Red Sauce Reverie

Southern Italian food goes over gangbusters in Southern Minneapolis

And yet, on that same comparatively slow night when the prawn appetizer mentioned above was dazzling, the seared scallops were very good. Here, herb-marinated dry-packed scallops were grilled till they were russety and crisp without and translucent and delicate within, and each was paired with a simple salad of shredded fennel, pomegranate seeds, parsley, oil, garlic, and red wine vinegar, and presented beside a mound of saffron risotto, deeply infused with cream and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

"I know cheese doesn't traditionally go with seafood in Southern Italian cooking," conceded Hunt, when I spoke to him on the phone for this story, "but I like Parmigiano-Reggiano, and I'm not going to serve a risotto to people without cheese; they wouldn't really like it." Ditto, he says, for the pizza with potatoes: "Potato pizza might look like it's California cooking, but I had that in Sicily [and] no cheese. You couldn't get away with not having cheese on a pizza around here, so I adapt it to what the customers want." And thus the red potato, spinach, and Gorgonzola pizza was born.

Giving customers what they want is very much in evidence in the brief dessert list: a buoyant tiramisu, a rich chocolate ganache tart, a trio of the greatest hits of creamy, creamy crème brûlée (chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio, when I've had it), and a simple polenta cake.

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

Well, I should say that it used to be a simple polenta cake. In November, when I first went to Al Vento, the cake was dry, plain, and understated, one of those cakes that, like an American coffee cake, is meant as a sturdy, anytime foil to a beverage, in this case a sweet dessert wine, and perhaps an espresso as well. The last time I went to Al Vento, though, the cake had been cut in half and layered around a giant scoop of ice cream, and was getting to look like a strawberry shortcake: less sophisticated, more likable. If you told me the restaurant's next step was to offer free car washes, neck rubs, and cans of whipped cream with every dinner entrée, I wouldn't be at all surprised. Hunt simply has a bone-deep understanding of how to create a menu and restaurant that is likable, affable, and approachable, and thus, busy.

Let's just hope it doesn't kill him. "I went to the hospital with all of this," Hunt confessed when I caught him on what must have been his fourth month without a day off. "My prep cook works 160 hours every two weeks--he's the guy who rolls out all the fresh pasta, and makes all the stocks and sauces. We both ended up in the hospital. We were so busy, we weren't eating. The sous chef walked out on a Saturday night, it was...well, it doesn't matter. It's a lot of stress. The hardest thing has been turning people away. All this buzz--it's crazy. The phone won't stop ringing, even now in January. I just keep telling myself that all these reviews will die off, and the hype will die down."

"When is this coming out?" Hunt asked. I told him. "Well I guess I'm not going to Italy in February," he sighed. "Anyway, I know when all this hype dies down I'm going to be relying on the neighborhood to keep us going. I just hope we're making the neighborhood happy while we get through this craziness."

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