Trattoria da Vinci (St. Paul, MN)

Why is an Italian restaurant in the Twin Cities so empty for dinner? Is it the downtown St. Paul location? Is it the intimidating Italian language on the menu? Do people think they need a reservation? It certainly can’t be the wonderful food, the romantic atmosphere, or the friendly service. Frankly, we’re puzzled.

Trattoria da Vinci is in a cavernous space on the first floor of the Park Square Court office building. It’s sort of a faux post-World War I décor: exposed blonde brick walls, fake marble columns, replicas of Leonardo da Vinci ornithopters hanging from the ceiling, a large bar area in the corner. The lighting is subdued, and the candlelit tables are nicely set. There’s live music most nights. It’s too loud for us, but it fits the mood nicely.

This is not the Italian food Karen grew up with. At the restaurants she ate at, you’d find a lot of Italian dishes all made from the same old tomato sauce. Here, everything tastes different, unique, special, and fabulous.

This is real Italian cooking. The dishes are best passed around the table and shared, talked and lingered over, and served with wine. The wine list is short and sweet but full of very reasonable wines. You’d think there’d be lines of people waiting for a table.

The menu is broken up into four sections: antipastos, salads, pastas and entrees. If you want to order every course, you’re going to have to share. Even a salad and an entrée per person is too much food.

For the antipastos, we recommend everything. The deep fried seafood has scallops, shrimp, and squid, as well as carrots and zucchini. It’s crunchy and flavorful but not greasy, and comes with an aïoli as a dip. The steamed clams and mussels are served in a hot, spicy garlic broth, and the dish comes with toast to sop up the extra. The raw beef carpaccio, marinated in lemon juice and olive oil, is delicious. The dish comes with a hefty salad garnish, too, so you could skip the salad course if you order this. Even better is the pacchetti, a combination of tomato, mozzarella, and basil wrapped in a cooked slice of eggplant and served in a tomato sauce. But the best appetizer is white cannellini beans and spicy sausage. The table quickly nicknamed it “beany wienies,” and it was passed around the most. The sage seasoning was unexpected and delightful.

All the salads are good, but three stand out. The spinach and garlic salad with gorgonzola dressing is intense and flavorful. The Tuscan salad—cucumber, tomato, and red onion—in a rich basil and oregano vinaigrette and served over toasted bread, is also full of flavor. The baby green salad with a mustard and vinaigrette dressing is light and lovely.

Pastas are uniformly delicious. Da Vinci makes a Bolognese sauce that is simply perfect: rich and meaty and full of tomato flavor and spices. The penne pasta is served with a tomato sauce of a completely different kind: tomatoes, mushrooms in a hot pepper sauce.

For yet a third tomato sauce, order the gnocci. The flavor is more purely tomato. You can also order the gnocci with gorgonzola sauce or pesto. The gorgonzola is the best, but it’s too rich to eat alone. We found it nice to alternate a bite of the gorgonzola gnocci with a bite of the tomato gnocci. It would be nice if the restaurant would offer a tri-color gnocci dish with small portions of each.

Another excellent pasta is the cannelloni: a delicious dish of crepes filled with meat and béchamel sauce. Best of all is the risotto, made with chicken, asparagus, portobellos, and saffron. Avoid the chicken ravioli; everything else is much better.

We hope you saved room for the meats and fishes. We strongly recommend the grilled lamb chops, tender as butter and heavily flavored with rosemary and garlic. The veal scaloppine is also delicious, as are the chicken and shrimp entrees.

And desserts. Who can eat dessert after all this food? If you can still eat, order anything from the dessert menu. Or sit around the table and talk for a couple of hours, and then order dessert.

All this sharing leads us to wonder: what do you do if you’re eating alone? Some of the dishes would be impossible: anything with gorgonzola, for example. It’s just too rich. We recommend some of the pastas: the cannelloni, the spicy penne, the risotto, or the Bolognese. Start with one of the seafood antipastos or a salad, and you’ve got a nice meal.

Trattoria da Vinci is also open for lunch, which is when they do their best business. They have a nice menu of dishes, and a pasta bar where you can select your own pasta, meat, vegetables, and sauces to be cooked for you. But we think this restaurant needs more dinner patrons. If you live in Minneapolis, consider this: it might be a longer drive to downtown St. Paul, but parking is a snap. And you won’t find Italian food like this in downtown Minneapolis.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.