With choices aplenty, no need to noodle over the pasta to order. They're all good.
I'm loving my dinner.
It's a shallow bowl of pitch-perfect al dente spaghetti, and each forkful is singing with lemon and basil and bits of delicate trout. It's light and flavorful and just a teeny bit out of the ordinary, it's holding up beautifully against a bright Sicilian white wine and it feels exactly right for what is an uncharacteristically sweltering May evening.
There are two dozen pastas on chef Michael Rostance's constantly evolving, value-oriented menu, and when they're as good as my dinner, which is often, they're devilishly, impeccably good. From my front-row seat at the oak counter at Broders' Pasta Bar, I relished all the action as a pair of fast-thinking chefs juggled orders, one manning the sauté station, the other boiling the kitchen's fine house-made pasta and deftly finishing each plate. As one steaming beauty after another flew off the tiny stainless-steel prep counter and out to an undoubtedly happy customer, I tried to keep a mental scorecard: Next time I'll order that one. And that one. Oh, and definitely that one.
And so I did. Skinny flat ribbons were tossed with a rich truffle pesto and just the right amount of cream. Dill-flecked linguine twirled through colorful kale and chard, chickpeas, shrimp and bits of tangy feta; it was one of those ideas that got better and better with each flick of my wrist, the flavors melding and evolving into a sumptuous, well-balanced nirvana.
Feisty sausage tarted up a classic tomato-olive oil-garlic combo over fat, nicely chewy spaghetti. Balsamic vinegar gave a mellow smack -- and shaved almonds added a pleasant crunch -- to a marvelously hearty bowl of flat, scalloped-edged quadracci jazzed with chicken, prosciutto, asparagus and fresh greens.
The flavor of fresh ginger kept popping in and out of a lightly creamy blend of scallops and spinach over linguine. A Bolognese over tagliatelle, a savory lamb-eggplant ragu clinging to long, flat pappardelle and penne with a rosemary-tomato cream sauce were all richly satisfying. I'm crazy about the light, lemony risotto, made with admirably plump carnaroli rice and finished with chicken and asparagus. The lasagna alone could inspire a Food Network series, with woody mushrooms layered between alternating sheets of spinach and egg yolk pasta and then bathed in a golden saffron cream sauce. If there are quibbles -- weak-hearted seasonings, wimpy protein portions -- they are minor and occasional ones.
It really is all about the pasta here, with a few exceptions. The bread basket is a total keeper, and the caprese is a must, a rite-of-spring combination of squeaky-fresh mozzarella, perky cherry tomatoes, pert asparagus, olive oil and refreshing bits of lemon zest; I can't imagine visiting and not ordering it. A classic Caesar does the trick, and spicy grilled sausage served with caramelized fennel are equally fine meal-starters.
But most appetizers feel -- and taste -- perfunctory and uninspired. Dessert is equally uneven, with a rustic strawberry-rhubarb tart, an intensely dark flourless chocolate tort and a luscious crème caramel rising to the top.
Minneapolitans are indebted to owners Molly and Tom Broder. Although the notion seems absurd today, the couple, armed with a 4,000-signature petition, had to go all the way to the State Capitol for permission to pour wine in their restaurant. Their diligence inspired a much-needed change in the city charter in 1996 and opened the door for wine and beer sales at other neighborhood cafes. The Broder family makes the most of that hard-fought wine license, amassing an approachable and affordable all-Italian roster that's a pleasure to explore.
An abbreviated version -- and a few snacks -- are served at the nicely groomed patio bar, where summertime diners-to-be patiently wait, pagers in hand, for a coveted seat. The restaurant -- an old Amoco service station -- isn't big, with a single row of tables ringing that u-shaped bar and a cramped hallway doubling as a lobby. Despite the beating it takes from its constant patronage, the room is kept in admirable condition, although the peach-tinted sponged walls and colanders-as-lampshades shtick seem well beyond their expiration date.
Watching all the animated conversation bubbling around my perch at the bar -- where, trust me, each seat is as premium a piece of real estate as a potential Lake of the Isles teardown -- one thought raced through my cortex: Can all this conviviality really exist in buttoned-up Minneapolis? OK, closer observation revealed that the social interaction was running true to form, with conversation obviously reserved to parties with a prior connection. God forbid a Minnesotan -- present company included -- would actually spark up a spontaneous chat with the stranger to their right. Maybe it's karmic: After all, the restaurant lives in the shadow of the city's Protestant epicenter, Mount Olivet Lutheran Church.
But kudos all the same to the Broders for giving the communal dining thing a shot these past 13 years. For taking pasta seriously. And for accomplishing the near-impossible and creating a casual neighborhood restaurant that genuinely merits a cross-town drive. Just a friendly word of advice: Before you leave the house, be sure to call ahead for a spot on the waiting list.
Rick Nelson • firstname.lastname@example.org