A journal on the patient progress of St. Paul’s freshest Italian restaurant
Meatballs are paraded through the dining room. The crowd deploys their cell phones above the dishes like a squad of bayonets, all at the same angle, in perfect lock-step. Flashes and clicks. Diners swoon. Hashtags fly.
The Strip Club Meat & Fish is packed on a cold Monday night for a preview of Mucci’s, a new red-sauce Italian comfort food restaurant in St. Paul everyone expects to be a triumph. Tim Niver and Chris Uhrich, co-owners of Mucci’s, are also confident. But right now, they’re equal parts determined and anxious as they watch their plans unfold in public for the first time.
Tim is pleased, if tentatively, at how the dinner goes. “No one’s told me that they loved the meatball,” he says. “But I also saw people wringing their dish with their forks.” He notices the red sauce tastes sharp—he likes it a little rounder. Maybe a little beef broth right at the end, he ponders.
A thousand tiny decisions wait for Tim and Chris in the next six months. The flavor of the red sauce. The amount of bubbles in the Prosecco. The type of bowl for the salad. The portion size of the pasta. None of this matters tonight. But over the next few months and years, these decisions will compound into a reputation.
The lasagna isn’t holding its shape on the plate. Tim, a front-of-house veteran, thinks the homemade noodles aren’t strong enough. Chris, the chef, thinks there’s too much ricotta in the layers. Tim wonders about the finished product. “How do we make it the exact same every time?”
The only thing installed in the Mucci’s kitchen is the coffeemaker. In the small brick building on Randolph Avenue, there’s a pile of booths and chairs in the middle of the dining floor. The walls are outlined with painter’s tape and every surface is covered with a thin layer of construction dust. It’s less than two weeks until opening night.
Tim inspects the pendant lights dangling above the bar. One of the five came with a fraying cord, so they installed four, but then found only three of the right bulbs. “Nothing comes in whole,” Tim says through a sip of coffee.
“Did the oven come with bolts?” Chris asks Tim as they exchange a blank stare. Tim surveys the corner of the kitchen marked for the oven, as two workers haul it into place. Chris finds a bag of bolts. It’s unclear if they’re the right ones.
Chris has labored for weeks to hone in on the perfect noodles. Tim describes a laundry list of minutiae still left before opening. Mucci’s will not be a cash cow—a 44-seat casual restaurant is not the path to early retirement. Perhaps that’s why neither of them seem impatient with hammering out the details. They know they’re in it for the long haul.
“The owner of Aquavit, Håkan Swahn, he tried to warn me: ‘If you make these places small, you’ll be working in them for the rest of your life,’” Tim recalls. “So, that’s what I did.”
At 5pm, a line filters into Mucci’s for the first seating on opening night. The kitchen and dining room are assembled, polished, and ready, a remarkable turnaround in just two weeks. Tim greets each and every guest—patiently, earnestly, directly. He stops at the bar, and surveys the crowd.
“Once you’re full,” he says, “all you can do is serve.”
Mucci’s has been open for one week. Tim and Chris are enjoying a rare moment of stasis—the hurdle of opening behind them, the work of staying open now begun. “I’m really hard on myself,” Chris says. “It was good. I don’t know if it’s as good as we want it to be. But every day we make it a little bit better.”
The changes Chris and Tim make to Mucci’s are no longer abstract. Now they confront the real-world implications of their endless planning. “We took gnocchi off the menu,” Chris offers as an example. “I got scared that we wouldn’t be able to keep up with it.” He put that same sauce on a different noodle, instead. It’s become their best-selling pasta.
The owners’ questions are starting to get answered: What would the neighborhood’s response be? Overwhelmingly positive. Would people only eat the pizza? No—they’ve gravitated to pasta instead. And the most important one of all: Are diners willing to set aside their preconceptions?
It’s a curious thing about Italian food—from homemade to frozen, from high-end osteria to marinara-soaked supperclub—how personal it gets. This isn’t my nonna’s red sauce, a Mucci’s diner might think. This salad kind of tastes like the Olive Garden, or, Why don’t I get free bread with my meal?
“People have an expectation,” Tim says. “This food is common; people expect it to be the way they want it to be versus the way we want it. We just need to pick what we want to do and do it well, over and over.”
Speaking of repetition, Chris wishes he had known just how long it takes to make 400 donuts. The weekend morning pastry service is wreaking havoc on his schedule.
“Now I just have to train other people to make them,” he says, “so I don’t have to be here ’till however early in the morning. I’d like to have a day off, sometime soon.”
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