Two weeks ago, I celebrated the Four Stars of Smoking and Flaming Foods — 300 First for their glamorous smoking martinis, Osaka for the flashy sideshows at the hibachi grills, Afton House Inn for their rare bananas Foster and a well-established Greek restaurant in Minneapolis, It’s Greek to Me, for its immolated cheese, called saganaki.
That drew a flaming note from a reader who excoriated me for not knowing that Opa! Opa! restaurant in Rochester has saganaki. “You should be ashamed of yourself” for not knowing that, she said.
Appropriately chastened, I stopped by Opa! Opa! last weekend, and boy, do they put on a show with the saganaki.
At It’s Greek to Me, the kasseri cheese doused with brandy was barely flambeed at all — the server put a lighter to it, and the cheese was enveloped in a low, blue flame. It’s quite the opposite at Opa! Opa!, which has been open for about four years in a former BP station near Cub Foods. When I was there Saturday, server Melanie Jacobsen flicked her Bic, and the broiler plate exploded into flames conservatively estimated at two feet high.
Melanie held the plate at arm’s length while the fire sputtered out, and amazingly, the cheese wasn’t totally incinerated. And yes, she called “Opa!” when it burst into flame, a practice that may seem as traditional as worry beads but apparently originated at the Parthenon restaurant in Chicago’s Greektown.
Melanie, 18, who said she’s Greek and has been “doing this pretty much all my life,” said the secret to saganaki is to light the fire from just below the plate’s rim — otherwise, you’ll cook your hand along with the cheese, and maybe the lighter as well.
They don’t stop at setting fire just to the cheese at Opa! Opa! — they have a few other dishes on the menu that also are flambeed at tableside. The restaurant is at 1106 15th Ave. SE, and the owners also have the nearby El Carambas Mexican restaurant.
It occurs to me, I should have saved this column for the Fourth of July, but that’s OK — I have other ideas that are just as spectacular for fireworks day.
FYI, in case you didn’t notice, “saganaki” is an anagram for the name of a famous Japanese city — and it’s not Hiroshima.
Planning a first visit to Terza Ristorante, the new Italian place that opened last week at Third Street and South Broadway? After three visits, I’m already an old hand at Terza, so here are a few tips.
Plan at least two visits: You’ll want the primi pasta as well as the secondi main course, and with a good-sized salad and dessert, you likely won’t have room for the awesome Salumi Formaggi (meat and cheese plate), or other items on the antipasti list. So plan one visit that’s centered around pasta and entree, and another that’s all about antipasti and wood-fired pizza. (FYI: The menu is a work in progress and the primi-sized pasta is no longer listed, but it’s available if you ask.)
Never tried Aperol? Order the Coletta cocktail: Aperol, like Campari, is an Italian aperitif that can transport you instantly to the Amalfi coast or a sidestreet in Rome in the right cocktail. Terza has one called the Coletta ($9) — Bulleit rye, with a splash of port and Aperol, served in a lowball glass with one of the bar’s trademark ice balls, not cubes. The Italian 75 is more sassy — Bombay Sapphire, blood orange juice and Prosecco, with a twist of orange rind on the flute glass.
The house-made pasta is a must: The fresh ravioli cinque formaggi ($12 primi, $18 secondi) is velvety and melt-in-your-mouth tender, with a dash of crushed chilis to liven up the five cheese. There are three other fresh pastas, plus Vincenzo Giangiordano’s house-made gnocchi, and I’m eager to try all of them.
Ask Xavi: That’s why he’s there. Xavi Torres is the sommelier and maitre ‘d and he’ll guide you to a wine you’ll like and that pairs well with your meal. Two wines by-the-glass that we liked: The Li Veli primitivo, $11, a great companion for pasta, and the spendier Arcanum merlot-cab blend, $20.
The veal Saltimbocca is a great deal: If you’re not a veal fan, Terza’s version of this classic Italian dish may change your mind. It’s tender, mild-flavored, with textured layers of prosciutto, spinach, mozzarella, parmesan and sage; priced at $24, it’s an excellent value. Two can’t-miss side dishes: the firm, not pudding-like, polenta and the sauteed wild mushrooms.
His and hers chocolate dessert: The Tortino di Cioccolato is neatly organized for two: The torte is at one end of the platter — crispy outside, lava-like inside, with a berry coulis — and at the other end is a 65-percent cacao wafer-like cookie, with a rich, 14-percent butterfat vanilla bean ice cream, topped with mint and whipped cream — all for $7. Order now, before it shuffles off the menu.