From squash to meatballs, here’s a rundown of my dining diary’s recent entries. What were your top eats of the past week? Share the details in the comments section.
Margherita pizza at Luigi’s Best
At this St. Louis Park newcomer, owner Lou Miranda felt the tug of the food business after a life in software development. His baptism in the industry was operating a sausage-and-peppers sub sandwich cart in downtown Minneapolis. “I was going to expand that into a sandwich shop,” he said. “And then this space became available.” “This” was a former Toppers Pizza outlet, which inspired Miranda – and his Italian heritage – to delve into pizza. Let’s just say that the difference between Toppers and Luigi’s is enormous. He’s making terrific plate-sized pizzas ($8.75 to $12.85) with distinctive and delicious crusts, with a crisp, sturdy, almost cracker-like exterior that yields to a chewy interior. The secret? Imported Italian flour, fortified with a bit of olive oil; before baking, the dough is brushed with more olive oil. That imparts bubbled, browned edges that subtly suggest fried, in a good way. It’s a workaround for using a deck oven – a leftover from the Toppers gig – rather than the wood-burning version that’s essential to the Neapolitan style that Miranda is emulating. Toppings are appealingly uncomplicated, starting with crushed San Marzano tomatoes. Miranda is starting small, with four pizzas and three calzones, with a plan to build momentum as experience dictates. “Next week, I’m going to introduce my first vegan pizza, with a pistachio-olive pesto,” he said. “And there’s going to be some kind of fig pizza, and I’m working on a roasted eggplant pizza.” Look for salads in the not-so-distant future, too. The place is built for takeout, although there are maybe a half-dozen seats. No delivery, at least not yet, and it’s a sodas-only beverage list. Who’s Luigi? “That’s ‘Lou’ in Italian,” said Miranda. “That’s my alter ego.” 5618 W. 36th St., St. Louis Park, 952-297-8827
Meatballs at Fika
My mother’s homey version of Swedish meatballs were nothing like chef Blake Meier’s intricately detailed and deeply satisfying iteration ($12). But whenever I visit the American Swedish Institute’s excellent restaurant and dive into the food of my people, I’m always nostalgically reminded of my mom. For that, Mr. Meier, I am truly grateful. And, those meatballs are fantastic. 2600 Park Av. S., Mpls., 612-871-4907
Squash toast at the Bachelor Farmer
True confessions: I’m a little bit obsessed with this open-faced sandwich. “I’m obsessed with it, too,” said chef Jonathan Gans with a laugh. And why not? It’s the embodiment of autumn, in terms of both flavor and its autumn-leaves color palette. The squash is honeynut – it’s a kind of condensed butternut, smaller in stature but blessed with a more intense flavor and color – and it’s raised at Twin Organics Farm in Northfield, Minn. Gans and Molly Kascel, chef at the Bachelor Farmer’s daytime cafe, approach it with the same reverence they would with a prized animal, braising it in an aged cider vinegar seasoned with warming spices (ginger, cinnamon) rather than roasting it, a technique which enhances the squash’s sweet flavor but doesn’t break down its firm flesh. Candied pepitas add crunch, and the kitchen’s fresh cow’s milk cheese contributes a creamy, slightly sour note. Oh, and the bread: it’s a naturally leavened loaf, baked on the premises, that toasts like a dream. There are five toasts ($8 and $9) on the menu, and this vegetarian version changes with the seasons. “We just went from tomatoville to squashville, overnight,” said Gans. Here’s hoping that squash season lasts a good, long time. 50 2nd Av. N., Mpls., 612-206-3920
Avocado toast at Esker Grove
A visit from my Atlanta-based sister- and brother-in-law triggered the following conundrum: Where to take them for brunch? I immediately thought of Esker Grove, not only because I love what chef Denny Leaf-Smith is doing, but because the Walker Art Center and its gorgeous restaurant possess an enormous capacity to impress out-of-towners. Given my embarrassing avocado toast obsession – so 2016, right? – my order ($15) was a fait accompli. I was not disappointed. Leaf-Smith boosts the formula by adding a layer of cool and slightly sweet shreds of king crab, then he wisely sticks to a tried-and-true structure of excellent ingredients (that bread! Those sharp and crunchy radishes!), used sparingly, calling upon a just-right fried egg, its yolk barely holding together, as the topper. Truly, brunch perfection. Oh, and the popovers ($5)? Fabulous. 723 Vineland Place, 612-375-7542.
Lasagna at the Paul Berglund Pop-Up at Cooks of Crocus Hill
This is a dreadful photo of a fantastic dish; blame it on the unfortunate intersection of uncooperative lighting and my negligible photography skills. The James Beard award-winning Berglund is known to Minnesota diners for the Nordic/Northern fare that he championed at the Bachelor Farmer. But now that he’s living in Rochester, Berglund is rediscovering his Italian roots, fostered during a long tenure at top-rated Oliveto in Oakland, Calif. He’s flexing those cooking muscles with a series of pop-ups at Cooks (look for more to appear on the Cooks schedule in the coming months), the first of which were last weekend. The four-course meal ($80) was one delight after the next, with Berglund narrating the evening, but this pasta really stood out. The ragu – decadent beyond all reason -- was a revelation, a low-and-slow beef chuck sauce enriched with pancetta, mortadella, prosciutto, porcini mushrooms, plenty of cream and hints of tomato. (This being Cooks, Berglund provided a recipe; it runs nearly four highly detailed pages). He fashioned the (exceptional) pasta from Baker’s Field Flour & Bread’s stone-ground durum wheat, then laid on the béchamel and tons of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. I’ll never think of lasagna in the same way, ever. Here’s a reason to visit Rochester: Berglund is immersing himself in a series of pasta-focused pop-up dinners, held at the city’s branch of Benedict’s. For details, follow him on Instagram, @fatnoodlemn. 877 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-228-1333