Pasta in the North Loop

Josh Thoma (La Belle Vie, Solera, Barrio) and Isaac Becker (112 Eatery) have been friends since the mid-1990s, when they met while working at D'Amico Cucina. "Josh trained me in on the salad station," said Becker.

Thoma and Becker are finally teaming up -- along with Nancy St. Pierre (Becker's spouse and business partner) and Tim Rooney and Ryan Burnet (Barrio co-owners) -- and going into business together.

"It's exciting to be working with Isaac again after all these years," said Thoma. "It's funny, because before I ever talked about doing a restaurant with Tim [McKee, chef/co-owner of La Belle Vie, etc.], Isaac and I talked about opening a restaurant together. When he decided to stay with D'Amico, I hit up Tim, he said 'great' and that's the genesis of La Belle Vie."

When their new enterprise debuts in mid-August, Bar La Grassa (800 Washington Av. N., Minneapolis) will specialize in moderately priced pastas: 10 fresh and 10 dried options, served in large and small portions.

"We want to showcase the merits of dried pasta," said Becker. "A lot of people don't think it's very special, but fresh and dried are equally good in my mind." The menu will also feature a bruschetta roster, salads, side dishes and a number of family style proteins, including a steak for four and, "pork, fish, whatever I can find that's in season and nice," said Becker. Thoma is also promising a list of reasonably priced Italian wines.

The former -- and somewhat cavernous -- Babalu space will be carved up to include a counter for a dozen or so diners facing the open kitchen as well as a private dining room and a grotto-like bar; the dining and bar will max out at 150 seats.

Thoma, already one of the city's busiest restaurateurs, is about to get yanked in yet another direction: He and McKee are launching their Lowertown branch of Barrio (235 E. 6th St., St. Paul) in mid-June. At the 112, chef de cuisine Denny Leaf-Smith will continue to run the kitchen, "While I get the luxury and excitement of opening a new store," said Becker.

Long Lake, Loring Park

Caterer-turned-restaurateur Burton Joseph is also going to be doubling his work load. The owner of Birch's (1935 W. Wayzata Blvd., Long Lake, diyws.com/birchs) is launching a second Birch's on the edge of downtown Minneapolis (1359 Willow St.). When it opens in September, the 230-seat restaurant will occupy a prominent piece of Loring Park real estate, on the ground floor of a swank new apartment complex. Joseph is promising a contemporary supper club menu similar to that of the original and not-quite year-old Birch's, with an additional emphasis on small plates and pizzas during happy and late-night hours. A large patio will overlook the park and the bar will feature glass garage-style doors designed to bring the outdoors inside. So far the plan is dinner and weekend brunch, although Joseph may add a summertime lunch service. One final plus: Joseph will be able to host private parties on the building's elaborate rooftop terrace.

Hitting the roof

Wondering if spring weather conditions merit an open-air meal? The Twin Cities outdoor dining barometer surely belongs to the rooftop patio at Stella's Fish Cafe and Prestige Oyster Bar (1400 W. Lake St., Minneapolis, stellasfishcafe.com). The Uptowner's roof has already done brisk business on a half-dozen sunny days since late March. "We watch the weather closer than Belinda [Jensen, of KARE 11]," said general manager Gary Windschitl with a laugh. "Everyone in our neighborhood knows, if any patio is open, it's going to be Stella's."

RICK NELSON