Longstanding family-owned restaurants tend to exist in our imaginations as better than they truly are. We want to love the place with the popover, the sirloin, the spaghetti and meatballs because we've always loved them. Our parents went there. Our grandparents loved the garlic bread.
But these restaurants are often more nostalgia than substance, and our annual pilgrimages to them for old time's sake cannot keep them in business. Eventually, they die like all dinosaurs do. And when they shutter, our memories let them live on forever, as holy and impeccable as they never truly were.
Mucci's rises above the nostalgia. It takes all that is good about this sort of classic restaurant and makes it righteously and truly great.
Why should a boxy, 44-seat West Seventh neighborhood storefront with no signage and black interior walls instantly have lines trailing down the block? Well, because Mucci's doesn't take reservations for one thing, a mild annoyance that doesn't keep the throngs away; nor does the lack of a proper vestibule or waiting area. Trying to get a table can be a cacophonous comedy of errors that you'll either love or hate depending on your affinity for rubbing shoulders and sloshing wine. (They'll gladly fetch you a Prosecco on tap while you wait.)
If you have less of a sense of humor about such matters, wait at the nearby Spot Bar, a century-old neighborhood drinker's institution that is now home to much of Mucci's overflow.
Other reasons for the lines: doughnuts on weekend mornings until sold out; frozen lasagna for takeout; flickering red candles, the bulbous ones your favorite childhood pizzeria had; and classic Italian favorites with lakes of red sauce.
Taken alone, these details could be fairly unremarkable, except that Mucci's is also really good. It's instantly familiar, infinitely approachable, and there's a lot of noodles and deep-fried stuff.
This is your old-school family red-sauce place, remastered with boundless finesse. "It's more culinarily driven than I expected," says Tim Niver, longtime St. Paul restaurateur and the brains behind the place. He originally conceived of Mucci's as a takeout pizza and pasta place, but it eventually took on a mind of its own.
You can taste that culinary drive in the Italian Wedding Soup, a luminous, rich stock with greenish-yellow bubbles of olive oil floating atop the surface. The meatballs could be a metaphor for much of what you'll find at the restaurant — easygoing and bountiful and startlingly fresh. The soup is just peasant's ingredients, but made slowly and methodically and with so much love it's special enough for the most special of occasions.
This is the magic of Mucci's: The simplest things, down to the house salad, get the Midas touch. Greens are so fresh, chilled, and taut that each individual leaf stands at attention like a little green soldier. House vinaigrette is perfectly balanced, and a light dusting of Locatelli cheese (a cousin to Romano) offers a restrained finish. Would that all salads were this precise.
Spaghetti and meatballs get a makeover while still remaining their steadfast selves, just better and more beautiful. Noodles are fatter than the spaghetti you know, the circumference of a drinking straw. They arrive cooked to the texture that would please a kid, not the "al dente" so prized in the pasta world. This is comfort food. The pork and beef meatballs are the gold standard of meatballs, and another snow-cover dusting of Locatelli makes this the spaghetti to possibly beat them all.
There's something formidable about Mucci's red sauce. It's racy without being spicy and brightly acidic while remaining rich. I recently asked Tim McKee, formerly of La Belle Vie and arguably Minnesota's most important chef, what he thought the secret was and he said, "I don't think there is any secret. They just do it right."
Niver confirmed that suspicion, saying that it's "not quite" a daylong affair, and that it "almost needs to be made by the same person every day," though a couple of different people have mastered it. The other secrets: There's meatball meat in the sauce, and Parmesan cheese, and it's a little bit different every day, and that's totally okay.
Try it in the Layers of Love lasagna, a yardstick by which to measure all other lasagna. It's notable for not being notable, for being exactly what you want when you want lasagna. "It's like when you go to someone's house and their mom makes lasagna, it's like, 'Oh, that's good!'" says Niver. (Perhaps it's no big surprise that Mucci is Niver's mother's maiden name).
"This food fills a need in your body, but also in your mind," Niver says. "It takes care of you."
This is the part where I tell you I don't like Mucci's pizza. In a Twin Cities with excellent pizza of almost every stripe, Niver has chosen a little-known traditional Neapolitan preparation called Montanara where the crust gets flash-fried in a deep fryer, like a savory elephant ear. The result is chewy and puffy but also what could be described as greasy, as things that get dipped in hot oil are wont to be.
Montanara will instantly have its adherents and its detractors, depending on how you feel in general about deep fryers and hot grease. If the State Fair is your nirvana, then order it. If your curiosity won't be curbed until you have it, share one with the table so you don't miss out on Mucci's many other calling cards. Or order the garlic Montanara, their version of garlic bread. It gets the Montanara treatment but takes its bath in hot garlic butter instead of oil. It's irresistible in a way that the pizza isn't.
There are other reasons to possibly forgo the pizza. Mucci's is not all red sauce, all the time. The tagliatelle with clams is all grown up and al dente, enlivened with chile and garlic butter. The baked campanelle is a baked pasta that doesn't suffocate under blankets of cheese, but instead takes its victory from succulent pulled beef cheek and red pepper fondue. An embarrassingly generous meat and pickles plate has all the meats and all the pickles but also silkiest-ever chicken liver mousse, and deviled eggs with party hats of sunshine-yellow yolk.
"When I walk in here and look around, I find there is a real sweetness to this place," says Niver. He's not alone. Layers of love and sweetness: These are the things of Mucci's.
786 Randolph Ave., St. Paul