The most memorable pasta I’ve encountered this year was also the most uncomplicated.
It was the cacio e pepe at Hyacinth, and it comes together in just six ingredients: bucatini, olive oil, butter, pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano and black pepper.
Tons of black pepper. An invigorating, sinus-clearing level of black pepper. And this is no commodity supermarket seasoning, either. Chef/owner Rikki Giambruno and chef du cuisine Paul Baker rely upon organically grown, vine-ripened, sun-dried peppercorns from Zanzibar, a revelatory product that will — for anyone who comes within its orbit — forever alter their impression of this taken-for-granted pantry staple.
“It has become one of our secret weapons,” said Giambruno with a laugh.
For this classic Roman pasta dish, the duo turns to several methods to fully exploit the peppercorns’ deeply layered flavors. Some are cracked directly into the pan’s hot oil — which both mellows the spice’s characteristic punch and unlocks its background notes — while the rest is added just before the plate leaves the kitchen, a fresh-cracked exclamation point.
The cacio — that’s Italian for “cheese” — side of the equation is handled with far more restraint. That pecorino, used sparingly, adds its usual salty sharpness, and a quick dash of Parmiagiano-Reggiano, emulsified into the hot pasta, contributes a creamy luxuriousness.
That’s it, and the impeccable results — achieved with an obvious amount of know-how — couldn’t be more enthralling.
Giambruno and Baker both sharpened their less-is-more sensibilities when they met as a pair of Minnesota expats in the seasonally focused Italian kitchen at Franny’s in Brooklyn. When that landmark restaurant closed, Giambruno returned home — he grew up in Victoria, on Hyacinth Avenue — and realized his dream of restaurant ownership by landing a slip of a storefront on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue and then recruiting his pal Paul — he’s from Mounds View — to come home, too.
“What draws Paul and I together as cooks is a love for treating ordinary ingredients with respect, and cracking the how-do-we-make-this-craveable puzzle,” said Giambruno. “Waxwing Farm [in Webster, Minn.] has a lot of kale, so we thought, ‘All right, let’s figure this out.’ ”
Boy, did they ever. They fashion a sort-of kale soffrito, taking a low-and-slow approach by braising the chopped greens in their own moisture — a flavor-accentuating trick — until they melt. For earthiness, garlic and pine nuts (and black pepper, of course) are toasted in brown butter, then combined with that gently sweet kale and whipped ricotta.
It’s all tossed — at exactly the right moment — with fusilli, the pasta’s corkscrew shape ideal for capturing flavor-packed bits. I could happily eat this exactingly prepared comfort fare every day.
Giambruno and Baker are dry pasta advocates, and rely upon imports from Pasta Mancini, a third-generation farmstead producer in central Italy. The premium product — imported by the discerning palates at Great Ciao, the Minneapolis specialty foods supplier that’s responsible for so much that is delicious in this region — is as far away from Creamette as the distance between St. Paul and Rome.
That reverential approach to ingredients (one that’s usually accorded foie gras, truffles or other astronomically expensive ingredients) easily makes these pasta dishes the pride of the Hyacinth kitchen.
There are just two other pastas (all, by the way, sold in half/full portions) on the rigorously edited menu. Bucatini makes a second appearance, this time with hints of saffron, lots of garlic and juicy mussels, and mezze maniche — ribbed, growth-stunted rigatoni — is tossed with a rib-sticking pork ragu. Both are exceptional, and while it’s a downer to think that they’re not long for this world — the menu changes, frequently, responding to fluctuations within the local larder — it’s also fun to contemplate what else Giambruno and Baker have in mind.
The menu’s lighter fare also impresses, starting with beautifully composed crostini. Rustic loaves from the splendid Baker’s Field Flour & Bread in Minneapolis serve as the foundation, and those slices are topped with all kinds of like-minded goodies, from tart cranberries cutting through a supple chicken liver mousse, to raisins echoing the soft-spoken sweetness of delicata squash. There’s also an impressive selection of salumi (many from Red Table Meat Co. in Minneapolis) and several ingenious salads.
Just when I thought I couldn’t face another inert pile of leafy greens, along come these lively compositions. Best is the one that pulls a complete attitude adjustment on celery, its vivid flavor and crisp, almost apple-like texture bearing little resemblance to the zombielike stalks at supermarket produce departments.
My gosh, the polenta! Heart-stopping amounts of butter turn this afterthought into a near-religious experience. At a late-August dinner, it was even better — if that’s possible — because the cornmeal was cooked in a stock made from just-shucked sweet corn; summer, come back to us, fast.
As for the nothing-fancy desserts — meringue-topped chocolate semifreddo, a luscious panna cotta — they suit the low-key surroundings.
It’s the entrees where the menu tends to trip itself up, when Giambruno and Baker seemingly cast aside the minimalism that makes so much of their cooking so viscerally appealing. Sometimes, the issue is consistency. A few months ago, I couldn’t get enough of gigantic prawns, buried under unabashedly sweet and toothy kernels of sweet corn; two weeks ago, the corn was replaced by Brussels sprouts, drenched in a harsh vinegar, and the whole dish was an oversalted mess.
Not surprisingly, the most successful entree I’ve encountered is the one that takes the least convoluted approach. It’s Baker’s idea: shaping dairy-laden rice into a plate-sized cake, and frying it.
Think of it as the ultimate in leftovers, one that works particularly well as this cold weather encourages our bodies to lean into the dish’s inherent richness. The risotto stays in the pan until the outer shell is golden and crispy but the inside remains rich and creamy, and then it’s treated as a framing device for whatever is available at the farmers market: chanterelles, eggplant or vividly orange-tinted honeynut squash, its sweetness complemented by sage. Nice.
The restaurant’s skinny square footage radiates an elbow-to-elbow coziness, a rarity in the Twin Cities dining scene. It’s good for chilly Minnesotans to occasionally have their unyielding personal-space boundaries challenged, right?
But its considerable appeal doesn’t quite smooth over its deficiencies.
It’s hard to overlook draftiness, or acoustics that can be politely described as “conversation-challenging,” or the harsh, buzz-killing glare that spills from the kitchen into the charming dining room.
Two other notes: Reservations are recommended and difficult to acquire, thanks to that frustrating alchemy of scarcity — just 30 seats — and popularity; a bright spot is that the bar’s eight spots are strictly first-come, first served. And while prices might appear to teeter toward the sticker-shock end of the spectrum, it’s wise to factor in the no-tipping policy, with service fees built into the menu’s prices. If my calculations are correct — a miracle, trust me — those who tip in the 20 percent range will discover that those $24 pastas come closer to $19.
Of the deluge of restaurant openings in 2018, few — for this diner, anyway — have held the promise of Hyacinth, in part because of the kitchen’s finger-on-the-pulse attitude toward the local growing season. Which is why I optimistically view the restaurant as a work in progress. Coincidentally, so does Giambruno.
“Lately, we’ve been cooking the best food we’ve cooked, even though the produce that’s available right now is, on its face, a lot worse than it was two months ago,” he said. “I’m excited about next summer, because by then we’ll have had a whole year’s experience of cooking together as a team, and a whole year of working with vendors. I’m excited about what that means for our future.”
Info: 790 Grand Av., St. Paul, hyacinthstpaul.com
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations accepted and recommended.
Service: Casual and personable, if a bit unpolished. No tipping; menu prices include service.
Price ranges: Starters $8-$14, pastas $16-$24, entrees $22-$28, sides $6-$8, desserts $8.
Recommended dishes: Pastas, crostini, salads, risotto, polenta, chocolate semifreddo, panna cotta.
Beverage program: Short but well-devised wine list focuses on Italy and Sicily (with a few excursions into the Iberian peninsula), with 18 reasonably priced selections sold by the half-glass, glass and bottle, a swell format. Colorful, tasty cocktails ($12), a lively red wine punch ($9), several flavorful housemade sodas ($5) and a few East Metro craft beers ($6).
Special menus: A lot of options for vegetarians.