Restaurateur Tom Forti on the Iron Range’s deep food cultures

Tom Forti, owner and chef of the Iron Ranger restaurant recently opened near the intersection of Lexington and Grand avenues in St. Paul, Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Job

Tom Forti, owner of the Iron Ranger restaurant, which recently opened near the intersection of Grand and Lexington avenues in St. Paul, Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Job

The Iron Ranger is a small, independent restaurant located on the corner of Grand and Lexington avenues in St. Paul, and it has only been open for a couple of months. But its footprint is much larger than it seems. Its story ties into the four-generations deep heritage of Hibbing’s Sunrise Bakery, and is therefore interwoven with all the peoples who came to the Iron Range over the centuries in search of a steady living: Croatians, Finns, Italians, Slovenians, and many others. Owner Tom Forti has been working in the Twin Cities’ food scene since 2006, selling Sunrise pasta at farmers’ markets and opening the Sunrise Market store on Grand Avenue that has since transitioned into this new, Iron Ranger incarnation.

It’s not a stretch to say that the food of the Iron Range feels as though it comes from another country. Potica (rolled pastry typically stuffed with walnuts or poppy seeds) is a delicacy that you can’t appreciate unless you’ve had a serious rendition. Sarma (meat-stuffed cabbage rolls) look more like Asian dumplings than anything you might expect from stick-to-your-ribs mining fare. And porketta, that Iron Range staple of herbed pork shoulder, is easy to underestimate until you’ve had it on a baguette… or atop nachos… or on a pizza.

Iron Ranger located on Grand Avenue in St. Paul // Photo by Aaron Job

Iron Ranger located on Grand Avenue in St. Paul // Photo by Aaron Job

Iron Ranger gives you the opportunity to do any of the above, and with skill and aplomb; the porketta Cubano we tried ranks among the best sandwiches we’ve eaten in recent years, and while the cafe’s coffee cake rendition of potica is far from traditional, it’s a deft marriage of sweetness and spice.

We talked to Forti about Iron Range identity, the challenge of launching an independent restaurant, and the Croatian health food known as sarma.

■ ■ ■

You’ve been running the Sunrise Market on Grand Avenue for a few years—what led you to transition from a market to the new Iron Ranger restaurant?

In this neighborhood there’s Kowalski’s and Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s and Mississippi Market, and wherever else where you can get [specialty foods]. So I started to go toward the cafe side of things. And then I thought, ‘Well, if I’m a cafe and serve food, I should serve beer.’ And then I did that for a while and phased out the market, and then after a while, I thought, ‘If I’m going to do food and beer, let’s invest in a place where people want to come and sit and drink beer and eat their food.’

And amid all that, Sunrise is my family’s company—it’s a bakery in Hibbing or a farmers’ market where I sit and sell pasta. As proud as I am of my family’s business, it never felt like my own.

It seems like you’re connecting with two different populations of customers—neighborhood folks and Iron Rangers. What sets them apart, in terms of what they’re looking for?

The Iron Rangers who come in are very proud of what they see. They see the menu as the pasty, the porketta, the potica, even the sarma. Those are what the Iron Rangers identify with as a food culture.

The locals key in on the nice aesthetic, the design, the nice beer list, the thoughtful wine list, the price structure—all our wines are priced at $6–8, and the beers are in line, but it’s a good beer list. So the neighborhood takes away the aesthetic, the convenience, the accessibility, the fact that it’s casual: In a way I’ve become the neighborhood underdog. People who have shopped with me over the years know I’ve slugged it out as Sunrise, so I have a lot of people pulling for me.

Iron Ranger's potica coffee cake is far from traditional but is a deft marriage of sweetness and spice of classic potica // Photo by Aaron Job

Iron Ranger’s potica coffee cake is far from traditional but is a deft marriage of sweetness and spice of classic potica // Photo by Aaron Job

Let’s zoom in on potica for a second; it’s one of my favorite things to get when I’m on the Range.

We sell a lot of it [frozen]—and every person who buys one, if they can, will tell me a story of their grandmother, or their aunt, or the church lady, or their neighbor. They look up in the sky and think back to 1948 when they grew up in those kitchens. And they think of the good days, because the Iron Range was once very proud and prosperous.

There’s a woman who comes in and her mother’s from Hibbing, and they had a graduation party for Cretin-Derham Hall and she said: ‘My mother made like 30 poticas.’ And this woman’s 82 years old! And she didn’t ask her daughter, this was for the benefit of her granddaughter. She just did it. All I could think of was these Cretin-Derham kids eating these poticas like they’re granola bars. It’s such a delicacy!

Tell me about porketta—the Iron Range stuff, not the porchetta that the world knows from Italy.

There is no “K” in the Italian alphabet, so whomever those Italians were who came to the Iron Range in the early 20th century maybe didn’t have a good grasp on the formal language, but you don’t see “ch” anywhere in the Iron Range, you spell it with a “K.” It sets us apart.

I can only speak to our porketta and Fraboni porketta, which is another company that’s been making it for 70 years. My dad makes it; he’s been making it for a long time. We use pork shoulder, fennel, garlic, parsley, black pepper, salt. And we use our own mix of ingredients, we have our way of butterflying and netting, we just get that spice in every nook and cranny of the meat and then we slow cook it here.

How is it eaten on the Range, and how do you serve it?

You go to the Iron Range and you get porketta on a hard roll with yellow mustard. We do it on a baguette with provolone cheese and giardiniera. So the true Iron Ranger is kind of like, “Oh! Cheese.” So we’ll get people coming in and ordering it without cheese or giardiniera. We don’t do Jucy Lucys here, we don’t do cheeseburgers—porketta is kind of what we hang our hat on.

Plated Sarma and Chicken Noodle Soup in the seating area of the Iron Ranger's small space // Photo by Aaron Job

Sarma and Chicken Noodle Soup in the cozy Iron Ranger space // Photo by Aaron Job

We don’t see sarma around very much—what’s the story of the dish?

A sarma, that jumps out at people.

It’s beef, pork, ham, and rice, all mixed together. We’ll grind the meat and mix it with the rice and ham, lay it out, roll it in cabbage, topped with sauerkraut. And the Croatians (which I am) will put tomato sauce on top of it. Slovenians, they won’t.

Aesthetically, growing up, I was scared of sarma. You’d see it come out, with the cabbage… but now as an adult, it’s high-protein, low-carb, super healthy… it’s different.

How are you feeling about this big leap, from shopkeeper to proprietor of an approachable local restaurant?

The word “approachable”—I kind of bristled at it in the beginning. Now it has a little more meaning to me. It’s important for me that when people come in here they’re welcomed and taken care of. Service, kindness, attention to detail: that’s what we’re trying to do here. Going from Sunrise to this is a big leap, and we’re busy—but it’s exciting. I hung in there and now I’ve broken through to something. I’m 40 years old and I’m happy. I dare say—living the dream.