Scusi is part of the Blue Plate family—the company’s restaurants also include Edina Grill, Groveland Tap, Highland Park Grill, Longfellow Grill, and Three Squares Restaurant. Those other siblings are closely-related, sharing menu items and a similar atmosphere.
Scusi, on the other hand, more resembles a stepchild, with a chef-driven, fairly-traditional Italian menu. Its only apparent Blue Plate “gene” is a strong connection to the neighborhood it serves. While I was there on a busy Thursday night, my dining partner remarked how diners tended to linger over their tables well into the evening, enjoying just one more glass of wine before venturing back out into the cold.
This tendency to remain tableside may be because of Scusi’s inviting, family-friendly dining room, or perhaps its generous wine prices. For what most restaurants charge per glass, servers here instead pour a quartino—about a glass-and-a-half, which two diners easily can share. If you have four quartinos throughout the course of the evening, you’ve enjoyed the equivalent of a bottle of wine, plus its equal (or less) in typical restaurant price, and best yet, you have the freedom to pair it with each course. The restaurant is able to keep prices low thanks to a state-of-the-art wine storage system, where an open bottle can remain perfectly fresh and table-ready for weeks, instead of a few days.
Our first taste of Scusi was crisp, acidic, and organic Frog’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc ($10 quartino/$20 mezzo/$29 bottle). A prim little bag of rosemary crackers and white bean garlic dip arrived, which we immediately dumped onto one of many dinner-size plates stacked on our table. The reason for the plates, we later were told, is that food here, with the exception of appetizers and salads, comes out of the kitchen when it’s ready—no heat lamps—so no one’s arrives dry and congealed because someone else ordered steak well-done. Therefore, family-style ordering is encouraged—the portions aren’t so large as to be intimidating, and plates definitely are shareable. One easily could order both a pasta dish and an entrée, and not be too overwhelmed.
However, we eyed Beef Carpaccio ($9), and began there. The acidic Frog’s Leap actually pairs well with the pragmatic carpaccio, which is sprinkled with capers, and drizzled with marjoram aioli and olive oil. Sea salt is provided at the table, but we were warned that we never would need it for Executive Chef Alex Zuniga’s fare—he is known for his seasoning perfection.
If you’re used to a beet salad on the brighter side of the taste spectrum, prepare for something pleasantly different with Beet Rattafia ($9). Zuniga’s espresso, red wine, and honey rattafia sauce brings out the subtle earthy flavor in the beets. It really is the perfect winter salad, with its St. Pete’s blue cheese and lush bed of mixed greens. If your server offers fresh cracked pepper, say yes. With the salad, we had a quartino of creamy, fuller-bodied Lageder Chardonnay ($8.50/$17/$24.50).
Learning that Scusi pastas are housemade, we couldn’t resist sampling Herb Pappardelle ($8). On dreary winter weekends, my mother used to make homemade noodles, which have no comparison in texture or taste to a manufactured product—at least, I haven’t found a product that can perform as well when cooked al dente. These fat, succulent noodles—the name “pappardelle” actually derives from the verb meaning “to gobble up”—are tossed with fresh herbs, shallots, white wine, butter, and a little extra virgin olive oil. What more does one need, really?
That last was supposed to be rhetorical, but I realized I had an answer: Braised Short Ribs ($11). Like the pappardelle, this dish is uncomplicated, yet very satisfying. Brancaia Tre ($10/$20/$29), rich with cocoa, dark fruit, and tannins, is a standout pairing.
The special Apple Spice Cake (usually around $6) is moist to the point that it almost mimics bread pudding. All desserts at Scusi are made in-house. From what I tasted of the apple spice cake, if your evening is not going well at another restaurant, by all means get the check, and head here for dessert…plus—what the hell?—another glass of wine. My dining partner and I both don’t eat sweets often (I simply must find a friend with an unhealthy sugar habit), but the cake vanished in a few minutes—it was that good.
Scusi also offers pizza, with a selection of olives, meats, and cheeses, but mi scusi, one only can do so much in one evening.
Reservations, recommended for peak dining hours, are available through www.opentable.com.
1806 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul