We flurry to cover the new, the hot eateries that seem to pop up monthly in these towns. There’s a three-year benchmark for most restaurants—if they can make it past that, they’ll likely live on. If a restaurant stays in business for 10 years, it’s considered successful, 20 years and it’s an institution. If a food establishment stays in business for more than 100 years, well, that’s just remarkable. When Michael Cossetta of Calabria, Italy, opened his tiny food market in 1911, do you think he would have predicted its longevity? His place was already 22 years old when Charlie’s Café Exceptionale opened, and 71 when it closed. Do you think he could have imagined the Cossetta’s of today? Well, after a $15 million renovation, Cossetta’s is showing no signs of slowing down.
Sitting on a corner of West 7th Street, the compound that makes up Cossetta’s is run by the family’s fourth generation. Refreshing it and bringing new life to the spot will be their legacy. The building feels clean and polished, the tiles gleam white, and there’s a palpable pride in the people working there. The lower level is still the bustling epicenter of activity; lines form nightly for the cafeteria menu, which is all homey, simple Italian-American food, including what I believe to be the best giant slice of cheese pizza anywhere. The market area has also been modernized and seduces you right away with big crusty loaves of olive-studded bread, deli cases jammed with imported salumi (get some mortadella), cheeses, and meatballs, racks of olive oils, and the craziest variety of dry pasta. The final phase of the lower level is the coming pasticceria, where fresh pastries and gelato will undoubtedly have their own line.
But the big news is the new news. Along with this buffing of the old space has come the unveiling of a new space. Louis is the new rooftop restaurant that brings the Cossetta family into the world of formal dining. Perched on the third floor is a fully enclosed dining room and bar with an additional patio/bar area that will open with the season. The inside Louis is very clubby, decked with dark woods and old photos, a little reminiscent of the St. Paul Grill, but with no white tablecloths and a more casual vibe. Truth be told, I was a bit surprised that the view wasn’t being leveraged, but the space was warm and the staff was welcoming.
The food at Louis aims higher than the eats on the first floor—the menu is full of traditional Italian dishes tending toward the Southern preparations. For starters, the lightly fried fritto misto was chock-full of little seafood bits and came with a nicely biting red sauce. The carpaccio was fresh and peppery, if lacking a bit of lemon to make it sing. Both the beets with goat cheese and truffle vinaigrette and the caprese with heirloom tomatoes and burrata were strikingly lovely and simply balanced. Though both dishes seemed a bit out of season, the tomatoes were ripe and beautiful.
Moving on to primi pasta, the classic spaghetti with meatballs was just that, a tomatoey classic topped with dense and delicious meatballs. My orecchiette, on the other hand, was a bit sad; it was a huge portion, but it was sparsely dotted with dried ricotta and hunks of gray sausage and carried little to no moisture or sauce. On the flip side, the linguini and clams were lithe, light, lemony, and lovely.
The secondi were a bit clunky. The chicken marsala tasted nutty and sweet, but the plate was a soupy pool of beige. The bistecca alla fiorentina was perfectly cooked to medium rare but was somewhat awkward; it was so huge there was almost no room to cut it on the plate. I did have a special fish, branzino, which was elegantly cooked and seasoned well. There’s also a tavern menu that boasts sliders with those chubby-good meatballs, as well as a really great burger with spicy giardiniera and a super tangy Rocchetta Robiola cheese.
What this place is, what it always has been, is a family place that strives to feed the neighborhood. It’s not trying to break new culinary ground, but the food is mainly satisfying and heartwarming, not a bad go for your first full-service joint. I think with real dining, a full bar, and the coming patio season, Cossetta loyalists have a whole new reason to love it up and keep it clicking for another generation.
211 W. 7th St., St. Paul, 651-222-3476, www.cossettas.com