Saturday, October 17, 2009

Donatelli's Italian Resaurant

Let's be clear about something. My blog is not a big deal. I can count my followers on my fingers (thanks to all 8 of you). I've been able to steer a few of you to a good meal, and I'm delighted about that, but do I think my good opinion is essential to any restaurant's reputation in the wider world? Of course not. But pretend with me for a second. Imagine that TCDA has become the collective voice of Twin Cities foodies. Minnesotans cannot begin the day without tuning in to see where I'm eating now, and what I think about it. Restauranteurs cannot sleep at night until they know I approve of their establishments. I can, with the most casual flourish of my keyboard, reduce a perfectly respectable diner to a smoldering ruin. Are you with me? Good. Excuse me for a second while I have a giggle about that whole idea.


If all of that were true, Donatelli's would not need me. Wouldn't even notice. Because it seems that everyone who grew up north of 36 and east of 35E has been going to Donatelli's weekly for the last 30 years. And believe me when I say everyone. You cannot eat here without being part of the most diverse and interesting group of people you've ever seen in one restaurant at one time. The funny thing is, the rest of us in the Cities have likely never heard of the place. Again, not a big deal for them, because they're full virtually every night, but still, I felt a little cheated when some of my White Bear amigos finally tipped me off. I mean, have I not been one of the cool kids all this time? Can that be true? Well now I know, so rather than consider that possibility, I'll shut up and eat my pasta.

There is something inescapably charming about Donatelli's. It's not in the nuance, and it's not in the atmosphere. Most of the decor is built around a small army of stuffed Pink Panthers, most of whom seem to be engaged in some seasonally appropriate activity or other. You wouldn't find them at La Belle Vie, but they work here, like old friends you're happy to see again. Old, stuffed, pink friends. The staff is also unvaryingly friendly, and the mood is light, energetic, and sincere. Even the Boss, who's been doing this for 30 years now, still runs food out to tables, and will occasionally sit and chat with the customers. Ask him about the history of the restaurant, and you're guaranteed an enthusiastic account of the early days, when everything Donatelli's offered had to be stable enough to trundle through the pizza oven, because there wasn't any other equipment.

When a full house is a sure thing, service can go south in a hurry. Servers get complacent and condescending, and it doesn't take long to ruin what might once have been a wonderful place. Certainly many quality establishments have faded away over lesser sins. The staff here somehow dodges that bullet. It's as if they know they've got it good, and they appreciate you for it. They're having fun, and they take it personally if you're not. You might show up grumpy, but I bet you won't leave that way.

What to eat? Everything I've tried has been exactly what I needed. The Donatelli's Dunkers are a good place to start. They're slices of fresh Italian bread with mozzarella and a side of red sauce. Get them with the garlic butter. As if you need me to tell you that. For an entree, I can't seem to get past the baked mostaccioli. It's about what you'd expect. Pasta and red sauce, covered with cheeses and baked bubbly. Only the red sauce is way more interesting than you're prepared for, and the pasta is homemade and fresh. All of the pastas here, with the exception of the stuffed varieties, are made in-house, and you can tell the difference, even when the little guys have been smothered and baked. Your dinner will also be bigger than your head, so plan on taking something for lunch the next day, if you want to be able to walk to your car. This is comfort food of the highest order. Most of it is horrible for you, but it makes you happy, and when it ends up being two meals, that's not so bad, is it?

What surprises me are the details here. Everything is just a notch better than it really needs to be, and that's a rare thing. Homemade pasta. Fast, efficient service. Meals that arrive piping hot. Friendly people that really do care that you eat well. And of course an owner who is still there, still involved, and still having a good time making it all go.

If you somehow manage to save room, there's a full-service ice cream counter in the front of the house, and several Donatelli's favorites available to take home with you. Seriously, why would you ever leave?

Entrees go from $6.99 up to $17.99, the beer and wine is basic and a little more spendy than it ought to be. If you don't do a lot of drinking, you can feed yourself and a date very reasonably. So what are you waiting for? Go. Go early. You'll probably end up waiting anyway, but I bet they'll bring you pizza fries if you're nice. Yeah, those are perfect, too.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Maria's Café

So many things going on this week, it's dizzying. My wife, who, by the way, is a superhero, ran the Twin Cities 10-mile this morning. I am immensely proud of her. I would not, of course, be writing about restaurants at all if it weren't for the lovely Miss J on the other side of the table. The Rose Ensemble is releasing their new CD, "Il Poverello," this weekend, so there are concerts aplenty to celebrate that. And we have Italian guests in town, and of course we have to do our best to show them why we think this is a marvelous place. For breakfast, that meant taking them directly to Maria's.

When the band was in Spain a while back, we were in the wine region known as Rioja. That was just fine, of course. The place was beautiful, the food was good, and the wine was wonderful, but you really had to like Rioja, because that was what you were going to get. Even in the stores, there weren't many options beyond that. Here, my accomplice Carrie and I were able to pack two Italians off to a Colombian restaurant to have Venezuelan corn pancakes. How cool is that?

By the way, I'm sure you've heard all sorts of people espouse this or that as a universal language. They're all wrong. It's pancakes.

Maria's is located in a group of shops and offices known as The Ancient Traders Market, on Franklin just west of 11th Ave. You can have your breakfast, then run across the parking lot for great deals on baking supplies at the Aldi. Parking is off-street and plentiful, always a plus in my book. It also doesn't hurt that they're kitty-corner from the Franklin Street Bakery, a wonderful place to stop while you're in the neighborhood.

The menu is not huge, but there's something for everyone here. If you want your basic eggs and toast, that's not a problem. If, on the other hand, you're after a plantain pancake, then you can do that, too. The coffee is good, and the array of exotic fruit juices will keep you entertained for weeks. I've never had anything here that wasn't wonderful. The salsa is to die for, the refried are excellent (vegetarians, don't say you weren't warned), the build-it-yourself plates are yummy AND fun, it's all just great, and almost beside the point. Because the reason you go to Maria's is the same reason everyone else goes to Maria's– the pancakes. Specifically the corn pancakes, or Cachapas Venezolanas. I really don't have words to describe these beauties. They're plate-sized, full of corn, sweet, salty, tangy, buttery, crisp on the edges, soft on the inside, and incapacitatingly wonderful. You can have them plain with butter, with syrup (not sure why, but it's an option), or (the way to go) with crumbly cotija cheese. The cheese is enough to share, so only one of you needs to order it. It sounds strange, I know, but be brave. You'll enjoy it. The only thing to be careful of is their deceptive size. They don't look dangerous, but trust me, you'll want to start with one. Once or twice a year, I'll convince myself that I'm hungry enough for two of them. I have never once been right about this. One, with a side of eggs or breakfast meat, is a perfect meal. Maybe not energy food, but certainly happiness food, and isn't that just as important?

The downside of Maria's is that everyone loves it, and once you go, you keep on going. Which means that, on the weekends, the place is packed, and I do mean packed. If you must go Saturday or Sunday, go early, or be prepared to wait. The mass of humanity is only one side of the problem. The building is not enormous, and neither is the kitchen. Being staffed with regular old humans, they sometimes have trouble keeping up. If you want to experience Maria's at its best, go for breakfast during the week. It's still busy, but it's much more relaxed, and the food will likely be that much closer to heaven.

Prices are reasonable. If you don't go crazy, two of you can do breakfast for under $20, and still leave stuffed. Isacco and Stefano did. Stuffed, and very very happy.