311 Main Avenue, South
Park Rapids, Minnesota
Park Rapids is a small western-Minnesota town that seems to be trying to position itself as a sort of flatlands Aspen: a year-round resort town, with attractions for the rod-and-gun set in summer, and the snowmobile crowd in winter. (Skiing, other than the cross-country version, is pretty well out of the question.) In aid of that aura, the new Italian place in town is trying to go a little upscale. There are some kinks to work out, but it's promising none the less.
The dining room's look and feel illustrates the difficulties, with its uneasy blend of rusticity and elegance. There are, I know, ways to combine those two themes, often involving expensive furnishings modelled on rural European styles, but the up-country Nordic look doesn't quite manage it. The lighting is tricky in this space, because of large windows overlooking the street, only partially subdued by draperies. Christmas lights, white around the edge and coloured down the middle of the ceiling, lend some atmosphere if one doesn't look too closely; tea lights on the tables give a hint of romance, and wall sconces on a dimmer switch complete the arrangement, but require monitoring as the outside light changes. Some of the tables have unwieldy braces occupying the space normally meant for knees, which makes sitting at them a challenge for all but the smallest people: those who can sit comfortably in the back seat of a Karmann Ghia or Jaguar convertible. The chairs are stunningly heavy, and really too large for the tables; they make it impossible to get oneself positioned at table with any kind of grace; though, once you've managed to get yourself in, it might amuse you to watch others trying to accomplish the same jerky motions without upsetting the table. Just remember: you'll still have to back yourself out of your place before leaving, so you'll want to not laugh out loud.
The service is so-so. Most of the staff are as new as the restaurant, and have apparently been told that good waiters at upscale restaurants have to be supercilious enough to say things like "Monsieur has just ordered a broiled tractor" without any evident humour. They'll get over that, and by that time they will probably have learned enough about the restaurant's menu and style to be knowledgeable and helpful. For now, though, they're just obsequious, uneasy and pretentious, but competent enough in the actual chore of waiting at table.
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Both our meals started with house salads, fresh and interesting, with a single crouton large enough to use by hand, obviating the need for bread with the course. The house dressing, a slightly sweet oil and vinegar, was excellent. My main dish was lasagna, baked in an individual high-sided square dish. This made for an unusually large serving, and a pleasant crustiness to the cheese around the edges; but the height of the dish's sides made it a little difficult to get at the contents, and the small elegance of the method could not counter the innate dryness of the food itself. While the seasonings were good, even very good, the overarching characteristic of the meal was that dryness.
With my friend's meal, the opposite was the case. His sausage manicotti was surprisingly oily. It, too, came as a large serving in an individual baking dish, this one low-sided and oval, so it was much easier to eat than the lasagna. It was served extremely hot, and because of the thick layer of cheese (which I hesitate to criticize; it is, after all, cheese) it took a long time to cool enough to avoid burning. On that dish, too, the seasoning was excellent, particularly that contained in the Italian sausage; and once it had sat long enough to be edible, it proved to be the more enjoyable of the two dishes.
The prices at Necce were very good, even by my South-Texas standards. Given the ambitions of the restaurant, they were a pleasant surprise, and left me with a favourable opinion of the entire experience.