Happy Birthday Muffuletta
“Muffuletta’s concept was genius, almost revolutionary in 1977 – a moderate price point restaurant utilizing local growers.”
The Muffuletta is both a type of Sicilian bread similar to focaccia, and a sandwich that originated in New Orleans. A typical muffuletta consists of one muffuletta loaf, split horizontally. The loaf is then covered with a marinated olive salad, then layers of capicola ham, salami, mortadella and provolone.
Muffuletta is also a magnificent café that has charmed the corner of Milton Square on Como Avenue in St. Paul for the past 30 years.
Parasole Restaurant Holdings partners Phil Roberts and Peter Mihajlov opened Muffuletta in August, 1977, after purchasing the Lamplighter Inn. They gave it a new look, a new name, and opened the café within three months.
I recently had lunch at Muffuletta with Mihajlov, Kip Clayton (Vice President of Business Development for Idein), and Executive Chef J.D. Fratzke. I ordered the Muffuletta Sangria, an Iberian red wine punch with citrus juice ($9 for a large glass; $36 for a large ceramic pitcher). It was the perfect drink to rejuvenate me while we all got chummy.
Fratzke began preparing a special lunch for our table. Meanwhile, Mihajlov shared with me that all this happened by accident. “Phil and I met at the University of Illinois in Champaign. This was back in the early 1960’s. Eventually, Uncle Sam brought me to Miinneapolis. I was having lunch in the Pillsbury Building where I was working. Phil had started Concepts, Inc.”
They rekindled their friendship, and, possessing the elements for business success, started Muffuletta. “We didn’t play golf so we had extra time on our hands,” Mihajlov explained. “We had a couple nickels in our pockets, and we had an entrepreneurial spirit. I was administrative, Phil was conceptual.”
The concept was genius, almost revolutionary at the time – a moderate price point restaurant utilizing local growers. Simple as it sounds, the ambitious pair faced many obstacles in the beginning.
“The Lamplighter had a 3.2 beer license,” explains Mihajlov. “When we arrived for the liquor license hearing, we were met by a large group of protectors.” The neighborhood had misunderstood the intended use of the property – the protesters were there to nix the Payne Reliever…a strip joint.
Our lunch arrived. Fratzke had prepared a beautiful and fragrant pan-seared Canadian Walleye ($20.95) with heirloom eggplant and dragon beans purchased at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market, especially for me. How lucky can you get? The eggplant was grilled flawlessly. The grill flavor and natural sugars could be tasted to the core of the eggplant; the Walleye was so tender and sweet that I was almost in tears.
We also shared the Saigon Grass-Fed Beef Satay ($10.95), grilled Minnesota beef skewers with cucumber salad and red chile sauce. This plate was amazing. The red chile sauce was thick with spice, not heat. The cucumber salad served under the satay was beautifully cool and luscious. We also shared bread and crackers served with pureed garlic mixed with melted butter and herbs, infused with olive oil.
To end our lunch, the chef served a Strawberry-Rhubarb Tart ($6.95): organic, locally grown fruit served in a warm pastry crust with crème fraiche and candied ginger. It was flakey perfection.
Fratzke is a master, and what he and his staff produce out of their tiny kitchen is spectacular. He also writes the introductions to the food listed on the menu. Clearly, he knows his product and he knows his suppliers. Fratzke is not only one or the best chefs in the Twin cities; he’s an extraordinary writer to boot.
A couple of evenings before my lunch with Mihajlov, Clayton and Fratzke, my partner Chad and I stopped in for a late supper. As we walked up to Muffuletta, we marveled at the hundreds of white twinkle lights in the trees. Servers delivered trays of votive candles to the tables on the outside deck. It was a lovely scene.
Chad and I ordered a pitcher of the Muffuletta Sangria – a fabulous buy for the money. The pitcher was so large, I almost thought it was bottomless.
Chad loves his pasta, so he ordered the Tortellini Baronessa ($12.95), a meat-stuffed pasta tossed with prosciutto, peas, wild mushrooms, and alfredo sauce. I ordered a cup of the 1977 Muffuletta Beer Cheese Soup ($3.95 cup, $4.95 bowl). I asked to have the popcorn on the side, and saved it for dipping in that famous garlic-infused olive oil.
I also ordered the Muffuletta ($11.95), which Fratzke labels “Not for the faint-of-heart”). It was perfectly warmed through the center to heat the provolone cheese. It was a wonderful evening, and a wonderful meal.
Fratzke lists a classic quote from Homer on his menu. “Satisfy your hearts with food and wine, for therein is courage and strength.” With a philosophy like this, Muffuletta should see another 30 years in the business.