Italian in the darnedest places
“Waste not, want not,” my mother used to counsel. Not always true, I just discovered. I’ve just polished off one of the tastiest doggie bags of a life devoted to gluttony—waste not—and, dang it, I still want more, more, more!
The dish I’m purring over is the star of the pasta list of Redrossa, the recent Italian arrival across the road from Bloomie’s at the MOA. The concept, which blew east from—huh?—Sioux Falls, S. D., is housed in a Best Western, where the dining snob in me never expected to come upon dynamite Italian food. Which it is, and with a built-in bonus. Because it’s under the roof of an anti-fancy, family-friendly chain (Get a look at that swimming pool, will you?), its prices, and attitude, are equally easygoing. And the North Woods lodge look—all fieldstone and weathered timber—is pretty inviting, too.
As is Chef Carl Littlejohn’s take on Italian cuisine. By the way, what’s this kid know about Italian cooking, anyway? First time I met him, he was leading the kitchen at Ike’s bar and grill downtown. Well, as he settles into my booth with a smile that out-watts the electric lights, he puts to rest my trepidation. As a raw cooking-school grad, he says, he got his start with the illustrious D’Amico umbrella: Can’t get more Italian than that. Which also means he’s absorbed their reverence for primo raw ingredients and hasn’t fallen for any of those whiz-kid culinary tricks that do no service to the food. Which also means, he’s good at presentation: He follows that customer-friendly maxim, “Promise less, deliver more.”
Case in point: Carl’s apps ($7-11). His bruschetta, built on toasted bread from La Brea Bakery, arrive piled with sweet, basil-marinated tomato bits topped with slivers of fresh mozz and shaves of Parmesan, displayed on a platter painted with a syrupy reduction of balsamic, the king of vinegars.
And how about those truffled arancini? To those classic balls (“oranges,” aka arancini) of crisp-sauteed rice he’s added wild mushrooms, fontina cheese and a spritz of truffle oil, then set them atop a skim of roasted-tomato sauce. Divine.
Half a dozen meal-sized salads ($8 range) display equal nods to tradition and creativity—a classic Caprese with mozz, basil and tomatoes, and a Caesar (alas, the dressings’ too wimpy), but also a spectacular toss of baby spinach, crisp prosciutto snippets, thin-sliced pears and cranberries for sweetness, balanced by a toss of rich and salty Gorgonzola cheese and walnuts, and even chicken (overkill, but hey), all showered with a sweet Vidalia onion dressing. Add soup for $4 (tomato bisque, minestrone or garlic-potato/prosciutto). Or a grilled panino. Or even, dang it, an all-American burger, if that’s what your heart is set on.
Better yet, proceed to the pastas, including that standout number that contributed to the doggie bag of my dreams: a toss of muscular penne, tasty fingers of grilled sirloin, and snips of asparagus and wild mushrooms, all brought together in a rich, smooth, Gorgonzola cream ($15; add soup or salad for $3). There’s pizza, too—eight wood-fired varieties, $10 range.
And entrees, if you make it that far down the list. Our choice: the Chianti-braised short ribs, tender as you please, cresting a mound of creamy, cheese-kissed polenta and sided with a slew of chunky and colorful al dente veggies.
Carl’s pretty proud of his walleye, too; he serves it with fingerling potatoes, roasted veggies and citrus spinach, all drizzled with a citrus butter sauce. Or, how about the kitchen’s chicken? This bird comes dressed with goat cheese, sundried tomatoes and basil under Romano-garlic cream, served with a side of spaghetti in tomato sauce. (entrees generally under $20).
Room for dessert? Mamma mia! Of course, the answer was “Si.” Stars of the list are an uber-creamy salted-caramel panna cotta and an unusual lemon-curd bread pudding, served with blueberry compote and vanilla ice cream ($6). Lots of wines by the glass, too ($5 up). And at happy hour (3-6 p.m. and again after 9 p.m.) the prices plummet even farther.
So, Redrossa, redress, send [insert your name here] right over—and let the fun begin!