As those who read my restaurant reports regularly know, our kids eat out with us whenever we go out to lunch. It’s rare though that they accompany us to dinner (unless we’re traveling). A big part of this is that it’s nice to have adult time away from your children; a not insignificant part of it is also that at fancier restaurants it’s harder to find dishes that young children will eat wholeheartedly without performing surgery on plates to remove unwelcome components. Our boys are more adventurous eaters than the average upper midwestern kids of their age but vegetables—for example—remain a hard sell for them; and so the question of taking them to places where they would discard 50% of what’s on their plate just doesn’t arise. At the same time, however, they are more aware each year of how much their parents enjoy eating out and with every year their desire to participate more fully in this grows stronger. And so we’ve come to the slightly reluctant conclusion that the money we’ve been saving on babysitting since the older boy became a teenager will have to begin to be spent on initiating them more fully, if slowly, into the world of fine(r) dining. Which is how we ended up eating as a family at Mucci’s Italian in St. Paul this past weekend.
We chose Mucci’s because of all the possible relatively fancy options, Italian cuisine is the best bet for our boys to eat a full meal—i.e not just make a meal of a couple of starters that are acceptable to them, as was the case at Lat14 in 2019. A quick review of their current menu yielded a number of dishes that we could eat together without controversy. The only worrying question was whether we’d get out without eating spaghetti with meatballs. Well, that’s not true. They were told that if they wanted to keep going to adult restaurants with us they would not only have to demonstrate the ability to restrain pickiness but also to demonstrate that they could sit for 1.5-2 hours in a restaurant and make conversation without any recourse to looking at screens. They said they could but we were a bit skeptical. I am pleased and proud to say that they rose to the occasion on both counts: they tried everything that was ordered and I was the only one who looked at a phone screen.
Mucci’s Italian is located, as you probably know, in St. Paul’s West 7th neighbourhood. Or is the neighbourhood called the West End? I’ve even heard tell of people who refer to it as the Lower Highland. I take no position on these matters, not being a native myself. If you feel strongly about it, please write in below. I made the reservation under the impression that I’d eaten there many years ago. Then I was confused when I learned that it’s only been open a couple of years now (there was also a Minneapolis location that seems to have shuttered during the pandemic). On arrival I realized that I’d somehow confused it in my head with the departed Lucia’s (well, it was also in St. Paul and both names have a “u”, a “c” and an “i” in them). As it happens, Mucci’s is owned by the same group that owns St. Dinette (a place where we ate a dinner we weren’t totally enthused by).
And though it has only been open a few years, it very much has the feel of a neighbourhood restaurant. It is a compact space and it was quite full on our arrival at 6 pm on a Saturday; and was pretty full when we left closer to 7.30. The crowd included large parties of older millennials, twenty-somethings on dates (seemingly over-represented at the bar seating); multi-generational families; and older diners eating either as couples or with friends. One table even had children younger than ours.
The menu is compact as well. A few starters, a few pastas, a few pizzas. To begin we got the focaccia, adding on the optional burrata, and the one special on the night: fried calamari with a harissa aioli. Both were done nicely enough. The boys made short work of the focaccia and helped out creditably with the calamari as well (though I noticed they discreetly avoided as much of the harissa aioli as they could). For our mains we first got two pastas: the bucatini all’arrabbiata and the mafaldine tossed in a carbonara sauce with smoked salmon and dill. We avoided the spaghetti and meatballs without any controversy; probably because we landed instead on the chicken parmesan, served over spaghetti. Both the pastas were over-sauced in the standard Italian-American way and the carbonara was more than a bit cloying. None of us had it as our favourite. The missus and I liked the sauce with the arrabbiata the best and the boys liked the chicken parmesan. Over-saucing aside, I am happy to say that the pastas were cooked properly.
We also got a pizza. I hadn’t realized this until a couple of people mentioned it in the comments on my review of dinner at Alma last week but apparently the pizza is Mucci’s calling card. They do pizza montanara which features a crust that is lightly fried before being topped and baked in the usual way. There was no consensus in the comments about the quality of the pizza but given our boys’ love of pizza, there was no way we were not getting one. We got the basic Maggie (there must be a story behind the name) with a couple of toppings: one boy chose sausage and the other fried chicken. Both were very happy. Their parents noted that just as the pastas were over-sauced the pizza seemed over-topped. The boys noted sagely that everything at the meal seemed to involve a lot of cheese. This is true but it is probably also the case that they felt some pressure to keep up appearances by making some critical evaluations.
For dessert we got something called doughscuits: basically doughnut holes dusted with cinnamon and sugar and served with blueberry and raspberry (I think) jam; and also what was billed as flourless chocolate cake but did not turn out to be very much like cake at all. It was tasty enough but seemed (and looked) more like chilled chocolate pudding with cream.
For a look at the restaurant and what we ate, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it all cost, for thoughts on service, etc.
Oh yes, drinks: the younger boy got the Garden Lemonade—which he for some reason did not care for; he said it had an unexpected vegetal flavour; the older boy got the non-alcoholic Cos’no’politan, which he quite enjoyed; the two of us got a glass of prosecco each. We would have got a second glass of wine too but the food emerged so quickly—we were done with starters and mains by 6.45—that we didn’t really have the time to do it.
Service was very pleasant and present. The total before tip came to $161. With tip, to $193. So just below $50/head and we took enough leftovers home for the boys to have a full dinner the next day as well. So a pretty good value on the whole. The boys enjoyed their meal and the outing a lot. We loved eating out with them—and the fact that there was no fuss involved. The food itself we thought was at the okay end of the spectrum. Nothing was close to objectionable, nothing was anything we’d be in a hurry to eat again. It’s not a place anyone needs to drive very far to eat at, I don’t think. But if it were in our neighbourhood we’d probably stop in with the kids once every few months.
Alright, the odds are good that the boys will get another Italian meal out with us soon. I’m not sure they’re ready for Hyacinth yet. Maybe Broders’ Pasta Bar? (We’ve not been ourselves.) Or should we jump straight to Bar La Grassa? We had some reservations about our meal there a long time ago but should probably go back at some point. Somewhere else? Please advise. That won’t be for at least another month though. Next week’s Twin Cities report will likely be of lunch this coming weekend, probably featuring Korean fried chicken.