolognaise, braised shank, and meatballs—each time tender, milky, and rich. The rustic bolognaise tops a bowl of hand-pulled gnocchi, which meets expectations for the potato-y nubbins without necessarily exceeding them. The osso buco shreds to the touch of a fork and marries well with its mirepoix gravy. And the tender meatballs are served as an appetizer, or as moist morsels swimming in melted provolone and mozzarella atop a pizza crust. Scusi's pizzas are thin but rigid and more cheesy than saucy, so they're best balanced with a plate of roasted vegetables: thin slices of red peppers, yellow squash, onions, fennel, beets, and an especially smoky and delicious eggplant.
One dish makes the crossover from the dessert to brunch menus: zeppole, an Italian pastry reminiscent of a doughnut hole. The sugar-coated dough balls come in a pool of chocolate and whipped cream that's studded with cherries soaked in Marsala. The other weekend-morning offerings include the usual pancakes and quiches and eggs Benedict—but with an Italian bent, thanks to the addition of ricotta, Fontina, and capicola (dry-cured pork shoulder or neck, also called coppa). Chef Joan Ida, who has recently been consulting for Blue Plate, helped develop the brunch dishes, including a stack of moist hotcakes topped with slices of vanilla-poached pear and amaretti crumble—almond flavored macaroon that Americans can relate to for its resemblance to the crunchy marshmallow bits in Lucky Charms cereal.
Ida's mini burger trio isn't native to Italy, but the patties and buns are tasty—though phobics of maple syrup touching breakfast sausage will prefer them without the fig jam. A side of soft polenta with mushrooms comes out even creamier with melted Fontina cheese, and the mini quail egg cracked on top, partially cooked, feels more gourmet than what's typical for the restaurant group.
Scusi is a step up for the Blue Plate's family of taps and grills, though sometimes its fare suffers from the same fate as the others: being admirably adequate, or just good enough. I didn't find any dishes to avoid, but I also didn't come across anything truly remarkable or worth a trek across town. Many dishes were close-but-not-quite. The duck confit appetizer paired nicely with sweet mission figs but would have been better with more fat, more salt, and more seasoning. The funghi tartufo pizza is a tasty blend of marinated mushrooms and rosemary, but the crust lacks a richness of flavor that makes even its toppingless, bulbous hub craveable. The chocolate cake is only fine, and not as indulgent as it might be.
For now, Scusi is a neighborhood restaurant that doesn't transcend that description. But it shouldn't have any regrets—except for not having yet reached its full potential.
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