Suburban Sprawl

Locanda Di Giorgio

4924 France Ave. S., Edina; 928-0323

On a snowy night with nothing else much open one evening last week, my friend and I followed the trail of perfume and seashells that leads to 50th and France. Around this third restaurant owned and operated by Giorgio, one can almost hear the sighs of relief ringing through Edina; Uptown is so far away after all. Searching for Locanda through a downpour of snow, we ducked into one of those Ye Olde Create-A-Plate shoppes where a crowd of intense looking middle-aged women had gathered to practice their craft. At the very mention of Locanda, a wave of pleasant recognition swept through the room. "Oh, that's a darling little place!" "Oh, it's in that sweet little house on the corner that used to be Tour De France, you'll just love it!" "Have some fun for us!" I could almost feel their eyes desperately jumping on our backs, hoping for a ride out of plate making and into an evening of plate cleaning. Sure enough, Locanda is as cozy as a ball of yarn and a kitten, a three-floor cottage kept clean and decorated sparingly with candles and a few dark paintings and tapestries. Those who waited on us were friendly and confiding, a combination I'll take any day over stiff and pretentious. "Well," said our hostess pointing to a cramped table in the back, "you could sit here or there's a rather nice table upstairs." Her voice dropped a few decibels: "But it's next to a big table of some crazy ladies." Crazy people please, but sadly for us they were leaving as we sat down. The atmosphere is quiet, though not oppressively so. The smallness of the space makes it seem appropriate to whisper with ducked heads, the only sound around you being a chair pushing out over the wood floors. And, for those who enjoy such pleasure, the eavesdropping is excellent. I can't say which conversation I enjoyed more, the one to my left about the best places to ski in Vermont, or the one in front of us about the best places to snorkel in Australia.

All this stimulation may call for a glass of wine; it seems to be an important part of meals here. The tables are decorated with bottles of the stuff, wine racks feature in the decor, and the wait staff can often be seen sternly holding wine glasses up to the light, inspecting them for vile spots. The wine list was a bit on the pricey side for me, ranging from $17 for a bottle of R.H. Phillips, Dunnigan Hills Sauvignon Blanc to $80 for a bottle of 1990 Amarone, Mazzi, Veneto; most float around the $35 mark. Then again, the food tends to be modestly priced, so splurging on wine isn't such an extravagance. We abstained, even though there were a few wines by the glass that were certainly affordable; there was all that snow to drive through after all. Maybe next time.

Modest and relatively familiar, the dinner menu had a few twists here and there. We passed by some of the more common dishes, e.g. bruschetta ($3.25), an antipasto plate ($6.25), and the portobello mushroom ($7.50), for a cup of the zuppa del giorno ($2.95) and duck confit with wild mushrooms ($6.75). As the table next to us moved on to talk of endurance training and running marathons, we were busy stuffing our faces with pieces of delicious homemade sourdough bread and butter dunked into a rustic, full-flavored red lentil soup, although "soup" is rather a weak word for this thick food. Rounded out with carrots, bay leaf, red pepper, and parsley, it was absolutely divine. Likewise the duck confit. Artfully piled atop a perfect round of pudding-textured polenta, the duck and wild mushrooms were plentiful, and richly shrouded in a shallot and marsala demi-glace, a sauce that was as rich as chocolate.

Most dinners at Locanda are inclined to be rich. If you've been spending all of your winter snorkeling and skiing, then you should have no moment's hesitation lapping up shrimp and lobster ravioli, spinach pasta stuffed with the goods and done up in a saffron cream sauce ($8.50). Or you could chomp on leg of lamb, here roasted with mustard, bay leaves, fennel seeds, rosemary, and a golden-raisins sauce ($13.75). I ordered risotto, thinking it might be less rich. I was quite mistaken, but not disappointed: Rich with parmigiana, the plate was well-fused with aromatic thyme and flounced throughout with juicy, broiled pieces of chicken and wild mushrooms ($10). Delicious as it was, we still couldn't get through the entire plate of it. My friend ordered one of the evening's specials, a flank steak with marsala wine sauce that had a hint of gorgonzola, the whole thing aided and abetted by portobello mushrooms and rosemary with a side of spaghetti squash ($13.95). It was perfectly rendered and we finished every last bit.

Desserts are made in-house, which limits the choices but ensures that whatever you get has been slaved over and perfected in the kitchen. The fruits of such tender labors were obvious in the flourless chocolate torte we ate, creamy with drug-like quantities of chocolate, all dusted off with a light snow of confectioners' sugar ($4.50). That with the glass of milk my friend ordered spontaneously (milk is not exactly on the menu) made a perfect end to the meal. And since we skipped the wine, the whole dinner for two, including dessert, appetizers, and tip, was well under $50; not bad for all the hob and the nob. As we walked by Ye Olde dec-a-plate again, I could feel the eyes once more: What did they eat? How fun was it? Very, very fun, I can assure them.

TABLEHOPPING

SOUND PETS: Do animals have feelings? I'm sure you've ruminated on the subject at least once or twice before. I don't have any answers, but there is a cookbook for pets, published by Pet Sitters International. Eats 'N Treats for Pets and Their People is a 54-page book filled with recipes for you and your most loyal friends, as well as helpful hints, entertaining tidbits, and pet-care information. Aren't sure how to choose the best chew toy for your dog? Eats 'N Treats tells all, including this little-known fact about pig's ears: "Pig's ears should be considered a treat, as they are actually ingested. If a dog eats them too often, they can cause loose stools." Other valuable advice concerns how to "pet proof" your home, how to keep your pets safe during the holidays, how to find a quality pet-sitter, and what to do if your pet is lost. Here is a recipe for your dog, or you if you be so inclined.

Irresistible Homemade Liver Treats

* 1 cup flour

* 1 cup cornmeal

* 1 tsp. garlic powder

* 1/2 cup wheat germ

* 1 lb. raw beef liver

Put liver in food processor and liquefy. (If using a blender, cut the liver into cubes and add one-quarter pound at a time.) Add dry ingredients and mix well. On greased cookie sheet, drop one teaspoon of mixture and flatten with the bottom of a glass dipped in corn meal. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Store in freezer until ready to use. Makes about four dozen.

And for the cat in your life:

Canoes on the Water

* 1 cup chicken broth or low-fat milk

* 1/4 cup shredded cheese strips
(any mixture, but most cats prefer
mozzarella and cheddar)

Pour broth into a pet dish. Sprinkle cheese mixture on top. Stand back and watch cat devour the treat. Give only as an occasional special treat. Says recipe inventor Linda Tanner, "I call it 'Canoes on the Water' since the strands of cheese can look like little canoes floating on water." Copies of Eats 'N Treats can be ordered by using VISA, Mastercard, personal check, or money order in the amount of $7.95. Send the dough to Pet Sitters International, 418 E. King St., King, NC 27021, or call them at (910) 983-9222. Monies raised from the sale of the cookbook will help PSI in its efforts to support, promote, and recognize excellence in professional pet-sitting.

AFGHAN NEW YEAR: Looking for something extraordinary to do this weekend? Celebrate Nauroz, the Afghan New Year, at the newly remodeled Khyber Pass Café (1399 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul) this Friday and Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Traditional Nauroz specialties will include qabeli pilau, rice and lamb with carmelized onions, carrots, raisins, cardamom, and cloves; sabzee pilau, green rice made with spinach, lamb, and spices; and haft mewa, a dessert prepared with seven fruits and nuts in natural syrup. If all this isn't exotic enough for you, come for the live music, which features KFAI's Dan Rein playing various lutes on Friday, and Bill Stille on sitar on Saturday. Call 698-5403 for reservations.

GALLONS AND POUNDS: Not sure where you'll find yourself come Easter Sunday, this March 30? Jax Cafe (1928 University Ave. N.E., Mpls.) will be preparing for brunch in bulk from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Some quantities planned for you: 80 gallons of heavy whipping cream, 60 pounds of jelly beans, 170 pounds of leg of lamb, 900 eggs for eggs benedict, 90 pounds of Polish sausage, and 16 pans of bread pudding, to give you a few numbers. But that's no way to think about a holiday: Maybe the idea of rooms filled with flowers, balloons, colored eggs, ice carvings, and the Easter Bunny (alive and visiting your kids that is) will perk you up. Children 10 and younger will have a chance to win a prize in Jax's special Easter Contest, and we hear that the Bunny is more than willing for photo-ops. Reservations are necessary, so call 789-7297.

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