1806 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul, 651-789-7007, scusistpaul.com
Both times I ate at Scusi, I left without a clear handle on its ambitions. Does the Blue Plate Restaurant Company’s latest creation mean to be a casual Mac-Groveland drop-in like sibling Groveland Tap, or is it the company’s first flag in serious culinary territory? (There are hints of both.)
As ground zero for Twin Citizens of Italian heritage, St. Paul is rife with Italian food—old-line red sauce joints churning out overcooked spag, sugared tomato sauce, and burgery meatballs, but also Cossetta, Buon Giorno, and I Nonni, restaurants I respect at all ends of the price/sophistication spectrum.
Scusi straddles the middle. The former Heartland space has been lightened and rusticized. The open kitchen dominates the boisterous room (a narrow wine bar is behind it), filled with a middle-aged crowd. Service is affable and reasonably knowledgeable. Prices are more than fair.
The offerings are a mixed bag: Recipes come from onsite chef Alex Zuniga, Blue Plate corporate chef Joan Ida, and local restaurateur and chef-consultant Scott Foster. Scusi devotes a lot of menu space to an unexciting selection of Italian meats and cheeses, with such odd choices as French brie or local blue among them. (The best offering is the broad olive selection.) Starting an often heavy and starchy Italian meal with a large platter of meat and cheese is a questionable detour here.
The “verdura” section of the menu makes a better entreé, if only the caponata, cannellini bean salad, and carpaccio weren’t served at refrigerator temperature in freezing pewter containers.
The positives: a pleasant beef carpaccio, a flavorful (though rubbery) grilled calamari, reasonably good veal meatballs, perfect risotto, robust vegetarian lasagna, al dente pasta, melting balsamic short ribs, and a winning veal osso buco with a marrow spoon thoughtfully placed on the plate.
Pasta strangely holds precious little menu territory—our pappardelle with lamb ragout was gamy and under-seasoned. Of the limited seafood selection, shrimp oreganata came bland in all respects, from breading to sauce. Speaking of which, many dishes are accompanied by a San Marzano tomato sauce, which varied from aggressively spicy on one visit to noticeably bland on another. I was also struck by the lack of pork on the main menu and the overabundance of trendy lamb. (All dishes come in single portions but are served family style, as in a Chinese restaurant.)
There are many pizzas to try. Crusts are thin and varied from soggy to crisp. Too much foo-foo truffle essence marred the funghi pie, while the duck prosciutto pizza proved a sweet, rubbery mess. Better was a more traditional meatball pie with red onion and an abundance of provolone.
Wine is an emphasis here, and pours are generous—the list a mix of expensive heavy hitters and value bottles. Many of the wines are from Sicily and Veneto, regions I find underwhelming, but they are trying.
Scusi is not aiming to be Broders’, nor does it need to be, but I will be more enthusiastic about it when it surpasses the quality and consistency of lesser, inexpensive places such as D’Amico & Sons, which does business in roughly the same price point.
ADAM'S RATING: 73 See Scusi’s RestaurantRater score at mspmag.com.
3 Great Plates ...
1 Veal Bolognese Gnocchi
Rarely do you find gnocchi this light in the Twin Cities. The tomatoey Bolognese is less than textbook, but the overall effect is tasty.
2 Squash Risotto
Beautifully cooked, this delicate risotto comes with bits of squash and Gorgonzola for some bite.
3 Apple Spice Cake
A perfect conclusion to a winter's meal, fragrant with spice and restrained on the sugar.
GETTING THERE, GETTING IN: Street parking is limited, but there’s an off-street parking lot. A walk may be required at peak hours. Reservations recommended, particularly on weekends. HOURS: M–Th 4–10 pm, F–Sa 4–11 pm, Su 4–9 pm; brunch Sa–Su 9 am–2 pm NOISE LEVEL: Moderate to high KIDS: Family-friendly food and ambience CARDS: Amex, Discover, MC, Visa ENTRÉE PRICES: $8–$26 S ACCESSIBLE