Terzo Vino Bar proves small is satisfying
Bruschetta, tomato, and egg yolk
Benajmin Carter Grimes for City Pages
If you ask professional chefs, home cooks, and food fiends what they consider their culinary point of origin, a disproportionate number will tell you it's Italy. Whether or not Piedmontese, Ligurian, or Sicilian blood actually pumps through your veins, there is something unmistakable that happens in the heart of the passionate eater when you encounter truly outstanding Italian food. Part of that has to do with the fact that, as far as ethnic food in America goes, it's probably the most familiar cuisine and thus we can be discerning about what is good versus bad pasta, but there is something more anthropological. After all, it was the ancient Romans who added olive oil to basic breads (essentially creating the earliest versions of pizza); taught the world to revere cheese; and developed methods of aquaculture we still use today. We all owe a major debt of gratitude to these people, even if they did, at one time, consider eating large dormice the height of haute cuisine.
Similarly, it seems that even for locals who don't live around 50th and Penn, they still regard the corner as mecca for Italian food in Minneapolis. Like Alexander the Great before them, the Broders family have (much less tyrannically) gone about expanding their restaurant empire with gusto, all in this one intersection. First there was Broders' Cucina Italiana, the deli and Italian market serving pizza, lasagna, hoagies, and family-style dinners to go. Then came Broders' Pasta Bar, a more formal, full-service restaurant focusing on hearty homemade pastas and scratch sauces. Now they've added Terzo (which literally means third in Italian) Vino Bar, opened recently in the small but quaint space left behind by Pierre's Bistro. There's room for about 50 guests inside, and the whole operation runs on a first-come, first-serve basis. No reservations, no call-ahead list. The big, beautiful bar up front accommodates a more casual, drop-in type of customer, while the dining room is set up with a table for larger groups and lots of intimate two-tops that are well suited to the type of lingering antipasti dinner you'll want to experience at Terzo.
The idea behind the menu is to move from smaller, more Italian bar food-type dishes to larger, more composed plates to create a full meal — though you could also be a very happy camper with just one of the cheese or salumi boards and a couple of glasses of wine. While I never walked away from Terzo feeling full, I was certainly satisfied. The food is smart, seasonal, and clean, and true to the vino-bar part of their concept, the array of wines is outstanding: close to 1,000 bottles, all Italian, with nearly 50 available by the glass. It's enough to make your head spin before you even start drinking, but the staff is incredibly helpful with recommendations, and if you're feeling noncommittal, you can always go for a half-glass pour. This is also a good way to try things you rarely would otherwise, such as the 2008 San Pietro Barolo (which goes for $20 for a full glass but is $10 for 3 ounces), one of those spectacularly structured and harmonious wines that makes you realize there really are massive differences among varietals. It's also a fun way to get to know the characteristics of a particular region. Work your way through the mineral, almost volcanic notes in the complex whites from Campania, or compare Barbera and Sangiovese roses alongside little bits of cicchetti — the Venetian version of Spanish tapas.
Start with the skewer of the day, a single bite on a stick that, each time we sampled it, combined sweet, acidic, rich, and salty flavors that set off the rest of the meal. Think savory profiteroles stuffed with asparagus cream, wrapped in a thin strip of beef tenderloin and decorated with sticky balsamic reduction. Move on to a slightly charred simple bruschette, like the one topped with finely diced sweet summer tomatoes and a single pale yellow egg yolk. Though overall the dish needed just a pinch of salt to make it sing, the incredible texture achieved by cooking the yolk in an immersion circulator is reason enough to order it. From there, get a bit more daring with a few pieces of cacciatore salami from Olympic Provisions in Portland (salumi, formaggi, and other charcuterie options rotate often), or crunchy-on-the-outside, delicate-on-the-inside pistachio-crusted frog legs served with a preserved lemon and cucumber emulsion that you'll want to slurp up with a spoon.
Vegetarians will be happy to find so many gorgeous options in the verdure section of the menu, like crisply fried baby artichokes with mint and a lemony, garlicky aioli; bitter and sweet grilled radicchio with curled-up anchovies, smoky pine nuts, and balsamic vinegar; and grilled asparagus with basil spuma, olives, and lemon oil, which also go well on the side of the small entree-type dishes. Aside from the heavenly sweet olive-oil poached shrimp, the standout dish was perhaps one of the more intimidating-sounding items: the rabbit, pork, and pistachio involtini. The dish is heavier than the rest of Terzo's light-touch fare, and each layer of the notoriously difficult-to-cook stuffed roulade was executed beautifully. The rabbit is made into sort of a sausage-like patty in the center of the moist pork loin, and the whole thing is wrapped in crispy prosciutto. All the meats infuse each other with fat and flavor as they cook, à la the infamous Thanksgiving turducken, and the result is delicious.
Seafood is treated respectfully, just the way Italians would want it. After a bite of the octopus terrine by itself, one of my dining companions remarked that it tasted "like water, in a good way." The dish is only fully realized when you spear some of the slightly chewy octopus together with the creamy slices of fingerling potatoes, celery leaves, and lemony sauce. The seared cobia served in a light toast-colored broth is also best when accompanied by the pearls of fregola and smoked littleneck clams that seem to get trapped at the bottom of the bowl. Every dish is a feast for the eyes, highlighting the natural beauty of the high-quality ingredients rather than overdoing it with fussy flourishes.
In keeping with the pure and simple complementary flavors of the rest of the food, Terzo's desserts are refreshing and refined. I especially loved the thick slices of braised pineapple with its crunchy bruleed top, dabs of basil oil, and intensely fruity mango sorbet, but another find was the plate of piccolo pasticceria. I was mistaken in assuming that this was a featured dessert created by the team at Doug Flicker's restaurant Piccolo but delighted to discover it was actually a plate of house-made teeny cookies, about to scale with, say, proper dessert for your American Girl doll. There was a crunchy "brutti ma buoni" (translates to "ugly but good") amaretto and hazelnut meringue; a soft chocolate-hazelnut sandwich cookie that looked like a tiny hamburger; house-made dessert salumi of chocolate and pistachios, some chewy, nougaty creation; a rich chocolate truffle; and biscotti that was just big enough to dip in a thimbleful of espresso.
Oh, and if wine isn't your thing but you still want to take your favorite oenophile to dinner, there are a few interesting beers on tap too, like the super-summery watermelon wheat beer from 21st Amendment. It's awesome date-night dining and a must for anyone with Italy-specific wanderlust. Though just as with any small-plate restaurant, the bill at Terzo has a tendency to creep up on you as you try more things. Just think of it this way: It's still much cheaper than a plane ticket.
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