Sopranos Italian hits some high notes
You won't find any kitschy, old-school, red-and-white checked tablecloths at the new Sopranos restaurant in St. Louis Park, which replaced the short-lived Ringo in the Shops at West End. The new owners retained the room's warm, wood-lined walls but gave the space a new look by applying luxurious red curtains, velvety upholstery, and a bowl-shaped light fixture so enormous that sitting beneath it can test one's nerves.
A pretty glass tower displays the restaurant's bottled wine collection, and the house juice is poured directly from wooden barrels, stacked on their sides and fitted with taps. The barrels come from a California-based winery, our young server explained, that's owned by the uncle of the actor Nicolas Cage. Only at a "next-generation" Italian restaurant would Francis Ford Coppola, the world-famous director of the legendary Godfather trilogy, be identified in such a manner.
But what the restaurant lacks in staff cinephiles it more than makes up for with its sophisticated yet versatile approach to Italian fare. The Sopranos concept was created by brothers Kam and Keyvan Talebi, who own the Crave restaurant next door. The Talebis' restaurant empire includes Craves in several parts of the metro, including an about-to-open downtown Minneapolis location, as well as two others out of state. They also own Urban Eatery, which formerly operated as the View.
The Talebis' company shares some similarities with another restaurant powerhouse, the Parasole group, in that all of its restaurants are well funded, well marketed, and known for serving food that's more crowd-pleasing than mind-blowing. But Parasole has recently given several of its restaurants a much-welcomed, chef-driven injection, and so have the Talebis, who recently tapped Jim Kyndberg, former chef-owner of the Bayport Cookery, to oversee their culinary operations. When launching Sopranos, they looked to another notable chef, J.P. Samuelson, who previously owned jP American Bistro, and whose résumé includes stints at Bouley in New York, D'Amico Cucina, and, most recently, Solera.
The Sopranos approach reflects a modern dining culture that prizes flexibility over formality. While Cucina certainly had a fine run, there's a reason that the D'Amicos' newest restaurants have taken a tack that's a bit more relaxed. Sopranos is suitable for all sorts of dining occasions: It's serious enough for a business meeting, swank enough for a date, accommodating enough for large-group happy hours, and casual enough to bring along the kids.
In some ways, Sopranos feels like an Italian steak house, with power brokers hunkered over thick slabs of meat, which are seared on the kitchen's wood-burning grill that infuses the air with a pleasant, subtle smokiness. If you want to feel like a VIP, book the C-shaped booth at the center of the room. It looks like a spot where a mafia boss might gather his goons, though realistically its occupants are more likely to be packing laptops than firearms. A 24-ounce T-bone practically fills the plate, hardly leaving room for the sides of mashed potatoes and asparagus. It's expensive—$39—but impressive: tender enough to attack with a butter knife and robustly flavorful, especially its salty, char-marked crust. The veal chop is equally pricey, but a nice if straightforward rendition of the traditional Italian indulgence. All the grilled meats are served with a choice of sauce—Chianti demi-glace, gorgonzola cheese sauce, or red wine and olive reduction—though they don't really need embellishing.
For those on tighter budgets, Sopranos offers several pastas, including a basic plate of spaghetti and well-seasoned, tender meatballs made with a blend of pork, beef, and veal. The strozzapreti are pasta tubes shaped like rolled-up towels with pesto and chicken. The restaurant's maître d'—a native New Yorker with bushy gray hair and a penchant for storytelling—adds a welcome, old-school vibe and is happy to assist with the dish's pronunciation (STROAH-tsa-PREH-tee) or relay the legend of how it got its "priest choker" name (the thick, lengthy ropes are said to have been served to greedy clergymen by passive-aggressive parishioners).
The Sopranos lunch menu offers sandwiches, paninis, and even a "Juci Lucia" hamburger stuffed with mozzarella and topped with red sauce. The sharable antipasti platter could also make for a well-rounded meal, with its spread of cheeses and meats, including prosciutto, salami, coppa, and mortadella that "looks like bologna but it tastes a lot better," one server explained. The meats and cheeses are supplemented by olives and several salads: grapes with cashews and mustard, faro and gorgonzola, or chickpeas with greens, perhaps.
The restaurant recently added several rotisserie-cooked meats, sometimes seen spinning in a large metal machine in the front of the kitchen. The half-ducks or half-chickens with a vegetable side make a satisfying takeout meal for less than $20. (Samuelson says they're planning to use the rotisserie to cook suckling pig for an upcoming wine dinner.)
Considering the size of Sopranos' menu, the kitchen's level of execution is high, and it dishes out fewer duds than Crave did during its opening phase. The missteps are fairly minor. For example, the Sopranos cooks make the extra effort to hand-pull their mozzarella, but the cheese's excessive saltiness spoiled a Caprese salad. Also, a side of braised escarole came off as bitter and soggy—better to go with the sugar snap peas perked up with bits of lemon rind.
But if you place the right order, Sopranos is also capable of resembling a small, chef-driven bistro. Several creative, carefully assembled plates might just as well have been served at jP. The paper-thin lamb carpaccio is deftly dressed with pesto, chopped olives, and curls of Parmesan cheese. On its own, the meat is delicate and pliable and offers a slightly wilder flavor than the more typical beef. Three fat diver scallops, seared golden outside and soft within, are equally elegant when served on a bed of chewy faro nubs with tomato and almonds. During its heyday, jP served a tasty ice cream sandwich, and Sopranos revives the concept to even better effect in the form of tiny oatmeal raisin cookies stuffed with cinnamon gelato.
You can experience Sopranos in all sorts of ways, depending on how you choose to dine. You can hop on a bar stool, canoodle behind the curtains of a privacy booth, or take a table on the sidewalk. (While you're deciding, consider indulging in a sparkling cocktail like the Lady Madonna (cantaloupe, cucumber, Hendricks gin, and prosecco) or an artist themed-martini (the Raphael, made with Jim Beam, Fernet Branca, Licor 43, Aperol, and Cherry Bark Bitters could cut through the thickest fog) or a refreshing, nonalcoholic spritzer like the one that blends lemon and basil with effervescent house-carbonated water. In any case, you're probably going to want to arrive either early or late, or make a reservation. Already, those in the western suburbs are coming to Sopranos in droves, and treating the place like an extension of their own family rooms at home.
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