Caffe Biaggio (St Paul, MN)

As you can see from all of the other Twin Cities postings, earlier this month I was visiting Minnesota. The reason for my visits was than I was an invited guest speaker at the University of Minnesota Mechanical Engineering Department (where I got my PhD, for those that don’t know about my ‘day job’ as an engineer). After my seminar, several professors from the department took me to Caffe Biaggio in St Paul for dinner.

Caffe Biaggio is an interesting little spot in in St Paul, since it lay at the intersection of two of my area interests. The first is “Dinkytown History”. When I lived in the Twin Cities, I lived just outside of Minneapolis’ Dinkytown neighborhood. Dinkytown is a nice little “village within a city” in Minneapolis, and over the years it has maintained most of that atmosphere despite the development around it. It’s still the home of Al’s Breakfast, my all-time favorite breakfast joint, and Shuang Cheng, one of my favorite Chinese joints.

But, historically, it was also the home of several of the legendary Italian Restaurant Wars, in which three Italian joints would compete for students’ and residents’ dollars: Mama D’s (originally “Sammy D’s”), The Valli, and Vescio’s. Of these, only Vescio’s is still there, but it’s mostly a time capsule of how things were in the heyday of the restaurant wars. But Mama D’s was also legendary, primarily for Mama D herself, Giovanna D’Agostina, who presided over the restaurant like a matriarch, befriending guests and known for her generosity.

By the time I moved to Minneapolis in 1995, Mama D’s was long-closed (they closed sometime in the early 1980s), but by then Mama D had relocated over to St Paul’s St Anthony Park neighborhood (confusingly, several neighborhoods and one city in the Twin Cities area), and was still well known for both Italian food and Mama D’s generosity, particularly on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19th), when she’d offer up a free meal for locals. Unfortunately, Mama D died in March 2009, at the age of 94.

And that brings me to a second minor interest in the Twin Cities. The entire time I lived in the Cities, on University Avenue in St Paul was one brick building (the “Specialty” building) which had a really interested vacant Art Deco storefront on one corner. Some digging of mine had determined that at one point this was a bar called the Ace Box (if you head down the way to The Dubliner Pub, they’ve got the old sign from the Ace Box inside), but aside from a stint as office space for the building, it spent many years vacant, and I was always a little disappointed that nobody ever refurbished such a cool store front.

Well, in 2002, the two stories converge: John D’Agostina, the son of Mama D, opened Caffe Biaggio in that very store front, and with this visit to the Twin Cities, I was finally able to go there with a number of my University of Minnesota hosts.

Caffe Biaggio serves up a pleasant menu primarily focusing on rustic Italian dishes, including a range of nice antipasti starters, several well-made pasta dishes, and a good selection of Italian classic entrees to round it out. We started with some table appetizers, which included a most impressive trio of bruschettas: olivada, white bean & corn, and tomato. This was a thoroughly pleasant combination of good crusty Italian bread that was nicely toasted with olive oil, and some flavorful toppings. The white bean and corn topping was particularly flavorful and pleasant, but both the olivada and the classic tomato toppings were flavorful as well.

I followed that up with another favorite of mine: the gnocchi. Ever since a trip to Gracie’s in Providence a few years ago showed me how good gnocchi could be, they’ve remained a go-to dish of mine at Italian places. And the Basil Spinach Gnocchi at Biaggio didn’t disappoint: nice, slightly firm little packets of dough rich in herb flavor, these had the exact texture I like in a good gnocchi. They were also served up in a pleasant brown butter sauce over a rich marina, which was flavorful without overwhelming the pleasant gnocchi. I was thoroughly pleased with this as well.

Rounding it out, I got the tiramisu. I’m always a little hesitant to order tiramisu (too often I get some sort of over-soaked and over-sweetened confection), but seeing another table’s order come out of the kitchen erased any doubts. And this was a top-notch tiramisu: the ladyfingers were not over-soaked, so they still had a pleasant toothsomeness to them. The primary flavors were cream, espresso, and chocolate, without being overly sweet. And the whole slice was rather nicely put together.

Overall, my trip to Biaggio was very pleasant: the staff very friendly, the food excellent, and they’ve even addressed two of my Twin Cities curiosities. I’ll be sure to bring Carol here the next time we’re both in the Twin Cities.

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