How do you fry a pizza? Why in the name of all that’s holy would you fry a pizza? Who pays 10 bucks for garlic bread? Who has the brass to open a classic Italian red-sauce joint dog-walking distance from Italian-American landmarks Cossetta and DeGidio’s? These are but some of the many questions that arise when seated within the very unassuming black box that is Mucci’s, a new St. Paul restaurant that’s kind of wonderful and kind of nuts.
It’s kind of nuts because it turns out that deep-fried pizza is amazing. In Naples, Florida, where it was born, it was a work-around for little pizzaioli who couldn’t afford a big wood-fired oven and the square footage such an oven requires. Instead, they dipped a circle of rolled-out dough in a hot oil bath to crisp it, then topped it and baked it to order. This style of pizza, called Montanara, has been making critical waves in New York City the past few years, but Mucci’s is the first to bring it north. You have to try it. The crust is light and stretchy inside, with all the flavors that come from gently, long-fermented yeast breads: It’s a bit milk-perfumed, a bit biscuity, a bit honeyed, and, of course, rich and crisp from its oil bath.
Get the garlic Montanara, a disc of the basic dough glazed with garlic and butter, and you may swoon to the ground in pure fried-dough hysterical joy. Compared to your basic good garlic bread, this stuff is black tar heroin. The Montanaras with toppings are great too. The sauce is zippy, and the sturdy crust stands up to thick and wet toppings like housemade ricotta and giant sauce-cooked meatballs. The Audrey pepperoni pizza, for its part, is absolutely what it should be: salty, perky, and rich. Even the weirdo pizzas are fantastic. No one will believe me, but The Pearl, topped with fresh oysters, oil-cured Calabrian chilies, and a molecular gastronomy–derived emulsification of clam juice, is bliss on a crust. The slither of the just-set oysters, the crisp of the crust, the haunting presence everywhere of pure clam—it comes together in an essence of sea, a beach holiday in a bite.
Did I just say something about molecular gastronomy–derived emulsification of clam? Yup. This ain’t no mere fried pizza stand. Turns out the team that dares bring $10 garlic bread and emulsified clam pizza is chef and co-owner Chris Uhrich—former sous chef of high-flying, Michelin-aspiring Heidi’s and the St. Paul locavore palace The Strip Club—and co-owner Tim Niver—who has risen to prominence in St. Paul as co-owner of The Strip Club and finer-dining St. Dinette. You see the fine-dining pedigree in Uhrich’s dishes. The agnolotti verde is a story of spring in which delicate, bright-green pillows of semolina pasta are like so many wee buttercups budding around flutters of fresh ricotta. Beside them are perfectly tender and meaty mushrooms of May, a runny egg, and razor-thin slices of shaved Brussels sprouts. It’s one of the most accomplished pasta dishes I’ve had in years, and a bargain at $16. The lamb shank was another dish that seemed straight out of a white-tablecloth destination spot: a large and perfectly cooked shank, not gummy and wilted but absolutely tender and abundantly seasoned, made modern with fresh arugula and chilled faro. What’s chilled faro doing here? Dazzling food critics, of course!
Making sense of the different faces of Mucci’s is the toughest thing about understanding the place. There’s the killer bar food part, like the fried pizza and a bizarre and wonderful monstrosity called fried provolone, the latter of which arrives a solid inch-thick plank of cheese, breaded, deep-fried, drenched in meat sauce, and presented on a tender milk bun aside a pile of pickles. Bite into it and the cheese discovers an exit from its prison of breading, oozing toward you, seeking the core of the earth through the irresistible forces of gravity. But quick—eat it faster than gravity can seize it! Amidst the slurping and gobbling, you might, for a moment, feel like you’re on a crazy Japanese game show. It’s hilarious. It’s also tasty, creamy, cheesy, nicely framed by the bun, and given a veil of depth by the tender meat ragu ladled over it. It’s bar food with a spark of genius, a Juicy Lucy that’s all Juicy, no Lucy.
Uhrich frequently smashes together Mucci’s fine-dining face with its casual fried face. Case in point: the bonkers donut menu, in which he takes his fryer in a sugary direction with concoctions like an airy and lacy bombolini the size of a smallish football built from a tracery of dough showing crumb development fit to bring a pastry teacher to tears. With its airy and pure Italian lemon meringue filling, it’s also designed to make a donut nerd like me move to West 7th Street.
The donuts are only available on weekend mornings before noon, but they’re worth the trip. I tried a blood orange–glazed one with a citrus bite around a fresh ricotta core, a savory one made with Locatelli cheese perfect for dunking in coffee, and my kids loved the sprinkle-coated cake ones, each presented with a little donut hole for a crown. They’re proof of how carefully Uhrich makes his donut batter, with lots of fresh lemon zest that gives them extra pep and purity. Note that you can have your donuts on site with a coffee in a paper cup. And while you’re at it, you might as well carry out a mess of frozen fried pizzas and quarts of Niver’s mom’s tomato sauce.
How did Niver’s Italian mother get in the mix? She evidently started it all. Mucci is her maiden name, and her son flew her out to cook with Uhrich pre-opening (to give Uhrich a sense of what cooking with Niver’s mom was like). The Italian-American comfort food dishes Uhrich developed in Audrey Niver-née-Mucci’s style are all winners, especially the tender sauce-cooked meatballs and an exquisitely mild and nuanced lasagna. You can detect the cheffy touches. Uhrich makes his own fat and slurpy-plump spaghetti and sensitively wrought meatballs, but no 8-year-old having a $5 side dish of either for dinner will notice. Nor will most adults likely notice the difference between standard lady fingers and the freshly piped ones that Mucci’s tiramisu is built with—though most will recognize the superior and delicious rich weight of the egg yolk and mascarpone custard.
All of which brings up the necessary question: Can you really add a new-old tiramisu in the year 2016 to the Fort Road/West 7th area? After all, this is tiramisu territory, as it’s been for 100 years. West 7th, once entirely known as Fort Road, is one of the oldest parts of St. Paul, dating to days when the leading profession in the area was fur trading and there was one fort, Fort Snelling, and one road to get there from the commercial waterfront of the upper navigable head of the Mississippi River (now downtown St. Paul). After it looked like St. Paul was going to be something more than a riverhead and a fort, Italian immigrants arrived, and the restaurants that fed them still cluster around the axis of 7th Street: There’s Cossetta (born 1911), DeGidio’s (1933), and, up the hill, Yarusso’s (also founded in that key, post-prohibition boom year of 1933, when the local backrooms went legit). In trying to figure out how Mucci’s fits into this history, I revisited these Italian monuments, where everyone eats tiramisu and everyone knows that the secret move is to order an extra meatball to turn lunch leftovers into dinner. Honestly, I wouldn’t say that when it comes to the basics, Mucci’s is wildly better than our historic gems, but it’s certainly never worse, and has all the modern conveniences modern folk adore, like an unassailably well-chosen and food-friendly wine list, and a couple of dishes that will make everyone on Instagram fall down dead with envy.
Which brings us, finally, to an answer: How do you fry a pizza? Deliberately, with one eye on your oil temp and the other on making a red-sauce joint both buzzy and irresistible, and a little eternal, too.
786 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, 651-330-2245, muccisitalian.com