Now that we know who’s in charge of the governor’s office, the Minnesota Legislature and the U.S. Senate, it’s time to decide who’s in charge of bruschetta in Rochester.
Bruschetta is the crunchy, aromatic Italian-inspired appetizer or happy hour munchie consisting of crostini, or toasted bread, topped with diced tomatoes and fresh-grated parmesan cheese, often touched up with fresh basil and sometimes mixed with onions, and drizzled with olive oil or balsamic vinegar.
It’s a great start to a meal of pasta and wine, or as a healthy alternative to nachos or fried curds at happy hour.
In Italy, you typically get only the crostini, rubbed with garlic and splashed with olive oil, then dusted with salt — and they pronounce it “broo-sketta.” If you pronounce it that way in a restaurant around here, especially with a rolling “R,” you’ll get a momentarily glazed look, so just stick with “broo-shetta.”
The simple dish originated in the days of the SPQR, what we now know as ancient Rome, and the word itself comes from the Roman dialect for the Latin “bruscare,” which means “to grill over coals.” Unfortunately, in ancient Rome they grilled a lot of things over coals.
At the Green Mill restaurant and bar in Rochester, the portion is big and varied enough to serve as a light meal. Though it doesn’t cover all the food groups, there’s plenty of food — a half-dozen long slices of French bread, fanned out and covered with melted mozzarella and topped with a generous helping of diced tomatoes and onions. Alongside is a tapenade, finely chopped olives, and crumbles of mild feta cheese. At $9.99, it’s a fair value and an easy Four Stars winner.
What makes “bravo”-worthy bruschetta?
No soggy toast: Tough to accomplish when you apply wet ingredients to dry toast, but it can be done, in part by serving it fast and not letting it sit under the hot lights too long.
Truly ripe tomatoes: Also tough to accomplish, especially in winter in Minnesota, but it’s worth the effort. If the tomatoes are basically white and crisp-looking, the dish is doomed.
Don’t overdo the balsamic vinegar: This sweet vinegar, made from grape juice (and containing no balsam) has become the magic ingredient for too many dressings and dishes. It’s not a miracle drug to turn ordinary dishes into special ones, and just a little dab will do ya.
Victoria’s Ristorante, which remains the most popular and wide-ranging Italian restaurant in town, piles diced, ripe tomatoes atop five lightly toasted Italian bread, lightly sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and olive oil, and just a hint of seasoning, for $9.95. (If you’re just there to nosh, try it with their Campari spritzer, the Americano No. 2.) At the Redwood Room, the bread is thinner and crispier, with balsamic vinegar drizzled over the cheese and locally produced grape tomatoes ($6.95). The garden-level room is a true romantic’s hideaway just a few blocks from the heart of downtown, and the bruschetta is a perfect light snack if you’re there for live music and a glass of wine.
And I’ve always had a weakness for the bruschetta at Olive Garden. Though I was thinking they’d changed the recipe. When we visited last weekend, it was the old reliable ($7.79), with fresh-baked toasted bread, a dish of diced tomatoes, onion, basil and seasonings, and as always, lots of fresh cranks of Parmesan cheese. Say what you want, not many restaurants offer that.
Olive Garden is responsible in part for the current popularity of bruschetta, so I’m happy to send the Rochester restaurant a Four Stars certificate. And forget all about that “no more breadsticks” story at Olive Garden, which was blown way out of proportion.
Among other places for boffo bruschetta, try Mr. Pizza North and Broadway Pizza in Rochester, though at the latter it’s a tossup as to which is better, the bruschetta or the hot and tender garlic cheese bread. In Red Wing, the Brickhouse Pub has an $18 bruschetta plate that’s good for at least four diners, with portabella mushrooms, carmelized onions and house-made spreads along with the usual accoutrements.
Along the way in my search for bruschetta, I discovered (months after the fact) that Provenzano Ristorante in Red Wing has closed. That was one of the more eccentric but interesting restaurants in the area. It has been replaced by Players Sports Grille, a cousin of the one on Civic Center Drive in Rochester, and a helpful source at a nearby business says Players is “always busy, so I’m sure they’ll do well in that location.”
The opening of Salute! Wine Bar & More in the Marriott, the changes at what used to be Bilotti’s on First Avenue Southwest and the arrival next year of the new Italian restaurant planned by the people who brought us Chester’s and Pescara have definitely changed the local landscape for Italian cuisine. In the end, it just means more “buon appetito” for local diners.
Agree or disagree? That’s what this column is all about. Send your dining tips and I’ll add them to the mix next week.
Next up for Four Stars: holiday season cocktails. Before long, the sign will go up at Michaels that Tom and Jerrys have returned for the holidays, and other bars and restaurants in the area have their own signature cocktails, hot or cold. I’ll find four that will make your holidays sparkle.
FOUR STARS OF BRUSCHETTA
In the Kahler Grand Hotel
7 First Ave. S.W., Rochester
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
2723 Commerce Drive N.W., Rochester
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to midnight Sunday
300 First Ave. N.W., Rochester
Hours: 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday.
380 17th Ave. N.W., Rochester
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.