Red Sauce Reverie

Southern Italian food goes over gangbusters in Southern Minneapolis

Al Vento
5001 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis

What does Jonathan Hunt, the charming 29-year-old behind the long dark locks, the South Africa-raised, Miami-trained, teetotaling son of missionaries know about Southern Italian food? Enough to pack the house at his new far-south Minneapolis restaurant Al Vento every single night.

I mean packed. Like a can of sardines in a Tokyo subway car in Times Square at midnight on New Year's. Packed.

Giving the people what they want: Al Vento's Jonathan Hunt
Diana Watters
Giving the people what they want: Al Vento's Jonathan Hunt

Location Info


Al Vento

5001 34th Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55417

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: Nokomis

Seriously. Try to get a table. I dare you.

These days they book about two weeks out, and for me, I've frittered away hours of my precious and ever-more-fleeting youth cooling my heels at the bar at Al Vento, staring longingly at tables filled with people looking gorgeous beneath the dim orange lights, and flushed with unusual Italian wines.

So what, besides the buzz, is the big draw? Bruschetta topped with olive tapenade. Caesar salad. Spaghetti with meatballs. Pizza scattered with sausage crumbles. New York strip steak with mashed potatoes. Tiramisu and crème brûlée. Sound like a revolution to you?

Me neither, but, evidently, a sturdy neighborhood Italian joint holds as much magical appeal in this part of town as a SpongeBob Band-Aid has for someone with a booboo.

So how's the food?

It's pretty darn good! You can start your meal with bruschetta, those little slices of olive oil-gilded toast, topped with a fresh chopped mixture of tomato and basil, a spoonful of tangy caponata, that marinated eggplant salad, or mashed olives in a tapenade spread. A plate bearing one of each costs $4. Baked mushroom caps filled with a nubbin of Italian sausage, breadcrumbs, and such, are fine. Crab cakes-- yes, crab cakes--are embellished with two sorts of aioli, one made with basil, the other sweetened with roasted red bell peppers, and have all the light, creamy, and crispy appeal of well-made crab cakes.

An almost totally charming appetizer is fashioned from slices of cold smoked salmon twirled around a spoonful of mascarpone cheese and festooned with fresh pomegranate seeds. The dish has texture to burn, with the silky fish, slick mascarpone, and popping pomegranate, and tastes fleeting and joyful. That is, as long as you skip the super-hard rounds of toast that lurk beneath the composition, which I found to be nearly too crisp to eat.

Giant blue prawns wearing wide belts of kataifi, that shredded phyllo dough, were good when the restaurant was slow (or rather, when I dined quite late): fresh and crisp, as dynamic with their potato-chip-crisp outsides and sweet insides as any sweet shrimp from a sushi bar. When the place was slammed, though, those same shrimps were served cold and shriveled, and cold cooking oil poured from their shells. I couldn't tell you why the things were served in a small dish of chilled caponata on either occasion.

All the salads I tried were very good. The Caesar ($6) was a particularly craveable version, in which nice, whole, young leaves of romaine were dressed with a perky, garlic-laced, but very creamy dressing, the composition enhanced by lovely thin planks of crouton and golden sheets of very good-quality Parmesan. Pizzas are all made on a sweet, rich crust: The fennel sausage one ($10) was scattered with chubby chunks of sweet sausage separated from one another by pools of melted goat cheese; the simple basil-tomato one topped with mozzarella made fresh at Al Vento, was as sweet, homey, and pleasant as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Pastas are the restaurant's most reliable menu section, and please note that chef Hunt and his staff make them all fresh everyday, even the spaghetti. Two of the best dishes I tried in all my visits to Al Vento were pastas. The first was a simple spaghetti tossed with tomato sauce, the pasta mounded over two big veal meatballs, each piquant with plenty of parmesan cheese, and meltingly tender ($12). The other standout was a variation of fettuccini in clam sauce ($15) made with pleasantly al dente fettuccini, allowed to stand on its own and not drowned in oil or butter, just touched with the right amount of garlic and oil, surrounded by lots of pink curls of well-cleaned shrimp and tender clams lolling prettily in their shells. It might have been the best fettuccini in clam sauce I've ever had in Minnesota.

While the menu as a whole is printed anew almost every day, in practice much has remained the same since I started visiting Al Vento in November (they opened in October, and I kept delaying my review waiting for the hype to die down; now I have concluded it may never). The entrées are the most often changed part of the menu, and also vary the most in quality. I recommend avoiding the New York strip ($20) which was, when I tried it, slices of gristly meat in an overly salty brown sauce, paired, oddly, with small button mushrooms filled with grainy spots of melted Gorgonzola. Meanwhile, medallions of pork were elegantly treated, seared till they were crisp outside but still pink and tender within, served on a bed of translucent strips of sweet oven-roasted rutabagas and turnips, topped with wedges of grilled pears, and surrounded on the plate by two sauces, one a balsamic with pomegranate molasses, the other an orange-Champagne sauce. It was a sturdy, well-prepared, utterly likable composition.

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