If you watch Tim Niver casually assemble an order of bucatini all’amatriciana, you might easily mistake him for a chef. “I love that browning effect on the garlic,” he says, the smell of pancetta filling the kitchen at Mucci’s Italian. “You get that slight tinge of bitterness and you can even find some of those garlic flakes that crunch up a little bit—I love that.”
Niver plays a lot of roles: He’s a restaurant owner, a frozen pizza impresario, and a locally renowned purveyor of hospitality. The spots he oversees are among the most critically respected in the state: Mucci’s and Saint Dinette in St. Paul, and Meyvn, which opened in Minneapolis in July of 2018. He comes from a family with Italian roots, and he’s happy to demo one of Mucci’s bedrock entrees for us as he talks about how he got into the restaurant industry while living just south of Buffalo, New York.
“I started at McDonald’s,” he says. “I swear to God it was cool. My folks made me work, they wanted me to work. So I just happened to have a McDonald’s I could ride my bike to and this kid Tom Smith was working there—he was on the football team and I thought he was cool, and he was like, ‘Yeah, come work with me!’”
That humble start segued into waiting tables at a spot called The Italian Fisherman, recurring seasonal work, and a job at a Hyatt resort in Beaver Creek, Colorado. A mentor there lit a fire for Niver that burns to this day.
“I served there under a guy named Graziano Buzzi,” Niver recalls. “He was the type of guy who could go into the kitchen and expedite, and then walk out and kiss babies and pump fists, and then he’d go back in and say: ‘Where’s my risotto for [table] 24?’ And then he’d go back to the front door and welcome Kathie Lee Gifford to the front table. That was kind of the spark for me to realize there was more to serving than being tipped—I could see the climb.”
Sound Service, Balanced Books
“[It’s] somebody who’s not afraid to be a member of a team, somebody who plays well with others. And the essence of that person is: ‘We’re here to provide a service’; and they can get into their brains that they’re not the most important person in the joint,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean you sublimate yourself to the guest. It means that we have confidence in our skill and knowledge and ability that we can carry it off.”
Niver’s philosophy runs counter to some established food-service conventions: the yelling front-of-house manager, the temperamental head chef, the system that features team leaders punching downward at junior members.
“Honestly, when people are comfortable being who they are at work without the threat of somebody yelling at them or mistreating them, they bond and they work together,” says Niver. “And from a bottom-line perspective, those efficiencies go up when you work together. It’s really simple. I know it sounds crazy, but those things all help with the bottom line. People who respect where they work, clean where they work and take care of where they work.”
Of Restaurants and Revenue Streams
The restaurant business is famously treacherous—for every classic spot that celebrates its 20th anniversary, dozens more fall short. For Niver, one of the ways to reduce the risk of the industry is by diversifying revenue. For example:
Mucci’s is a restaurant, but it’s also the heart of a 60-plus retail location frozen-pizza business built on the restaurant’s fried-dough “Montanara”-style pizza.
Meyvn is a restaurant, but it’s also the cradle of a bagels-and-lox business that Niver is aiming to expand along the lines of his pizza operation.
The Mucci’s frozen-pizza business went from concept to shelves starting a couple of years ago, putting out 25,000 pizzas in its first year of operation. It’s since scaled up to a production capacity of 8,000 units a month.
Niver cites another local product, Talenti gelato, as his direct inspiration. “They brought it out, it went big, and they sold it. And I was like, oh man, maybe for me and the restaurant industry, I can break through the 5- to 10-percent margins that we work with, with labor costs rising dramatically.”
Niver and his team learned the hard way that there’s a lot to frozen pizza beyond making a good pie and putting it on ice. That includes everything from the challenge of scaling up production (Mucci’s now works with an Eagan-based bakery to create its crusts, which are still fried in-house in St. Paul and then assembled into pizzas at a facility in Faribault) to the little tricks that make the difference between a great product and a failed effort.
“[At first], we didn’t dock our dough, so the dough was rising and our toppings were falling off and burning on the bottom of the oven,” Niver says. “[James Beard Award–winning chef] Alex Roberts got a pizza from here, and he came in to eat later and he was like, ‘Listen, you almost started a fire in my oven, because of the ingredients …’ And I was like, ‘Sorry, chef…’”
A Wonderful, Treacherous Business
We asked Niver if there was anything else he wanted to talk about and he was specific in his answer.
“Things that are on my mind? Survival! And that’s no bullshit,” he says. “This industry pays a lot of minimum-wage workers; there are a lot of young people in the industry and a lot of people who are green and just starting out. [There are] not too many industries where half of your employees are paid minimum wage and that [wage] is going to double in a period of 10 years. Nobody could have planned exactly for all of that.”
The only way to handle the climbing wages in a business with thin margins, says Niver, is to pass costs on to guests.
“Minimum wage just went up here in January, so we can see the change in our labor cost,” he says. “My manager looks at me and says, ‘Yeah, the minimum wage went up and that affected our bottom line a little bit—you can see the half point or .75 points from the servers who are on minimum wage.’ And she’s like, ‘We’ll have to work that out.’ And I said, ’No, you’ll have to figure out a way to make me that half-a-point back.’”
For Niver, none of this economic calculation is science. Making a place like Mucci’s work, for example, is a combination of experience, hard work, and inspired guesswork. “As much as I’d like to say, ‘I knew this was going to work because everybody loves Italian,’ there’s never any guarantee. I was worried about the spacial confines—we have 44 seats here and we ask people to wait in line a lot. It better be good if we’re going to ask people to wait in line. But I think we reached that level of flavor.”
Craveable family-style food like Mucci’s bucatini, Niver says, is part of the key. That and the restaurant’s own voice, which comes through in housemade recipes and surprising twists to classic dishes.
“Lynne Rossetto Kasper was in last week and one of her friends was like, ‘This is not a traditional pancetta.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah! It’s not. We made it. It’s traditional to us. It’s the way we want it to be.’”
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Recipe for Mucci’s Italian Bucatini all’Amatriciana
6 ounces dry bucatini noodles (Niver likes Rustichella D’Abruzzo)
1 gallon water in a large pot
3 tablespoons kosher salt
4 ounces Red Table Pancetta, small diced
2 garlic cloves, sliced thin
½ teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
2 ounces dry white wine
8 ounces tomato puree (Niver prefers Muir Glen Organic)
2–4 ounces pepperoncini chilies, sliced thin (amount based on heat preference)
2 tablespoons butter
Juice of half a lemon
3 ounces grated Locatelli cheese (or other Pecorino Romano)
1. Bring the pot of water to a rolling boil and season with the 3 tablespoons salt. Once boiling, add the bucatini and cook about 10–12 minutes or until it is tender with a firm bite.
2. Meanwhile, start cooking the pancetta over medium heat in a large saute pan, stirring often until it is crispy and browned. The fat will render out. (Keep half the rendered fat in the pan and save the excess for the next time you cook eggs. It’s delicious.)
3. Add the sliced garlic and red chili flakes and stir until the garlic is just slightly golden brown.
4. Add the white wine and cook until almost evaporated.
5. Add the tomato puree and desired amount of pepperoncini.
6. Add the cooked pasta to the sauce or wait for the pasta to finish cooking.
7. Once the pasta is added, add a splash of the pasta water to season the sauce and utilize the starch to help emulsify; add additional pasta water as necessary.
8. Add butter and lemon juice. Simmer the noodles in the sauce until the sauce clings to the noodles but is not too dry.
9. Divide the pasta into two bowls and sprinkle with the cheese. Enjoy!
Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.