Little Italy: Dué Focacceria is the neighborhood restaurant every neighborhood needs

Alma Guzman

Alma Guzman

Sometimes, when you stop by the new and much buzzed-about restaurant in town, you’re dressed to match the occasion. You’ve snapped at least a few full-length ’fit pics before you head out. You are, at the very least, not wearing a T-shirt advertising your favorite frozen food brand.

Other times... well. Other times, due to factors including (but not limited to) a late-summer heat wave, poorly timed laundry day, and general lack of care about your physical appearance, you don’t look quite so put together. You might be wearing, say, a shirt with its sleeves cut off and a bright-yellow HEGGIES PIZZA logo on the front, paired with jorts that have worn down to more fray than denim.

This is the situation in which a certain City Pages food writer found herself earlier this month when dropping by Dué Focacceria for the first time. New to St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, Dué is the second restaurant from the husband-wife duo behind i.e. Italian Eatery, the—yes—Italian eatery on Minnehaha Parkway in south Minneapolis.

Eric and Vanessa Carrara’s i.e. is a neighborhood spot, but one where reservations are certainly recommended, standout pastas are made in-house, and it’s not uncommon to dine surrounded by families and friends for whom the occasion doubles as a birthday/anniversary/retirement celebration. It’s not like you’ll be made to borrow a clip-on if you show up in worn-out work clothes, but you’ll probably feel more than a little out of place among the Modcloth-clad cuties at the table next to yours.

Alma Guzman

Alma Guzman

Dué, so called because it’s Italian for “two,” is a little more low-key—counter-service, seat-yourself, snag-your-own-silverware—and I’m equal parts relieved and charmed when both a bartender and a sandwich-maker are expressly stoked about the Heggies shirt. I tell the former I worried I might be a little underdressed, knowing the team that’s behind this St. Paul newbie, and he laughs, sliding our drinks across the bar: “You’re overdressed, if anything.”

This is the first thing I like about Dué, though it won’t be the last. The place is comfortably come-as-you-are—a true neighborhood restaurant, where on one visit we bump into a colleague and his wife and on another share a table and make small talk about sandwiches with a few folks who live nearby. It’s a delightful little space, borrowing a bit from its Minneapolis sibling’s farmhouse vibe. Here, though, it’s rustic-meets-robots: You’ll mull over the leather-bound menu as you wait your turn at a digital kiosk, then punch in the sandwiches, salads, and shareable platters that look most enticing to you. If you want, you can leave a phone number so you know when your order is ready, then simply swipe your credit card before sidling up to the bar to order beer, wine, or a cocktail.

Maybe the “Focacceria” thing gave it away, but it’s easy to go full-on marathon-runner carbo-load here. Bread is hearty and comes with almost everything: It cradles the exceptional sandwiches, is a vessel for cheese or jam or meat on a number of shareable dishes, and makes the base for the daily rotating, pre-prepared pizzas. It’s also salty and squishy and airy in a way that means you won’t feel overwhelmed by dough—just very, very full.

If you want to start by splitting a platter (and you should), we loved the smoked fresh fish ($18), with olives, pickled veggies, and a lemon butter good enough to lick off the plate. A cool surprise here were the capers, which have been fried, turning them into puffy-crunchy pops of flavor—tiny, briny snacks almost unrecognizable from their uncooked iteration. The “Formaggio Box” ($18) of Italian cheeses, house-made spreads, and sides was a similar delight, though it would have been nice to know exactly which cheeses we were trying.

Speaking of crunchy, perfect flavor bombs, do yourself a favor and order the octopus salad. Reasonably priced at just $10, this generous serving of cephalopod arrives on a bed of couscous-like fregola pasta. It’s finished with a sprinkle of pepperoni that’s been baked or fried or something, that smoky alchemy making it into a crispy topping that’ll have you wondering why we ever normalized bacon crumbles instead.

If all you want is a sandwich ($11 to $14), we have to tell you it’s hard to go wrong. That’s the blessing/curse of starting with bread this good. The Carne is a slim little sammy that nonetheless packs a meaty wallop thanks to a holy trinity of finocchiona salami, hot coppa, and mortadella; the Sorrel Pesto is so deliciously pine nutty you’ll wonder if there have actually been pine nuts in the pestos you’ve had before. Sweet, gooey fig meets salty, savory pecorino romano to make the Herbed Ham Cotto—a strong contender for Dué’s best. The only “letdown” was that the Prosciutto, which an employee said has been among their most-ordered, was sort of flavorless in comparison.

Cocktails tend toward the sweeter, syrup-ier side, but the “Perfect Negroni” really is a perfect negroni, and the Spagliato, all effervescence and sparkle, drinks like boozy La Croix. The Americano (no, not the coffee), made with Aperol, sweet vermouth, and soda, is both sugary and citrusy, a sweet-tea surrogate that says, “Why yes, this patio is lovely, but wouldn’t you rather be on a porch, in a rocking chair, with your feet propped up on the railing?”

Alma Guzman

Alma Guzman

Well, maybe. But for now, Dué’s patio is one of the most pleasant places you could be. “We have a pretty good idea of what we think the neighborhood wants,” Eric Carrara told us before the restaurant opened, adding that he and his wife have lived a block or two away for almost a decade. We’d say he was right: Dué’s been open a little over a month and hasn’t yet had its grand opening, but it feels like it’s been there forever. You’ll look around to see you’re surrounded by couples working through the Sunday Times crossword together, or friends who stopped in for a drink on their way home from work, or young families chatting while a very good dog curls up quietly at their feet, hoping he too might get to sample some transcendent focaccia.

My only complaint would be that it isn’t in my neighborhood.

Maybe we can convince the Carraras that Tre or Quattro belongs in central Minneapolis. For now, at least those of us who don’t call Mac-Groveland home can grab sandwiches to go.

Dué Focacceria
475 Fairview Ave. S, St. Paul