Vino, Varyingly

St. Paul's newest Italian spot dishes many delights, and a few disasters, so do you grade it on a curve?

Disheartened, we moved on to desserts. And suddenly we were transported back to the charming restaurant of yore. Zeppole doughnuts ($7) were fresh, hot, and melt-in-your mouth delicious. A ricotta pudding cake built upon a base of grilled pineapple ($7) was nicely balanced, simple, and pure. I tried an espresso because the restaurant offers a special brand from Naples, Caffe Kimbo ($2.50), and it was very good. In fact, every part of the restaurant's beverage program is very good. The wine list easily joins the ranks of the best Italian selections in town. It is offered in two parts: A bottle list covers not just the big guns from Piedmont, with that region's famed Barolos and Barbarescos, but also offers all kinds of small artisanal bottlings, many at very good prices, from lesser known regions. They're especially strong with Sardinian and Sicilian offerings. In addition to the bottle list, Il Vesco Vino also offers an excellent glass-pour program, in which a variety of fairly distinguished table wines are offered in either a 250 milliliter or 500 milliliter pour. Prices for the 250 milliliter pour start at $6, and a glass is roughly 150 milliliters, so many of the wines are quite a bargain in addition to being delicious.

Returning later, I found this same odd Il Vesco Vino pattern: likable appetizers, then a leap headfirst into the slough of despond for entrees, and then clawing out again for agreeable, forthright desserts.

Any St. Paul partisan who thinks I write from a place of lying, preconceived snobbery is welcome to bring it on, because I have seen Il Vesco Vino's gnocchi. The first time I ordered them, I was told the chef didn't like the way they were coming out and so wasn't serving them. What a good-faith bit of quality control, I thought. Finally, someone with standards! When I ordered them on a later visit, what arrived was a white swamp of glue with bits of veal struggling to escape at the top, like prehistoric beasts trying to flee the LaBrea tar pits. There was, in the entire dish, no place where a single gnocchi could be detected; it was one mega-gnocchi, the Pangaea gnocchi! The taste was like lemon zest and school paste. We told the waiter that these gnocchi were not quite right, and the management graciously not only took them off the bill, but offered us a free dessert. Later, I woke up in the night, trying to imagine how the gnocchi that the chef didn't like the look of could have been worse: Perhaps they arrived at the table, raced from the bowl, performed an IRS audit and a colonoscopy, and then tore off down the street on fire?

Il Vesco Vino's desserts are winners: Melt-in-your-mouth Zeppole doughnuts
Bill Kelley
Il Vesco Vino's desserts are winners: Melt-in-your-mouth Zeppole doughnuts

But, you say, one screw-up, for which the management did everything it could to make amends? Surely you're not going to spread that all over town! We all make mistakes!

And here we have the problem with not grading on a curve: If we hold Il Vesco Vino to the same standard that we hold similar Minneapolis restaurants, like, say, Zelo, to, then we don't ignore the entrees, do we? As much as it makes us feel like jerks, we don't. I mean, I don't. And so I sit here longing to rewrite this and bathe myself in the sylvan bubbles of low expectations. From which point I could say that I recommend Il Vesco Vino without y'all wrinkling your noses in confusion. I do! I do. I really do. As a sort of Italian tapas place it works brilliantly. I wish I lived in Cathedral Hill Victorian splendor and could just drop by for beautiful wine and snacks whenever I wanted. One of the joys of being a civilian and not a critic is that you can just order what you know to be good, and not venture into perilous new territory. Any regular at Il Vino Vesco will quickly find much to love.

All of which makes me wonder, does this issue of St. Paul actually bring up much larger restaurant-reviewing issues? Is that why I'm so out of sync with St. Paul's champions? They cruise along on insider's knowledge, and then I thrash in, carrying a 10,000-candlepower spotlight and a notebook? Will answering that question invalidate the entire system of reviewing? Will I answer any of these questions? Ever? No? No.

I will say that this exercise has made me consider that old saw about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all of the other ones. Is restaurant reviewing the worst form of learning about a restaurant, except for all of the other ones? On this point I think we can finally find multi-city agreement.

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