I was recently in Pierre for work. If I am in Pierre for more than two hours, a trip to La Minestra is an absolute must. La Minestra is, in my humble opinion, one of the best places to eat in South Dakota.
Quick aside: The Fork would never try to rank the Fork's favorite restaurants. As a matter of fact, the Fork doesn't really have a favorite. The Fork has favorites. At any given time, the Fork has about three favorite SD restaurants- and they are not always the same three. It just depends.
La Minestra definitely makes the Fork's Top Three List and is rarely rotated off the list.
Mark and Stacey Mancuso have done an outstanding job with this place. For those of you who haven't been to Pierre since one of your college friends got married in Pierre and you had to drag yourself all the way out there, La Minestra is in the former location of The Longbranch Saloon on Dakota Avenue in Pierre. (The old Longbranch was a great bar. Dark. Smoky. Full of a strange mix of drugstore and authentic cowboys and cowgirls and state employees. Live country music about five nights a week.) The old Longbranch is another story, but the point is that sitting at La Minestra on what used to be the dance floor at the Branch or visiting the restroom reminds me that the place used to be one of the crown jewels of SD country dive bars. Ironically, if you never had the pleasure of throwing a few back at the old Longbranch, you'd never guess the place used to be a bar.
La Minestra does a great job with its menu. It changes periodically, but not drastically. Things kind of rotate on and off from time to time. Some items on the menu are fairly standard Italian dishes (bruschetta, eggplant parmigiana, puttanesca) and others are clearly Italian or Mediterranean influenced. The menu is not pasta heavy, but there are always a number of good pasta selections- like Mark's Favorite which consists of Italian sausage, sun dried tomatoes, olives, and rigatoni. There is usually a great steak selection on the menu and in a town where good steaks are easy to find, La Minestra can hold its own in the big old chunk of tender red meat category. Presently, they are serving a Steak Sangiovese- a big thick New York strip with a topping of wine-tomato-peppers. They used to do a great steak called a Ribeye Royale- a huge ribeye cooked to order (medium rare if you really like steak) topped with slices of avocado, crumbles of bleu cheese and blessed with Tabasco-like hot pepper sauce. Sounds odd, doesn't it? It was great. Probably the highest iteration of an Atkins-friendly meal you'll ever find.
Salads are not included with the price of the meal, but half salads are available at a pretty decent price. You must have a salad. The Fork recommends the phenomenal Greek Salad that has olives, chucks of tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onion and is dressed with what is clearly a house-made balsamic vinaigrette. Awesome. Of course, you'll be served bread to dip in olive oil. The Fork's only complaint with La Minestra is the bread service. The bread is fine- for Pierre, but the olive oil is served in individual portions on a saucer WITH balsamic vinegar drizzled into the oil. I prefer just olive oil, lots of olive oil. I could do without the balsamic. After that great Greek salad I need to get the acid out of my mouth so I can focus the old taste buds on the vino. More balsamic vinegar with the bread and oil makes that a little difficult.
Almost as important as what is on the menu is what is NOT on the menu. La Minestra illustrates one of the Fork's Golden Rules of eating out: ALWAYS give strong consideration to the special. This isn't like the special at Applebees where some particular entree is a whopping buck fifty less than the menu price. Specials at La Minestra are generally that- special. Sometimes, they are old favorites that have been rotated off the menu- like that Ribeye Royale mentioned above. More often, they are something very special like a fresh swordfish steak topped with a nice spicy tomato and white wine sauce and a big dollop of goat cheese. I've also had a special that consisted of pork tenderloin medallions served in a sauce that had a touch of curry in it and mission figs. On a recent weeknight, one of the specials was Matt's Favorite. (Matt is Mark's son and one heck of a chef himself.) Tomatoes, peppers, onions in a light, slightly spicy tomato sauce over rigatoni- and some goat cheese just for good measure. Personally, I think if you took a few of the sun dried tomatoes out of Mark's favorite, threw in a few of the chunks of fresh tomatoes from Matt's Favorite and kept the goat cheese, you might just have My New Favorite.
La Minestra's wine list definitely holds its own. The wine list is fairly simple and definitely unpretentious. (The Sears catalog size wine list phenomenon will be discussed in another post someday.) La Minestra has a nice selection of reds and whites that include some Italian selections. It's about a one-page list. In the Fork's opinion, the prices are reasonable. It's easy to find a nice bottle to accompany a meal for $30 or less, but if you want to blow a C-note on a bottle of Caymus cabernet, you can do that. La Minestra also has a great selection of beers on tap that usually include something seasonal. Liquor is available. My only advice in the beverage category: Mark, get some Grappa and some Vin Santo for after-dinner sipping.
Pierre is a great town for a number of reasons. On of those reasons is La Minestra. If you find yourself in Pierre, go there. It is a treasure.