The recent top-to-bottom remake of Cossetta is so dramatic that fourth-generation owner Dave Cossetta has crowned his family’s legacy by adding an Italian word to the business’ name. It’s now Cossetta Alimentari. Rough translation: pertaining to food.
There’s an understatement. Make that three sprawling floors of food. Granted, the city of St. Paul kicked in $2 million of the project’s $10 million cost, but Cossetta’s investment is a loving vote of confidence for the town that has fueled his family’s livelihood for the past 102 years.
The soul of the operation remains the first-floor market. With approximately three times the floor space of its predecessor, the store now boasts the critical mass to draw shoppers from far outside the neighborhood. Michael Cossetta, the Italian immigrant who opened a modest grocery store just a few blocks away in 1911, would be awfully proud.
I had a hit-and-miss relationship with the deli case’s prepared foods — wonderful vegetables, decent salads, so-so pastas and strombolis. But the butcher counter is a well-stocked wonder, the dried pasta selection has no local peer, the freezer case is lined with Cossetta’s well-made sausages and gelati and the remarkable bread counter is stacked floor to ceiling with onion-studded focaccia, crisp breadsticks, crusty pecan- and raisin-packed loaves, knobbed ciabattas and dozens of other baked-daily options.
Surprises abound at nearly every corner. Sixteen brands of canned tomatoes. Hard-to-find grains. Deeply fragrant sun-dried tomatoes. Well-chosen sausages, cured meats and cheeses, including a slightly sweet whole-milk ricotta that should be a staple in refrigerators everywhere, plus an inventory of Italian mass-market candies that has “Christmas stocking stuffers” written all over it.
This place is a gem.
Fast food, Cossetta-style
For the vast majority of Twin Citians, the most familiar aspect of Cossetta has always been its quick-service eatery ever since the St. Paul Civic Center started drawing crowds to Seven Corners in the 1970s. Fans who have not visited Cossetta 2.0 will be in for a shock.
A pleasant one. The old, inefficient and sometimes downright annoying format has been replaced with heaping helpings of elbow room and common-sense design, meaning that picking up a tray and navigating the various stations — pizza, pasta, salads, sandwiches, cannolis — is far more efficient.
The second floor — accessed by a wide-open staircase — is dedicated to seating, both indoors and out, a sprawling venue that’s tailor-made for just about any kind of casual going-out demographic. As for the food, it remains what it has always been, a proven combination of big portions, low prices and nostalgia.
It’s a constant mob scene, but the lines move fast, and isn’t it great to see diners bypassing corporate fast-food chains and investing their dollars with deeply rooted local restaurateurs? Three cheers to that.
Take a seat
Up on the third floor is the Cossetta family’s first stab at a full-service restaurant, Louis Ristorante & Bar.
Its best asset is its sense of placemaking. The handsome, window-packed, wood-paneled space exudes that hard-to-create clubhouse aura. Already it feels like a worthy replacement to another similarly endowed St. Paul institution, namely the mahogany- and oak-lined bar at the Lexington, now (hopefully temporarily) closed. When Louis is full — which is often — it overflows with all those buzzy, feel-good attributes that come with being in the center of the action.
Another knockout is the adjacent rooftop patio. Spacious and great-looking, it’s anchored by a comfortable four-sided bar and almost blithely tosses off one spectacular urban vista after another, starting with a mesmerizing and oh-so-Italian view of the St. Paul Cathedral’s muscular, neo-Baroque dome.
Unfortunately, the rote Italian-American fare doesn’t always match the surroundings. In many cases, just a few minor tweaks — or closer attention to important details — would make a world of difference in what often tastes like going-through-the-motions cooking.
Tomatoes, for instance. Is there another ingredient more closely associated with Italy? During a midsummer visit, a caprese salad couldn’t have had more eye appeal, its components singing in a harmonious chorus: ultra-creamy burrata, fruity olive oil, sweet basil, even a few grinds of teasingly spicy black pepper. But the tomatoes, the dish’s centerpiece? Not good. Beautiful color, yes, but a shamefully mealy, flavorless bite. Outside of tomato season, why not enhance them with roasting, or pickling? Or not serve them at all?
Arancini (the name is a reflection of their shape and is rooted in the Italian word for “little orange”) had one completely endearing attribute: Each risotto croquette was lovingly filled with five peas, which our server told us was Dave Cossetta’s nod to his five children, exactly the kind of lore that makes a multigenerational restaurant so appealing.
Yet they were ponderously overfried and gluey. Chicken, pressed under a brick, had tantalizingly bronzed, crispy skin and juicy, slightly lemon-y meat, but was intolerably salty. Ditto nearly every pasta I tried.
A passing acquaintance with nuance would also go a long way. Witness linguine with clams, which arrived swimming in a watery white wine sauce overwhelmed by lip-burning red peppers, the tiny Manila clams taken well past their optimum texture. Some dishes were just flat-out disasters, starting with a truly unappetizing conglomeration of a forgettable polenta covered with overcooked prawns and an ungainly blanket of mozzarella.
Yet there were bright spots. I could happily sit down to the tubes of toothy rigatoni coated with guanciale-enriched cream sauce and served with plenty of Cossetta’s well-seasoned sausage.
The kitchen has an affinity for beef, whether it’s grilled (a porterhouse), braised (short ribs) or raw (a sweet, velvety carpaccio). Veal, too, pan-seared with butter and herbs.
There’s a colorful, artfully composed salad of beets and tangy goat cheese, the traditional pasta e fagioli soup is wonderfully redolent with smoky ham, and given the workrooms downstairs, it’s no surprise that there’s a perfectly pleasant antipasti platter and a handful of appealing desserts.
Prices are competitive, and service wasn’t particularly polished. It was, however, overwhelmingly enthusiastic, with a genuinely warm welcome at the host stand and some of the most gregarious, fun-loving servers I’ve encountered in recent memory.
The other newcomer, the first-floor pasticceria, is a revelation, a bakery of admirable ambition, quality and execution.
The sheer volume of pretty, diet-busting goodies is far too extensive to cover in a few paragraphs.
Here’s a capsule. Picture sleek display cases loaded with a Willy Wonka-like collection of silver-dollar-scaled and not-too-sweet cookies: crispy, butter discs gleaming with a tart lemon glaze, crumbly pecan lovelies, round sandwiches filled with Nutella, tiny chocolate-vanilla checkerboards, amaretto-flavored crackles, pine-nut-studded drops.
It’s easy to get lost in the crunchy nut-coated biscotti, the flaky palmiers, the tiny raspberry tarts glistening with sugar, the tangy miniature Key lime pies, the golden apple tarts, the delicate Napoleons lavishly filled with rich pastry cream, the fluted éclairs, the plump, chocolate-coated cream puffs and the dense, creamy cheesecakes.
There are delightfully rich gelati and vibrant, clean-tasting sorbets. The kitchen also turns out tempting confections, mixing them with imported Italian chocolate truffles.
Even the basics are noteworthy. Coffees hail from Italian-based Lavazza, of course, and the chocolate-chip cookie, dense with bittersweet chocolate, is one of the genre’s shining lights.
The elegant room, slathered in enough pink Italian marble to remake several Vatican restrooms, has one failing: It’s not nearly roomy enough. It’s wedged between the market and the eatery, with just enough square footage to house a cramped row of small tables. Is that any way to treat such a glamorous star?
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib.