New Wave, Old School: With Due Focacceria, Eric Carrara leverages tradition to define the future

Eric Carrara and culinary director Adria Davidson // Photo by Sam Ziegler

The crunch of a cannoli at St. Paul’s Due Focacceria really resonates. It’s not just a question of the shell, which is wrapped around a form, fried to a crispy, bubbled tube, and then filled to order. And it’s not just a question of the perfectly textured miniature chocolate chips that stud the lemon-zested cannoli filling and provide a subtle echo to the crunch of the shell. 

The resonance of the crunch is more about how far that sound has traveled, starting in Sicily, echoing in Erie, Pennsylvania, and Boston, and now sounding out at the intersection of Fairview and Randolph in St. Paul, where Due Focacceria has been serving prosciutto sandwiches and Italian-style coffee to neighbors since July 2019.

“My grandma would never [pre-] fill a cannoli,” says Eric Carrara, who co-owns Due with his wife and business partner Vanessa Carrara. “She’d always just put the shells on the table and fill it when we were about to eat it,” he recalls. “If you’re spending all this time to make the shell and you want it to be crispy, and you want it to have that texture, why would you pre-fill it with a wet filling?”

That might seem like a fine point, but it’s on details like filled-to-order cannoli and scratch-made-daily focaccia bread that a place like Due Focacceria builds its reputation. 

The restaurant’s pairing of a casual, touchscreen-driven service scheme with a small menu of beautifully housemade dishes is a fascinating fusion of modern ideas about dining and straight-from-Italy values that could only come about by way of someone like Carrara, who, at 34, brings a contemporary sensibility together with an Italian-American eating heritage that would make Lidia Bastianich a little teary-eyed with appreciation.

Due // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Around the Table at Serafini’s

To get to the heart and origins of Due and Italian Eatery, the Carraras’ popular first restaurant in Minneapolis often referred to as I.E., it helps to take a quick trip to Erie, Pennsylvania, where the nearly 90-year-old Serafini’s restaurant still slings Italian-American fare. Eric’s family acquired the restaurant in the 1940s not so much as a pure moneymaker but as a place to call home.

“My grandfather literally bought it so we could have dinner as one big Italian family at one long table, in the bar area, sitting together—all the cousins, all the uncles, every Sunday,” says Carrara. “They still do it, but it’s on Mondays now. It’s still there, still cooking, still the same stuff.”

It’s easy enough to do Italian-American food from bags and boxes, driven by big commercial suppliers pumping in red sauce by tanker-load, but that’s not how Serafini’s, run by Eric’s aunt for the past quarter-century, conducts business.

“It was very, very traditional—spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, lasagna—but it was ingrained for me from the beginning, it wasn’t a standard typical red sauce joint,” says Eric. “They were making the noodles in-house. […] The red sauce was an eight-hour Sunday sauce—sometimes 12. The meatballs were local meat.”

Serafini’s is the wellspring for the Carrara service ethic that guides both I.E. and Due. Eric never worked at the restaurant but, he recalls, he’d always be in the kitchen running around. When he was about 10 years old he was having Sunday dinner at the restaurant with his grandfather, who asked him what he thought the place could be doing better.

“I told him: ‘I don’t like the way [paper napkins] make me feel, you should get cloth napkins, because people will like it more,’” recalls Eric. “And the next week we came in to dinner and he had cloth napkins. He listened [to me], you could tell the way the customers were interacting that they liked it better, it was pretty cool. That always impacted me—I thought, ‘Huh, I think I’ve got a little bit of an eye for what people want, and what they want to do, and what they like.’”

Cannoli prep at Due // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Real Food, Fast

Due runs on an unusual combination of quality and convenience—service is touchpad driven, but servers are poised to help. Food is quick, convenient, and ready to be taken home, but it’s made with evident care and thought. And the menu is audaciously small, recalling places in Italy that Eric, Vanessa, and culinary director Adria Davidson have scouted out and enjoyed. Eric’s vision for a tight focus for Due seemed radical at first, recalls Davidson.

“I remember Vanessa and I were kind of shocked when he said: ‘Only focaccia, that’s it, no other bread,’” recalls Davidson. “Vanessa and I were like: ‘No! We can’t just only do one kind of bread, that’s impossible.’ I thought about it now, and how crazy it is—we’re here, and that’s literally all that we do. That’s what this restaurant runs on.”

As far as the bread’s make process, Davidson explains that it’s constantly in progress to ensure fresh focaccia on the restaurant’s shelves and in its sandwiches. “We do bulk fermentation. there’s not a whole lot of kneading that we have to do,” she says. “It makes it pretty easy for us to make these big batches, we flip them out and portion them and make them into their molds, their rounds, and then proof them.”

Other smart touches make the restaurant what it is: a bar stocked with dozens of Italian-sourced and influenced spirits, a serious coffee program, and pastrami that is brined and smoked in-house. 

The restaurant’s cannoli are handled with a similar intensity of purpose, always filled to order. “There’s a couple places out East that do it well,” says Eric. “In Boston, there’s Mike’s and Modern, and that’s initially where I remember seeing it when I was young. But when Adria went back to Italy and I went back to Italy a year ago, and [my wife and I] were down in Sicily, same thing. They don’t—except for huge commercial places—they don’t pre-fill their cannoli. They just take a paddle and lather it in, push it in.”

Cannolis at Due in Saint Paul // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Recipe for Scratch-Made Cannoli 

Shared by the team at Due Focacceria 

Cannoli Filling

Filling for approximately 20 shells

Ingredients

161 grams heavy cream
72 grams honey
18 grams powdered sugar
647 grams ricotta cheese
617 grams mascarpone
12 grams vanilla extract
25 grams sweet Marsala
260 grams mini chocolate chips
Zest from ½ a lemon

Directions

Whip heavy cream with powdered sugar in mixer with wire whisk attachment until soft peaks form. Add the remainder of the ingredients, except the chocolate chips, and whip until well-incorporated. Fold chocolate chips into whipped filling with a spatula. Fill a piping bag with mixture and fill cannoli shells just before serving.

Cannoli Shell

Yields approximately 20 shells

Ingredients

250 grams all-purpose flour
20 grams sugar
60 grams butter (cold, chopped)
100 grams sweet Marsala
1 gram salt (to taste)
2 quarts canola oil (shortening, vegetable oil, or lard can also be used to fry shells)

Cannolis and pairings made by Surdyk’s // Photo by Tj Turner

Directions

Place dry ingredients in a food processor with blade attachment. Add cold, chopped butter and pulse until it comes together when pressed, taking care not to overwork. While pulsing, slowly add in Marsala until shaggy dough forms. 

Remove from food processor and knead until smooth ball forms. Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 hours. When ready to roll and fry shells, remove dough from refrigerator.

Lightly dust a work surface with flour, then use a rolling pin, roll the dough to ⅛-inch thick. OR using a pasta roller, roll the dough into a thin, even sheet, working from 1 to 5 on the machine’s dial. Cut rounds from the sheet of dough using a 4-inch round cutter. Scraps of dough can be re-rolled as needed.

Use Marsala to wet one end of the round dough. Place a cannoli tube in the middle of the round. Pull the dough up and around the tube so the wet end overlaps the dry end. Gently press the dough together to seal. Continue wrapping the remaining dough onto the tubes. 

Fry the cannoli shells. In a medium pot, fry in batches of 4 to 5 maintaining an oil temperature of 340°F. Carefully lower the shells into the oil using tongs. Turn as needed, until evenly golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the shells to a cooling rack over a sheet pan to catch excess oil.

When the shells are cool enough to handle, gently pull the shells off the tubes.

Completely cool the shells before storing or filling. Store shells in an airtight container at room temperature. Fill the cannoli shells just before serving.

Editor’s Note, December 26, 2019: This post has been updated to correctly identify culinary director Adria Davidson in the top photo.


Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.

 

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